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How we engineered the food crisis

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How we engineered the food crisis


The Guardian (London) March 21, 2011


How we engineered the food crisis


Thanks to dysfunctional regulation of genetic engineering and

misguided biofuels policy, the world's poorest are going hungry


By Henry Miller


Food prices worldwide were up by a whopping 25% in 2010, according to

the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, and February marked the

eighth consecutive month of rising global food prices. Within the

past two months, food riots helped to trigger the ousting of ruling

regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. (It is noteworthy that food prices

increased 17% last year in Egypt, and the price of wheat, a critical

staple there, soared by more than 50%.) For poor countries that are

net importers of food, even small increases in food prices can be

catastrophic, and recent bumps have been anything but small.


There are several causes of rising prices. First, large-scale

disasters have precipitated localised crop failures, some of which

have had broad ripple effects - for example, Russia's ban on grain

exports through at least the end of this calendar year resulted from

fires and drought. Second, deadly strains of an evolving wheat

pathogen (a rust) named Ug99 are increasingly threatening yields in

the major wheat-growing areas of southern and eastern Africa, the

central Asian Republics, the Caucasus, the Indian subcontinent, South

America, Australia and North America. Third, rising incomes in

emerging markets like China and India have increased the ability of

an expanding middle class to shift from a grain-based diet to one

that contains more meat.


And fourth, against this backdrop of lessened supply and heightened

demand, private investment in R&D on innovative practices and

technologies has been discouraged by arbitrary and unscientific

national and international regulatory barriers - against, in

particular, new varieties of plants produced with modern genetic

engineering (aka recombinant DNA technology or genetic modification,

or GM). Genetic engineering offers plant breeders the tools to make

crops do spectacular new things. In more than two dozen countries,

farmers are using genetically engineered crop varieties to produce

higher yields, with lower inputs and reduced impact on the



But exploiting this advanced technology has been a tough row to hoe.

Regulation commonly discriminates specifically against the use of the

newest, most precise genetic engineering techniques, subjecting field

trials to redundant case by case reviews and markedly inflating R&D

costs. A veritable alphabet soup of United Nations' agencies and

programmes are prime offenders, perpetuating a regulatory approach

that is both unscientific and obstructionist. These public policy

failures, in turn, inhibit the adoption and diffusion of new plants

that boast a broad spectrum of new high value-added input and output



Can the flawed public policy that prevails in most of the world be

rationalised? Nina Fedoroff, professor of biology at Pennsylvania

State University, former state department senior adviser and

currently visiting professor at King Abdullah University in Saudi

Arabia, is not optimistic:


"The continuing distaste for [genetically engineered plants] and

their consequent absurd over-regulation means that the most

up-to-date, environmentally benign crop protection strategies are

used almost exclusively for the mega-crops that are profitable for

biotech companies. The public agricultural research sector remains

largely excluded from using modern molecular technology. Will this

change soon? I don't think so."


Fedoroff continues:


"The screams of pain will come first from the poorest countries that

already import way beyond their ability to pay and [are] too poor (or

perhaps unwise) to make the requisite investments in developing new

high-tech approaches to agriculture in hot places. And now we we're

pouring our ag [agriculture] bucks into biofuels, of all the

imaginable absurdities."


In fact, the United States and Europe are diverting vast and

increasing amounts of land and agricultural production into making

ethanol. The United States is approaching the diversion of 40% of the

corn harvest for fuel and the EU has a goal of 10% biofuel use by

2020. The implications are worrisome. On 9 February, the US

department of agriculture reported that the ethanol industry's

projected orders for 2011 rose 8.4%, to 13.01bn bushels, leaving the

United States with about 675m bushels of corn left at the end of the

year. That is the lowest surplus level since 1996.


If only the ingenuity of genetic engineers were unleashed, we would

likely see innovative approaches to the production of energy from

non-food organisms, including switchgrass, trees and algae. But as

Steven Strauss, professor at Oregon State University and an expert in

genetic engineering of plants, has pointed out, regulators' approach

to such sources of energy make field trials and commercialisation



Related to this issue is that discriminatory regulation has been

complemented by outright antagonism to genetically engineered crops

from anti-technology, anti-business NGOs, and some governments, which

has caused farmers to become concerned about the acceptability of

such crops to importers of seeds and other agricultural products.

This is part of the ripple effect of flawed, discriminatory

regulation. Finally, the United Nations' brokering of an

international agreement on "Liability and Redress" in the event of

damages, real or imaginary, from the use of genetically engineered

crops is yet another drag on investment in and the use of these



What are the implications of this profound and costly policy failure?

Mixed, according to Juergen Voegele, director for agriculture and

rural development at the World Bank:


"Somewhat higher food prices are a good thing for overall global food

production because they stimulate investments in the agricultural

sector which are long overdue. Those investments need [to] be

economically, socially and environmentally sustainable, everywhere,

but particularly in poor countries because they are most vulnerable

to climate change and social disruption."


That might be so, but the classic relationship between supply and

demand is being distorted by public policy that discourages the

private sector investment that would otherwise be stimulated by

market forces. Voegele goes on to observe that the inflation of food

prices also has negative implications:


"Somewhat higher food prices are a bad thing for the poor because

they cannot afford a healthy diet in the first place and are forced

to make further cuts on education and health spending if their food

bill goes up. We already have close to one billion people go[ing]

hungry today, not because there is not enough food in the world but

because they cannot afford to buy it."


And therein lies the real - and escalating - tragedy of our current,

flawed regulatory excesses. Voegele muses about whether we will be

able to feed 9 billion people in 2050:


"Without a doubt we can. But not by continuing business as usual. Or

we will have 1.5 to 2 billion hungry people in the world by 2050. It

will require very significant investments in agriculture R&D and in

overall productivity increases."


But investment alone will not be enough: like trying to run a

locomotive with the brakes on, it is wasteful - and ultimately futile

- to focus on the "supply side" of research without considering the

inhibitory effects of gatekeeper regulation; the regulatory barriers

are, in fact, rate limiting.


Greater global food security certainly cannot be accomplished without

innovative technology. And that, in turn, cannot be developed in the

face of unscientific, gratuitous and excessive regulatory barriers.

As Professor Strauss says, "Solving these problems will require new

ways of thinking and strong scientific and political leadership to

move us toward a regulatory system that enables, rather than

arbitrarily blocks, the use of genetic engineering."


He is correct, but there is neither impetus nor momentum to move us

in that direction, no hint of bureaucrats' willingness to correct

past mistakes. Yet again, the poorest and most vulnerable and

powerless among us will suffer most.

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