Hungering for Help: Genetically Modified Foods and the Developing World

Author:  Williams Shawna
Institution:  Biochemistry
Date:  September 2005

The developing world is in trouble. A staggering number of people worldwide - an estimated 800 million people - are undernourished because they lack the resources to obtain the food they need. This shortage of food contributes not just to starvation, but also to disease and malnutrition. Millions die annually from infectious diseases. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), just three diseases -- malaria, tuberculosis and HIV -- together cause some 300 million illnesses and 5 million deaths annually.

The undernourishment problem is one of distribution of food supplies: Although enough food is now produced worldwide to supply all who need it, hundreds of millions of people are undernourished or malnourished because they lack the resources to obtain the food they need. And, as the WHO tells us, the three deadliest infectious diseases "can each be prevented or treated for between $.05 and $10 [per capita]." So the most obvious solution to the most pressing problems faced by people in poorer countries is money.

Yet developing countries' financial woes are likely only to be solved by years of development, if at all. Massive charitable aid might help to assuage these problems in the short term, but finding a solution to the ravages of poverty that is both quick and sustainable is a complex puzzle.

There is some evidence that genetically modified (GM) crops might be a part of such a solution, but the use of such plants is a highly contentious political issue.

What's at stake

At stake in "The Global Food Fight," as one scholar has termed it, is the allocation of scarce funds to alleviate world hunger. The crux of the GM debate lies in whether the best way to increase local yields is by engineering better crops, or by educating farmers about how to more effectively utilize existing resources. On one side are biotech companies and some scientists; on the other, environmental groups such as Greenpeace. Advocates of GM crops in the developing world argue they have the potential to enhance yields, lessen the need for chemical pesticides and herbicides, increase the amount of arable land, and even deliver vitamins and vaccines. Opponents point to the inherent risks of the technology: People who have never been allergic to a certain food might have an allergic reaction to a GM version of the food that contains a gene from a different species. And ecosystems could suffer if hardy GM plants bred with wild species create invasive "super weeds."

During the Green Revolution of the 1960s, scientists in the United States and other developed countries bred high-yield strains of staple crops. They then distributed the new seeds to farmers throughout Asia, Latin America, and sub-Saharan Africa, all with funds provided by various governments and private charities. Sub-Saharan Africa is thought not to have benefited fully from the new strains because they were unsuited to its harsh environment, and the Green Revolution hurt some subsistence farmers who could not afford the chemical fertilizers required for optimum growth of the new strains.

The fact remains, though, that the Green Revolution marked a significant increase in worldwide food production. The crossbred plants that sparked the Green Revolution were created using a method of artificially mating plants to produce desired traits, such as higher yields or greater resistance to disease and pests. Genetic modification is a more direct means of achieving the same end: Rather than altering a crop over generations of breeding, scientists modify the plant's genome directly, usually by inserting one or more genes from other strains or species. Each alteration creates a unique product, one with no inherent similarity to any other genetically modified plant.

Ironically, the surge in production from the Green Revolution seems to have inspired a degree of complacency on the part of Western governments and philanthropic organizations.

"Annual foreign aid to agriculture in poor countries fell by 57% between 1988 and 1996 (from $9.24 billion down to just $4.0 billion, measured in constant 1990 dollars)," according to an essay by Robert Paarlberg of the Weatherhead Center for Public Affairs at Harvard University.

Worldwide hunger ranks at a lower priority on the agendas of many governments and charities, and there continues to be little agreement on how aid monies should be spent.

GM enthusiasts and critics

While GM enthusiasts tend to believe that using GM crops to increase local production is the simplest and most pragmatic solution to the hunger problem, many environmentalists vehemently disagree. The way to increase production, they say, is not through "conventional" -- that is, technology-based --agriculture. Conventional techniques have damaged the environment with their reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, environmentalists argue, and GM crops, rather than reversing this trend, could cause unpredictable harm to local ecosystems. The most promising remedies for world hunger, according to Greenpeace's website, "do not require risky releases of Genetically Modified Organisms, but simply involve improvements of present breeding technologies."

