Biotechnology and Food Systems in Developing Countries


Presidential Lecture

Biotechnology and Food Systems in Developing Countries1

C. Peter Timmer

Development Alternatives, Incorporated (DAI), Bethesda, MD 20814

Even in a world with adequate food supplies in global markets, which is the situation today, biotechnology offers important opportunities to developing countries in four domains. First, many agronomically hostile or degraded environments require major scientific breakthroughs to become productive agricultural systems. Few of these breakthroughs are likely to be achieved through traditional breeding approaches. Second, biofortification offers the promise of greater quantities and human availabilities of micronutrients from traditional staple foods, with obvious nutritional gains for poor consumers, especially their children. Third, many high yielding agricultural systems are approaching their agronomic potential. Radically new technologies will be required to sustain productivity growth in these systems, and only modern genetic technology offers this hope. Finally, many cropping systems use large quantities of chemical inputs, such as herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers that can be unhealthy for people and soils alike. Biotechnology offers the potential to reduce the need for these inputs in economically and environmentally sustainable ways. Applying these new technologies to society’s basic foods raises obvious concerns for both human and ecological health. For some, these concerns have become outright fear, and this has mobilized a backlash against genetically modified foods in any form. These concerns (and fears) must be addressed carefully and rationally so that the public understands the risks (which are not zero) and benefits (which might be enormous). Only the scientific community has the expertise and credibility to build this public understanding.

J. Nutr. 133:3319-3322, November 2003. © The American Society for Nutritional Sciences

Biotechnology and Food Systems in Developing Countries


The genetic revolution is altering the way agricultural scientists think about even traditional crop breeding, as new knowledge about genomic structure and function sharply improve understanding of where to seek desirable food traits and how to incorporate them into commercial plants. The more controversial side of this revolution, inserting genes from different species into food crops as a way to incorporate attributes not feasible with traditional breeding, is the focus of this paper, but the "genetic revolution" will continue no matter what the result of the biotechnology debate.2

The challenge to "business as usual" for agricultural technology is first described, followed by a brief discussion of the first Green Revolution and its problems. Biotechnology can address many of these problems as well as push the yield frontier to new levels. This potential, and the problems standing in its way, are explained, with a concluding plea that the nutrition community become more actively engaged in explaining both potential and problems to the public.

The Challenge

I. The Challenge 

The Millennium Development Goals (MDG)3 agreed to by all Heads of State at the Millennium Summit Conference in 2000 seek to reduce levels of hunger, malnutrition and poverty by half by the year 2015, from their 1990 levels. Everyone agrees that these are very ambitious goals; reaching them will require sharp improvements in the rate of progress seen over the past half-century. Critical will be increasing the rate of economic growth in the poorest countries. In this task, agriculture plays at least three roles. Growth in agricultural productivity can stimulate faster economic growth, it tends to make this growth more "pro-poor" and it can provide the food supplies needed to reduce hunger.

Biotechnology, through genetically modified (GM) food, can help agriculture play these roles. But the train of logic is long and filled with caveats: biotechnology is not a magic bullet for ending hunger and malnutrition. Especially in a world in which markets are awash in food commodities, and rich countries spend roughly $1 billion per day in subsidies to keep their farmers in business, the problems faced by farmers and consumers in poor countries are not going to be solved by technology alone.

How can biotechnology help? To answer this simple question, we need to understand the problems we are trying to solve. For this, a bit of history is in order, especially a review of the successes and failures of the first green revolution. If the promise of biotechnology is, in Gordon Conway’s title, a "doubly green revolution," we need to understand the origins and effect of the "single" green revolution that started in the mid-1960s and which is still having a huge, positive influence on the welfare of billions of people, especially in developing countries.

The Multiple Impact of the First Green Revolution

II. The Multiple Impact of the First Green Revolution 

The first green revolution was accomplished through traditional breeding techniques, but with radical objectives to redesign the basic architecture of rice and wheat plants. The result was to raise the productivity of these two crucial grain crops significantly, especially in irrigated conditions. Because of the widespread effect of this green revolution in Asia, it lowered the real costs of staple food grains and made them much more affordable to the poor. The result, then, was to increase their food intake directly and improve their nutritional status and work capacity. It is useful to think of this as the first "Strong Link" in the array of connections between agricultural technology and reduced malnutrition.

Because food grains are the "wage good" in poor societies, lower food costs meant that employers could offer lower money wages at the same time that workers’ living standards could increase. Thus, hiring more labor was productive (and profitable), and the additional hiring contributed directly to greater employment and reduced poverty. This is the second "Strong Link" in the array of connections (although possibly one only an economist could love).

Finally, the higher productivity from the green revolution technology contributed to growth in rural economies beyond the direct production effect and stimulated overall economic growth. This is the third "Strong Link" between agricultural technology and reduced malnutrition.4

In combination, these three links led to "pro-poor" economic growth, reduced poverty and sharply improved nutritional status in those societies that were able to capitalize on the potential of the first green revolution (mainly in Asia). The success of this growth experience has generated great interest in Washington in the nature of policies that stimulated such pro-poor growth, especially at USAID and the World Bank.5

Problems with the First Green Revolution

III. Problems with the First Green Revolution 

Despite the production successes, the first green revolution faced or created a number of problems. The high yield varieties were very input intensive, especially in the use of pesticides and fertilizers, and they worked best on good soils with a high degree of water control (both irrigation and drainage). This input intensity raised many questions about the "sustainability" of high yield agriculture.

