Biotech Will Make You Skinny

What is crop genetic engineering good for? Anything that ails consumers, farmers, or the environment, if we believe biotechnology publicists. The opening media event at BIO 2004, the industry's promotional show in San Francisco, features a celebrity-chef brunch with a panel on "Biotech Solutions for Obesity."

The notion that genetic engineering will make us healthy and slim is the latest in a series of tantalizing promises by biotechnology advocates. As the industry faces consumer skepticism and deepening scientific doubts about the environmental safety of gene-altered crops, its predictions have grown ever more wondrous. Very few of them have come true.

When commercial biotech crops were introduced in 1996, the U.S. Department of Agriculture told Congress that biotech's boon would come in the form of increased farm productivity. Congress was also told that gene-altered crops would boost sales of U.S. farm inputs.

Indeed, giant biotech/agrochemical firms profited immensely from sales of Roundup and other herbicides, seeds engineered to go with them, and licenses to use Monsanto's herbicide-tolerance technology. Herbicide-tolerant crops survive when Roundup or one of its chemical cousins is sprayed to kill weeds in the same field, so that farmers can use these pesticides more freely.

However, this dubious benefit is only temporary. Shortsighted, kill-'em-all pest-control systems, whether biotech or not, speed the development of resistant weeds and insects, so that still more toxic chemicals are soon needed. Resistant weeds have already appeared.

But biotech crops have not increased food production. Yields of genetically engineered soy average slightly below those of conventional soy. Nor have yields been increased by bio-engineered canola, another main transgenic food crop on the market. Gene-altered Bt corn produces insecticide in every plant cell. It kills some corn pests but overall, the costlier Bt seeds have cost farmers more then they have earned.

None of this should surprise us. These crops were designed to sell patented seeds and pesticides, not to increase food production.

But the problem is not food production. We have a food glut already. The subsidized production and export of U.S. food surpluses to developing countries is a major cause of hunger. U.S. grains, sold abroad for less than their cost of production, drive local farmers out of business and make countries more dependent on imported food.

Aware that the poor have seen no biotech-crop benefits, industry publicists champion future varieties they hope will be more nutritious, such as "golden" rice containing pro-vitamin A, potatoes with more protein, or grains with healthier fats. However, none of these predicted crops has yet to be developed for distribution. Research on them is burdened by patent barriers. More importantly, the firms that control most crop-engineering technologies have little incentive to invest in crops for the poor, as the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization complained in its recent report.

The biotechnology industry has accrued losses in excess of $40 billion since 1980, when gene-transfer technology was first patented. As past industry forecasts fade, its spokespeople resort to ever more marvelous prophesies. Having failed to address hunger, biotech boosters highlight obesity, offering yet another molecular quick fix for a serious social problem.

The doubtful future of miracle cures and miracle crops should not discourage those of us who want an end to hunger. There are many better ways to increase food production, drawing on the wealth of unique natural crop traits, such as drought tolerance, that farmers have already developed, and using less costly and more ecologically sound farming methods. Given secure land tenure, adequate credit, marketing support, and the right to save and share seeds, farmers in most regions can produce more than enough to feed their own communities and cities.

Dr. Kathleen McAfee is the executive director of Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy. She is a former faculty member of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, where she specialized in biotechnology, agriculture, and sustainable development.

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