Today's date:
  Fall 2004

Biotechnology Can Defeat Famine

JIMMY CARTER, former president of the United States, is the founder of The Carter Center in Atlanta, GA. This article appeared in the Winter 2000 issue of NPQ.

Atlanta--The United Nations World Food Summit reported at the end of the 20th century that 800 million people, mostly in developing countries, still suffer from chronic malnutrition. Nowhere is this problem more critical than in sub-Saharan Africa--49 countries whose populations are likely to double over the next 25 years.

This is tragic, but it is equally grievous that we have within our power the ability to prevent starvation, but fail to act on it. Existing technologies can increase farmland productivity, but efforts must be made to share these relatively simple techniques with small-scale farmers. In addition, emerging agricultural biotechnology can play a pivotal role in improving health and nutrition. But now extremist groups in affluent nations have begun to mount attacks against plant biotechnology. They also are concerned that fertilizer and pesticides will "poison" the Earth's farmland, even when used in moderate amounts.

This thinking is dangerously misguided. Of course, we must be environmentally responsible in growing food. But the global population is expanding by 100 million people each year. We cannot turn back the clock and only use methods that were developed to feed a much smaller number of people. It took some 10,000 years to expand food production to the current level of about 5 billion tons per year. In the next 35 years we will have to double that amount. The world's farmers will not meet this challenge unless they have access to current planting methods and to continuing breakthroughs in agricultural science and technology.

Many of us in the well-fed, industrialized nations are aware of the urgent need to improve food security in Africa and other developing countries. However, a heated debate between some environmentalists and food producers over the best method to achieve higher productivity has confused--if not paralyzed--many in the international donor community. Afraid of antagonizing powerful lobbying groups, many donor agencies have stopped supporting the agricultural programs so urgently needed in sub-Saharan Africa. This policy deadlock must be broken.

For the many years, The Carter Center and the Sasakawa Africa Association have been involved in a grass-roots agricultural effort, sg 2000, in 12 African countries. Led by the American agricultural scientist and Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, we work with heads of state, ministries of agriculture, international development agencies and more than 600,000 small-scale farm families. Through this collaboration, we have proved that it is possible to double, triple and even quadruple crop yields, using existing technology. This is done primarily through planting in contour rows and through the proper use of improved seed, modest amounts of fertilizer and timely weed control.

Growing numbers of agricultural scientists believe that the proper use of biotechnology can also help many crop yields, while reducing pesticide use. After years of research in universities and the private sector, new scientific discoveries now have the potential to improve the yield, dependability and quality of agricultural crops in ways that build upon--but go significantly beyond--traditional plant breeding. With this powerful new knowledge, scientists now have the capability to pack large amounts of technology into a single seed. For example, they can insert genes that resist diseases and insects, thus reducing the need for chemical pesticides. They also can insert genes that help crops withstand drought conditions.

Even if they were able to incorporate existing technologies today, farmers would not be able to feed their nations if these new products don't reach them soon. We must also provide training to scientists and extension workers in developing countries and, at the same time, encourage the development of regulatory safeguards to govern research and production and to protect consumers.

Public and private cooperation will be especially important in achieving these objectives. The development of this new technology is costly for the private sector in industrialized countries. Therefore, they must have appropriate incentives and protection of their intellectual property rights so that they will continue their research.

Making available cropland as productive as possible is key to reducing hunger and environmental destruction by sparing other areas for forests and other uses.

Responsible biotechnology is not the enemy; starvation is. Without adequate food supplies at affordable prices, we cannot expect world health or peace.