Second, the green revolution was mostly about rice and wheat. There were few gains for root-crops (cassava, potatoes, yams, sweet potatoes), traditional legumes such as lentils and cowpeas, fruits and vegetables, even other cereal grain staples suitable for the semiarid tropics, such as millets and sorghum. Thus most of Africa and a good deal of the Indian subcontinent, where the biggest problems and challenges of hunger and poverty exist, were left out of the first green revolution.

Third, productivity gains using traditional breeding techniques have apparently been exhausted for rice and wheat. "Best practice" yields at research and experiment stations have been flat for over a decade. There is even some evidence of "frontier yields" declining, which may be a problem of soil quality.6 Most of what we know about plants is how they function above the ground.

Hence, growth in cereal yields at the farm level in developing countries has slowed down significantly, from 2.9%/y from 1967 to 1982 to only 1.9%/y from 1982 to 1997. The International Food Policy Research Institute projects that these yields will grow at only 1.2%/y from 1997 to 2020.

Most fundamentally, because of the strong links between agricultural growth and performance in the rest of the economy, overall economic growth has slowed down as well. Indeed, a recent paper by Gaiha and Imai calculated the rate of growth in both agriculture and the overall economy required to meet the MDG.7 To cut the "head-count index of poverty" in half, economic growth must reach 3.6–4.4%/y, and, as both a component and stimulant, agricultural growth must reach 4.0–4.5%/y. But the actual growth rates from 1985 to 2000 for these two variables were only 0.6 and 0.3%/y, respectively. In summary, this brief review of recent agricultural history and poverty alleviation argues that we must find a way to get agriculture moving.8

The Role for Biotechnology in the Food Systems of Developing Countries

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

What Stands in the Way of This Potential?

V. What Stands in the Way of This Potential? 

There are three categories of issues that are slowing the application of biotechnology to agricultural productivity in developing countries: scientific, economic and political.

The scientific issues are very complicated because there are so many avenues by which modern genetic technology can be used to improve the productivity of agricultural systems, many of which do not involve splicing genes into staple foods. An interested layman has to be impressed with the revolutionary speed of research advances. It seems as if almost anything is possible; thus, the key question is "what do we want?" The answers will come from the type of workshop held August 4–5, 2003, in Bogor, Indonesia, to assess the role of agricultural biotechnology for the country’s future research efforts. This workshop gathered a spectrum of agricultural scientists, policy makers and nongovernment organizations (NGOs) to set priorities for commodity-based research.11 Because of their importance to the Indonesian food system, rice, maize and sweet potatoes came at the top of the list.

The economic issues revolve around the key question "what will be profitable?" The answers will depend on the following: 1) consumer acceptance of GM products, including but not limited to foods (for example, there has been less consumer resistance to GM cotton than to foods, and economic production of biofuels is likely to meet little resistance as well); 2) regulatory costs of developing and utilizing GM technology; 3) supply and demand conditions in world commodity markets, which will themselves be influenced by developments in the GM field; and 4) the potential to develop "niche markets" for commodities that some farmers will be able to exploit (e.g., Peruvian asparagus grown in the North American winter season from tissue cultures started in Boston). Ultimately, agricultural biotechnology will succeed only if it is profitable for seed companies to produce it and farmers to use it.12

The political issues, without question, are the most difficult, and the mechanisms for resolving them remain highly imperfect. From the perspective of developing countries, there are five areas of concern and policy action, all with acute political dimensions:13

1. Intellectual Property Rights.

A key issue concerns the rights of farmers to retain and use patented seeds without paying royalties. The desire of patent holders to find a natural mechanism to make regular payments "necessary" led to development of the "terminator gene" which, understandably, caused great controversy and was never put into commercial use. Intellectual property rights were not a problem with hybrid seed technology because second generation seeds do not breed true.

There are two dimensions to this problem. The first is the ease with which individual farmers can keep productive seed for planting in following years without paying again, even if their payment for the seed in y 1 includes a contract to pay in future years. Enforcing contracts may not be difficult in the United States or Europe, but it is likely to be an enormous challenge in the developing world. Second, there is a concern among NGOs and policy makers that GM seeds could force traditional seeds, and domestic seed companies, out of the system, leaving a country’s food supply in the hands of a few large, often foreign, companies.

In response to these concerns, attention has focused on the patent process and who owns the basic genetic "rights" to staple foods. In a recent "Policy Forum" in Science, senior leaders of U.S. public universities proposed a new model for collaboration to keep patented discoveries in agricultural biotechnology as "public goods."14 This initiative does not, however, address the issue of methodological patents that are already in the hands of private companies. These patents require royalty payments during the research phase and considerable transaction costs in negotiating "freedom to operate" arrangements before commercialization of GM seeds begins.

2. Biosafety.

Biosafety concerns are primarily about release of exotic genetic material into "native" ecosystems, with unknown effect on long-run sustainability and biodiversity. A British government assessment in 2003 of the safety of GM crops was generally positive, but "concluded that the most important issue is the potentially detrimental effect on farmland biodiversity, soil ecology, allergenicity, and gene flow to non-GM plants."15 Further farm trials in the United Kingdom are underway to resolve this uncertainty.

3. Trade in GM Products.

The concern about trade in GM products arises because of the threat of boycotts of agricultural exports from countries using GM technology, even when the exported product is not a GM crop. Although enforcing such threats would presumably be illegal under the WTO, the threats alone cause most developing countries to be very careful about approving the import or growing of GM commodities. This concern is focused especially on threats from Europe, and the UK stu