Frankenfoods or famine fixers?

Lois Banta, visiting associate professor of biology, will discuss “Feast, Famine, or Frankenfoods? Biotechnology and Global Food Production” as part of the Faculty Lecture Series on Thursday at 4 p.m. in Wege Auditorium. The talk will touch on biotechnology, history, economics, policy-making and ethics.

New developments in biotechnology and its applications to crop production have presented the possibility of ameliorating world food shortages, but they also raise questions about the most effective and ethical means of doing so. Banta became interested in the topic when when she learned about the Green Revolution of the late 50s and early 60s and of the consequences, both positive and negative, of previous attempts to increase food production in Third World countries

The Green Revolution came in response to the world’s suddenly burgeoning population and used new genetic approaches to create higher-yield plants. Internationally funded public research consortiums searched for ways to revolutionalize production of staple crops in India, South America and SoutheastAsia. The projects were successful in that they did drastically increase production and doubtless saved many people from starvation, but they also “irreversibly altered the way agriculture was done,” as Banta has pointed out.

The new methods of farming necessitated a switch to Western agricultural techniques such as irrigation, extensive fertilization and mechanical harvesting. High yields resulted only if farmers used the “modern” methods, which replaced traditional styles of farming. The new agriculture impacted the economies of these developing countries and in many cases eliminated small subsistence farmers, who fell to larger landholders who could afford the new seeds, fertilizers, tractors and harvesting machines. The smaller farmers could not compete with large-scale production and many lost their independence. Beyond increasing the divide between rich and poor, the new methods were not environmentally sustainable, as many of the required chemical fertilizers and insecticides adversely affected whole biosystems.

Industry-based researchers use the argument that with so many starving people in the world, we are obligated to try to ameliorate world hunger, which is certainly admirable. Industries, however, are exploiting the technology by creating crop seeds resistant to a certain kind of herbicide and marketing them along with that herbicide, in effect creating a cycle that farmers must buy into to remain financially successful. Furthermore, industries are redirecting the research to where the money is: instead of concentrating on increasing crop yield in Third World countries, most of the current agricultural technology is focused on making life easier for American farmers.

Banta will look at the spectrum of issues raised by the potential of biotechnological agriculture research and how different countries view those issues. Under examination are the ethical questions inherent in applying new technology. It seems unwise to rashly use new farming methods before we know if they are environmentally and economically sustainable, but waiting 20 to 30 years for long-term data ignores the immediate needs of starving people. How can we balance avoiding the mistakes of the Green Revolution with providing expedient help for those who need it? If basic heath care is a human right, an increasingly supported viewpoint, is basic nutrition also a right? Banta said that the underlying question is deceptively simple: “Do we have a moral obligation as a technology-rich country to share and/or export technology to countries that are resource poor?”

Europeans are currently doing more work with developing countries in agriculture than Americans are, while also looking at China, which has managed to develop its own new agricultural techniques with very little influence from the West. Africa is another focus, because the Green Revolution never really addressed the continent’s problems of aridity. Food production per capita in much of Africa has decreased over the past 40 years, and researchers are examining ways of increasing both crop production and the nutritional value of crops, as malnutrition is as prevalent a problem as starvation.

The British people in particular tend to be more aware of biotechnology in agriculture and more suspicious of genetically modified organisms than Americans. The British are disbelieving of government assurances that biotechnology is safe after the mad cow disease scare. Many Europeans are also hesitant to embrace the available biotechnology because they see it as part of an undesirable trend of American globalization. “After all,” Banta said, “their image of American food is McDonald’s, so it’s hard for them to imagine that any of our food ideas are healthy.”