Some environmentalists also argue that GM foods will not alleviate hunger at all. As Brian Halweil of Washington's Worldwatch Institute told The New York Times, "The feeding-the-world argument is a very carefully engineered PR exercise to create some moral legitimacy for this technology."

Critics like Halweil cite the GM industry's concentration on crops to be sold to North American farmers, rather to poorer people in developing countries.

Advocates of GM view the lack to funding by private companies differently, however. "That is why public spending is still important," claims Martin Lipton, an economics research professor at the University of Sussex.

These two sides have become quite polarized, so that despite the commonality of their professed interests, there appears to be little prospect of an agreement on how best to combat world hunger. One example of this polarization occurred in July 2001 when the United Nations released a report stating that developing countries might benefit greatly from GM technology.

Grassroots groups around the world attacked the report's conclusions. Kevin Watkins of the charity Oxfam complained, "It diverts attention from the other technologies and farming practices that could also raise productivity."

Neither the report's authors nor its detractors put forth the idea that GM crops and sustainable agriculture techniques might be successfully combined.

Effects and application of GM crops

Despite the controversy surrounding them, GM crops are now widely used in North America to improve crop yields and decrease agricultural costs. Some examples are Roundup Ready soybeans, which tolerate the potent herbicide Roundup and thus require fewer herbicide applications; Bt corn, which contains a bacterial gene for a natural pesticide; and tomatoes engineered to soften more slowly once picked, thus increasing their shelf life. However, these developments are not necessarily of help to Third World farmers, who grow different crops under different conditions from those in Canada and the United States. Applying existing technology, when possible, to developing world problems has the advantage of requiring very little new research, and so less time and money than developing new modifications.

But in some cases the same genes used to enhance food plants for North American use can produce a desirable effect in species grown in other areas. An example is a set of dwarfing genes that make wheat shorter, allowing it to withstand application of large amounts of fertilizer and to invest its energy in its edible seeds.

In 1999, Jinrong Peng, a plant geneticist at Singapore National University, and his colleagues showed that these genes could produce the same effect in other crops. Adapting pesticide and herbicide resistance technology to native plants could enable Third World farmers to spray crops with chemicals less often. This would in turn lower their costs and lessen health risks to farmers, as well as decrease the impact on the environment. According to the National Academy of Sciences report Transgenics and World Agriculture, among crops already produced through genetic modification are ringspot virus-resistant papayas, rice resistant to yellow mottle virus, and potatoes and rice resistant to blight.

Transferring pest resistance genes from North American crops to those grown in other areas is not always useful, because different insects thrive in each environment. While different insects tend to require distinct resistance genes in plants, increasing the storage life of crops is a trait developed in North America that is easily transferred across species. Increasing the storage life of plants would help improve food security, since a significant proportion of the world's food is currently lost to rot or pests after harvest. In fact, it might be of special benefit in tropical areas where climactic conditions favor a plethora of insects and fungi.

Some researchers have focused on ways to apply GM to problems more specific to developing countries, such as highly acidic soils. An estimated 40% of the earth's arable soil, most of it in tropical areas, is too acidic for most crops, according to plant molecular biologist Luis Herrera-Estrella's report to the National Academy of Sciences. A 1997 study by Herrera-Estrella and his colleagues at Mexico's Departamento de Ingenieria Genetica, Centro de Investigacion y Estudios Avanzados showed that engineering plants so their roots produce and secrete a large quantity of the natural acid citrate dramatically improves their growth rate in acidic soils. This discovery could significantly increase the amount of land available for farming, and thus help alleviate local food shortages.

The potential to make food more nutritious

Beyond increasing the efficiency of food production, GM technology also has the potential to make food more nutritious, and even to prevent disease. An example often held up by biotech companies and their supporters is vitamin A deficiency, which is a major cause of blindness and death in some Asian countries where rice is a staple food. In 1999, Swiss researcher Ingo Potrykus engineered a strain of so-called "Golden Rice" that contains beta carotene, the precursor to vitamin A, to try to address this problem. Nutritionist Marion Nestle of New York University believes reports of Golden Rice's benefits have been inflated, and detailed her objections in a March 2001 letter to the Journal of the American Dietetic Association: "An adult woman would have to eat 3.7 kilos (dry weight) of "Golden Rice" in order to get her daily allowance of vitamin A from rice."

