IV. The Role for Biotechnology in the Food Systems of Developing Countries
There are five basic categories to be considered, ranging from general contributions to economic growth to very specific contributions that reduce malnutrition.9
General yield advances, especially for key food crops, can stimulate agriculture-led growth and lower food prices. The economic mechanisms work through employment generation and food security for the poor. Biotechnology can improve yields of basic crops through insect protection, drought resistance and modifications to basic crop biology that could not be achieved through traditional breeding techniques.
Productivity gains for agricultural systems in degraded and hostile environments can be achieved through biotechnology because genetic potential already exists in some plants that thrive in these environments. Problems include salinity, aluminum toxicity and chronic drought. Many of the world’s poorest farmers live in these difficult agricultural environments and improved productivity could have a direct effect on poverty in such settings.
Productivity gains for nongrain crops and livestock are possible from biotechnology, and these products have better demand opportunities as incomes increase and a middle class emerges. These gains will help stimulate agricultural diversification and thus permit farmers to get out of the "trap" of growing staple grain commodities with low income potential. China, in its commitments upon joining the World Trade Organization (WTO), is betting heavily on this strategy to solve its problem of rural poverty.
Genetically modified crops offer the possibility of reduced input use, especially of pesticides, which have had very serious health consequences for farm workers in countries with inadequate safety regulations on the use of hazardous chemicals. The potential for biotechnology to contribute to sustainable agricultural systems, through much more efficient utilization of water, nutrients and agricultural chemicals, may be its most important promise in the long run.
Biofortification of key foodstuffs with better availability of micronutrients such as iron and vitamin A is possible through biotechnology. Even this is a controversial area, as the heated debate over "golden rice" demonstrates. But the debate should not be about "all or nothing" effects. My colleague at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, Steve Block, has shown in joint research with Helen Keller International that even modest additions of vitamin A to the diets of poor children in Central Java can have noticeable health consequences because so many of them have serum retinol levels that are just below acceptable levels for normal growth and health. Modest improvements, if sustained by the food system itself, can have lasting welfare consequences.10