TCS Daily


Nature's Affirmative Action

By Richard Braun - November 13, 2003 12:00 AM

Biodiversity, represented by the 10 million or so animals, plants and microbes living on this planet, is threatened by many human activities. Amongst the numerous quasi-natural environments, the widest diversity is in the tropical humid forests, of which about half has been cut down during the past 100 years. The remaining area will vanish in the next 50 years, if no substantial countermeasures are undertaken. No single action on its own will be a remedy, but a central issue is to prevent subsistence farmers, who want to produce food for themselves and their families, from encroaching on untouched land such as tropical jungles.

 

The most important way to achieve this goal is to increase productivity on the land already being used, which means increasing yields. Here the "Second Green Revolution" will have an important role to play. The original "Green Revolution" increased grain yields substantially in Asia and thereby reduced famine in the region. Hopefully the second one will improve farm output in Africa.

 

For this to happen, new plant varieties -- that grow with less chemical input and are resistant to pests and diseases -- will be essential. Modern biotechnology offers such possibilities, be it by marker-assisted breeding or by genetic modification (GM). It is important to realize that GM is not scale dependent: that means small farmers can profit as much as big ones, if the economic parameters are right. In South Africa, for instance, small-hold farmers have made excellent use of pest resistant GM cotton, thereby requiring less insecticide. On an experimental level, virus-resistant GM cassava varieties have been developed in Kenya.

 

There are highly capable scientists in Africa who can take up such lines of R&D. However, they do depend on technology transfer, R&D facilities and money. The institutes of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) have been active along these lines, though their funds are very modest compared to the huge problems that need solving. The Rice Research Institute in Manila, for instance, is a CGIAR institute and was of central importance for the first Green Revolution.

 

Of course plant breeding is not the only factor important for preserving biodiversity in tropical countries. The infrastructure of rural areas needs improvement, including transport facilities, medical facilities and educational opportunities, particularly for women, who do most of the farming in developing countries. In addition there needs to be a lowering of the access barriers for tropical farm products to the markets of the North. Without a reduction of subsidies and tariffs in the North, farmers of the South will not be able to raise their income and standard of living.

 

Many Europeans view agricultural biotechnology quite skeptically and perceive it as potentially harmful to human health and the environment. Unfortunately, people's perception of reality is more powerful than reality itself, said Marion Dönhoff, the former chief editor of Die Zeit. Whilst most medical applications of biotechnology are well received, agricultural applications provoke near hysteria in Europe. People say they don't even want a trace of genetic modification in their food, while at the same time accepting insulin, interferon or other medical products made by genetic modification.

 

There are many by-products of civilization we may, as individuals, not want, but we are exposed to them anyway, like noise from airplanes, fumes from cars and electromagnetic waves from telecommunication installations. Zero tolerance is not possible for any of these and the same will hold in future for the products of agricultural biotechnology. At present GM crops are grown worldwide on about 60 million hectares, an area larger than the whole surface of France.

 

The publication of results from the Farm Size Evaluations (FSE) of three GM crops in Britain has stirred considerable controversy. Environmental groups claimed that herbicide resistant GM crops reduced biodiversity, however such a conclusion can only be reached by disregarding reality. Essentially the FSEs showed that herbicides are efficient in controlling weeds in the fields. Depending on the crop, the herbicide-tolerant GM varieties, treated with herbicides, allowed the growth of more variable amounts of weeds than the controls. Fewer weeds in a field result in fewer insects, irrespective of whether the crops are GM or not: the reason being that flowers and their seeds serve as food for insects and birds.

 

In general, herbicide tolerant crops allow for easier farm management, for instance, without plowing. No-till farming is on the rise, since it improves soil quality and helps prevent erosion. Farmers will have to decide whether they want to produce food or butterflies. By increasing the productivity per hectare through GM crops and other measures, farmers will be able to set aside more land as temporary nature reserves. Sustainability and productivity are both central goals of agriculture. The question is not butterflies or food, but how can a farmer strike a balance between maintaining biodiversity and producing food. GM crops offer a new and valuable tool for solving this dilemma in a rational way.

 

Richard Braun (rdbraun@bluewin.ch) is Professor Emeritus of Microbiology at the University of Berne and Chairman of the Task Group on Public Perceptions of Biotechnology, European Federation of Biotechnology.

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