This is far higher than the normal intake of 300 grams a day, Nestle pointed out. She also cited another potential problem: "People whose diets lack [fats and proteins] or who have intestinal diarrheal diseases -- common in developing countries -- cannot get vitamin A from rice."

Gordon Conway of the Rockefeller Foundation, which helped sponsor Golden Rice's development, countered such criticisms in a letter to Greenpeace, explaining that Golden Rice was never intended to deliver 100% of needed vitamin A, but only to supplement other sources in the diet. "We calculated that the best Golden Rice lines reported in Science could deliver 15-20% of the daily requirements," he says. However, he concedes, "I agree ... that the public relations uses of Golden Rice have gone too far."

Besides modifying foods to reduce hunger and dietary deficiencies, some scientists are developing GM products that could counter disease by producing antigens. Antigens are proteins that the immune system recognizes as foreign and eliminates. In a normal immune response, a virus, bacteria, or parasite produces an antigen, and immune cells target the invader by attacking the antigen. A plant containing an antigen might act as an oral vaccine. An oral vaccine is similar to conventional vaccines in that they both introduce an antigen to the body to prepare it for possible future infection. If the body encounters the antigen again, it then responds much more strongly than it would have without the vaccine "primer."

Where today's vaccines usually contain killed or weakened target virus, however, oral vaccines would include specific virus proteins. These oral vaccines would potentially have many advantages over conventionally administered vaccines, especially in developing countries. They could be produced cheaply, for a start. Also, they would be easy to administer compared to conventional vaccines, which require trained health workers, large quantities of clean needles, and often require special transport conditions, such as refrigeration.

Food vaccines are still in the nascent stages of development, but some encouraging results have been reported. In 2000, researchers at Cornell University reported successful trials of GM potatoes as edible vaccines against the relatively harmless Norwalk virus. The following year, Singapore's AgroPharm announced its intention to begin clinical trials of a potato Hepatitis B vaccine. Even if the clinical trials prove successful, however, more research will still need to be done to make edible vaccines easily transferable to developing countries. The potato is not an ideal vehicle for vaccines, since it is not a common food in many developing countries and may lose its effectiveness when cooked, as it did in the Cornell trial. The banana is an obvious candidate for edible vaccines because it is grown in tropical areas and readily eaten raw by children. However, it is genetically more complex than the potato and so would require more time to be successfully modified. Also, as molecular biologist William H.R. Langridge of the Loma Linda University School of Medicine in California pointed out in Scientific American, "Bananas need no cooking and are grown widely in developing nations, but banana trees take a few years to mature, and the fruit spoils fairly rapidly after ripening."

Despite these barriers, many scientists, including Alexander Karasev, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, see great promise in edible vaccines. At a recent American Medical Association media briefing Karasev named rabies, Hepatitis B, and even HIV as potential targets of the technology. "Eliminating infectious diseases through plant-based vaccines," he said, "will tremendously help people in developing countries."

Oral vaccines have gone largely unmentioned in the GM controversy, due in part to their newness.

Responsible use of GM crops

As with any new product intended for human consumption, responsible use of GM crops requires careful oversight. Although GM foods have reportedly caused no ill effects to consumers or to the environment so far, concern exists that newly added genes in GM crops might cause unpredictable allergic reactions in some people. Also, crops engineered to resist pests or herbicides might crossbreed with closely related wild plants to create what environmentalists have termed "super weeds," invasive plants that would upset the ecological balance.

Environmental groups also point to Bt corn's detrimental effects on monarch butterfly populations, although it is not clear whether this effect is more significant than that caused by conventional pesticides.

In a study published this year in Science, Jikun Huang and colleagues showed that a similar product, Bt cotton, reduced farmers' use of chemical pesticides by more than 80%.

How can we be sure that the GM foods we eat everyday (and if you live in North America, you probably do eat them everyday) are safe? In the United States, environmentalists have criticized the Food and Drug Administration for what they see as lax regulation of GM foods.

