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Feed the World -- But How?

by Thomas M. Zinnen

"Remember, it's about food," noted Cyrus Ndiritu at the conference entitled "Agricultural Biotechnology for a Better World" held April 28-30, 1997 at the Asilomar Center at Pacific Grove, California. Ndiritu, of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, outlined his research strategy to approximately 150 participants from around the world.

The meeting brought together researchers, government officials, and business people from around the world to address technical, legal and social issues of biotechnology applied to agriculture. The event was organized by Michigan State University and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

The meeting place was apt. Asilomar was the site of the famous 1975 Asilomar Conference on safety and regulation of recombinant DNA technologies discovered in the early 1970's by researchers working 100 miles north in the San Francisco Bay Area. Issues of safety, risk, costs, benefit and regulation raised 22 years earlier are still being wrestled with today.

Global Issues Affecting Food Production.

Humans face the challenge of producing enough food to meet the demands imposed by several biological and agricultural factors:

  • Rising population.
  • Rising income, and an expectation of a higher quality, more diverse diet.
  • Decreasing amount of land available for food production.
  • Decreasing the use of synthetic pesticides.
  • Preserving biodiversity.

Capacity Building: Fish versus Fishing

What does it take for a developing nation to identify and solve its own problems using primarily resources from its own people and land? How can nations build their own modern biotechnology community capable of education, training, research, development, and application of biotechnology to increase and improve the food supply?

These are some of the challenges of international "Technology Transfer." Science and knowledge, like news, can spread relatively fast to anywhere, by mail or phone or e-mail. But skill, know-how and technology are slower to transfer. This takes an exchange of ideas and an interchange among people and a commitment of time and money and patience.

Many biosciences teachers in US high schools can understand the challenge of establishing a biotechnology infrastructure. It's one thing to teach about DNA. It's another thing to have year after year the budget, the supplies, the equipment, and the access to expertise and supplies needed to train students to work with DNA and to explore the edge of molecular biology.

Scientists as Bureaucrats and Diplomats and Tacticians

Scientists organized this meeting, because scientists run the organizations that sponsor the research featured at the meeting. Yet many students in high school or college might not know that people trained as scientists often end up serving as government officials. Although trained as biological researchers, some develop the skills needed to run a bureaucracy. They need the savvy of the diplomat-- a combination of tact, respect and resolve.

Within their own national governments, these scientists/public administrators compete for budgets and personnel and programs. People in departments of agriculture negotiate with their colleagues in the departments of environment over the national stances on regulation, GATT (Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) or the Biodiversity Treaty.

Between nations, these scientists/diplomats build partnerships to use biotechnology as a way to improve agriculture, while respecting cultural differences between the cooperating countries.

Asking and Giving

The great range in biotechnology capacity among countries requires both tact and bluntness by the cooperating countries. Like other people, scientists can't read each others' minds. Kenya's Dr. Ndiritu emphasized that developing countries need to be specific when asking for assistance, and that developed countries need to be straightforward in providing the requested assistance--and let the needs, not the technology, drive the partnership.

Agricultural Biotechnology as a Global Activity in the Classroom

Ask your students to examine a globe and compare it to a flat map of the world.

Which is the more accurate model of the world?

What criteria do the students use in comparing the globe to the map?

Globes give a more accurate image than flat maps of physical geography, the scale and location of lands and oceans.

Globes can also help illustrate differences in climates and carrying capacity of the land.

A globe showing national borders is a great tool for learning international politics. Students can better understand the connections between language, law, religion and regulation as affected by history, including colonization, and by current trading patterns, including the size, scope and value of international trade.

Globes are a way to locate where crops originated, and to trace how humans have spread many crops around the world. Potato, tomato, corn, pepper and squash have spread from the New World to the whole world. Oil palm in the past century was introduced to Malaysia from west Africa and South America. Wheat and barley from the eastern Mediterranean grow around the world. These origins and past migrations still influence how food is grown, and how new cultivated varieties are developed.

The center of diversity of a crop is also considered its "ancestral homeland," the place biologists believe the crop originated. Can your students locate the ancestral homes of such key crops listed above?

At this conference, a key issue included the risks and benefits of planting transgenic crops in the center of diversity of that crop. An example would be planting transgenic potatoes in Peru or transgenic corn in Mexico.

What risks and benefits do your students identify?

The concern is whether transgenic crops significantly threaten landraces of the crop or plants such as teosinte that are wild ancestors of a crop. For example, what is the likely damage if the "transgene" transfers by pollen to native "landraces" of the crop or to a wild ancestor? Would the landraces of the crop become weedy, or weak, or less valuable as a crop to the local farmers? Alternatively, would farmers choose to use the new transgenic varieties, and stop planting seeds of the traditional landraces that have been bred for generations?

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