Certainly most developing countries lack the resources to properly monitor the risks of GM crops. Regulation of GM crops is not a black-and-white issue, and one should be suspicious of claims that GM foods are inherently "safe" or "unsafe." After all, there is nothing in the process of genetic modification itself that distinguishes GM plants from any naturally occurring plant. Each modification of each plant carries its own risks. Thorough risk assessment, then, necessitates taking into account the specific modification when designing experiments to test under what conditions, if any, the plant might harm nearby ecosystems.

A 1999 report by the National Academy of Science recommends a series of lab tests on plants before they can be released into an open environment. If initial tests seem to indicate the plant is not a threat to the ecosystem, controlled field trials should then follow. During these field trials both the crop itself and the surrounding environment should be regularly tested for unanticipated effects. Such tests might also assess the long-term effectiveness of the crops - for example, plants expressing pesticides will eventually induce resistance to those pesticides in local insect populations. The National Academy of Sciences report also recommends establishing public databases of known allergens to help ensure that none are incorporated into new foods.

Seeking a balanced approach to monitoring

A balanced worldwide approach to GM monitoring, however, has yet to be put into practice. The European Union has a de facto ban on GM foods. Most grocery stores there have declared themselves "GM free" under intense public pressure incited by environmental groups that campaign virulently against "Franken foods."

Consumers in North America, meanwhile, remain largely unaware of GM foods and the controversy surrounding them, and the American government does not require that products containing GM foods be labeled as such. This all-or-nothing trend may take hold in the developing world as well. Thailand has banned GM production outright under threat of losing the European market for their exports, while the Chinese government aggressively funds GM research and implementation of new technologies.

Opponents of GM crops tend to advocate a combination of old agricultural techniques and new means of information sharing as alternatives. There is an important distinction between conventional and indigenous agriculture: As used here, "conventional" refers to farming dependent on commercial or artificial input, while "indigenous" denotes older techniques.

"Experiments have shown that by changing farming methods, using better techniques, yields can be increased by far more than 35%," says Pete Riley of Friends of the Earth.

Some of these "better techniques" are detailed in The Real Green Revolution, a 2002 Greenpeace-sponsored report. The report cites cases of farmers increasing their yields by adopting alternatives to the "high input agricultural model where the benefits go to the equipment and chemical manufacturers and seed merchants."

The report calls for a switch from conventional agriculture to "organic and agro-ecological approaches," which are based on indigenous knowledge and sustainable techniques. This switch is no simple matter, though.

According to the report, obstacles include developing governments' active promotion of conventional agriculture, "crippling funding shortages" faced by non-governmental organizations that seek to introduce alternatives to farmers, and a lack of security of land tenure for Third World farmers. This last factor decreases farmers' incentive "to develop long-term organic management strategies," making the quicker pay-off of conventional agriculture more appealing.

Clearly, organic farming is not a quick fix for the world hunger problem, since it would require educational funds, social and political change, and significant information transfer to be implemented on a large scale. Most importantly, a switch to organic agriculture would necessitate a paradigm shift in developing countries from the idea that "modern," chemical-based methods are inevitably better, to an emphasis on the wide sharing of indigenous knowledge. But the scientific research needed to develop new GM crops is also neither cheap nor simple.

Help, but not necessarily from richer countries

The problem of hunger, malnutrition, and disease in poorer countries requires serious attention. But this help must not necessarily come from richer countries. The Chinese government employs biotechnologists to apply GM technology to crops overlooked by Western companies. In fact, China now supports the largest GM research center outside North America. Researchers there have already made insect-resistant Bt cotton, virus-resistant and shelf life-altered tomatoes, and virus-resistant sweet pepper available to farmers. Many other GM crops are currently in the trial phase. Bt cotton has proven very popular, and 2 million Chinese farmers are now growing it. These farmers have reportedly reduced their use of toxic pesticides by more than 80%, resulting in a 28% reduction in production cost.

Some environmentalists have charged that this improvement is unsustainable, since insects are bound to develop resistance to Bt eventually. Yet this is also true of chemical pesticides. Another concern is that China may lack the resources to adequately monitor the risks of the new crops -- it was not until April 2002 that its government began drafting its first biotechnology safety regulations.

In China, as in other countries facing widespread poverty and hunger, risks may be weighed differently than in more wealthy locales. Yet China has not made the dispute between scientists and environmentalists in wealthier countries irrelevant. There is still ample room for developed nations to be involved in solving problems in the developing world.

The debate over whether Western efforts to improve food security in poorer countries should focus on biotechnology or on radical shifts in farming practices is one with urgent implications. Although the First World decrease in public and philanthropic funding for agricultural innovation since the Green Revolution may be partly ascribed to the revolution's apparent success, the fact that advocates for such funding can find little common ground certainly does not help matters.

And this is no time for inaction: In 1998, Herrera-Estrella estimated that in order to keep up with population growth, world crop production would have to be "doubled or preferably tripled by 2050."

"We can expect to see increasing discontent about the growing inequalities in life and in some cases a growing danger of social conflict and violence over the use of the remaining resources, especially in South Asia," warned Peter Hazell, a researcher at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, at a 1999 press conference.

Were the two GM factions to put aside their differences, they might promote a course of action involving research into, and implementation of, a wide range of agricultural innovations, from GM crops to widespread sharing of indigenous farming knowledge. This aid need not be purely selfless, since quality of life can affect political stability, which in turn has global ramifications. Whether seen as a magnanimous act of charity or a sensible investment in world stability, what is clear is that we should not stand by and watch as the well being of fellow humans steadily deteriorates. By any measure, that would be disastrous.

Suggested Reading


Alexandros, N. "World Food and Agriculture: Outlook for the Medium and Longer Term." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 96 (1999): 5908-14.

Brown, P. "Unveiled: the GM rice that could feed world." Guardian. Mar 31, 2000. 0,4273,3980615,00.html

"China considers law to regulate biotechnology." Agence France Presse. Apr 8, 2002.

Cookson, C., and V. Griffith. "Scientists make edible vaccine for virus." Financial Times. Jun 20, 2000.

De la Fuente, J.M., Ramirez-Rodriguez, V., Cabrera-Ponce, J.L. and Herrera-Estrella, L. "Aluminum Tolerance in transgenic plants by alteration of citrate synthesis." Science. (1997) 276: 1566-1568.

Hawkes, N. "Allow GM crops to feed poor, say top scientists." Financial Times. Jul 12, 2000.

Herrera-Estrella, L. "Transgenic Plants for Tropical Regions: Some Considerations about Their Development and Transfer to the Small Farmer." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 96 (1999): 5978-81.

Huang, J., S. Rozelle, C. Pray, and Q. Wang. "Plant Biotechnology in China." Science. 295: 674-6.

Langridge, W.H.R. "Edible Vaccines." Scientific American. 283 (2000): 66-71.

Miller, H.I., and D. Gunary, "Serious Flaws in the Horizontal Approach to Biotechnology Risk." Science. 262 (1993): 1500-1.

Paarlberg, R. "The Global Food Fight." Foreign Affairs. May/Jun, 2000: 24.

Parrott, N., and T. Marsden. The Real Green Revolution. London: Greenpeace Environmental Trust, 2002.

Pearce, F. "China's genetically modified crops are proving a success." New Scientist. Feb 2, 2002: 12.

Pollack, A. "A Food Fight for High Stakes." New York Times. Feb 4, 2001: section 4, page 6.

Pung, et. al. "'Green revolution' genes encode mutant gibberellin response modulators." Nature. 400 (1999): 256-61.

Sylvester, B. "Are edible vaccines the wave of the future?" Medical Post. 37 (2001): 29.

Transgenic Plants and World Agriculture. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 2000.

"Trends and Current Status of Malnutrition in the World." Washington, D.C.: Hunger Notes. Jun 15, 2002. articles/global/ray.htm

Vidal, J., and J. Aglionby. "UN agency backs GM food crops." Guardian. Jul 11, 2001. 0,4273,4219506,00.html

Wallerstein, C. "Scientists say food supplies hinge on genetic engineering." Guardian. May 1, 1999. Article/0,4273,3860392,00.html

Recommendations for Further Reading

The National Academy of Sciences report, Transgenic Plants and World Agriculture

The Greenpeace report on organic and agroecological farming in developing countries, The Real Green Revolution