Sunday, February 22, 2009

Is global warming a good excuse to reintroduce biotechnology?

The Green Revolution and Biotechnology were two strategies that supposedly set out to solve the world hunger problem, assuming the world’s production of food would need to be increased to meet the demands of growing populations. Looking back, many people argue that these strategies were not very effective. The underlying correlation between the distribution of wealth and distribution of food was overlooked and in fact the gap between the rich and the poor, the stuffed and the starved, was worsened by these strategies. This is because technological solutions give a competitive advantage to those who were able to afford the technology: whether it’s machinery or genetically modified seeds, it requires an initial investment and a large scale operation, both of which the poor and hungry do not have.

While the debate over the Green Revolution and Biotechnology has continued, there seems to be a consensus that technology cannot solve the problem single handedly, that attention also needs to be placed on the social and economic hardships that correlate to hunger.

Just when we seemed to be recognizing Biotechnology as a technological fix, the threats of Global warming brought it back to the center of attention. All areas of the world are expected to undergo more extreme weather conditions, including droughts in some areas, and floods in others, which could devastate crop lands.

This time around Biotechnology is focused more on maintaining yields in extreme conditions, rather than increasing yields in normal conditions, which could potentially help more farmers remain resilient during tough environmental times when there is an actual threat of underproduction. According to a New York Times Article, “Drought Resistance is the Goal, but Methods Differ”, Monsanto has even claimed that “it would not charge royalties for using its technology in the African corn, to keep the seed affordable.” Unfortunately the corn customized for Africa is not expected to be ready until 2017, “five years after it starts selling drought-tolerant corn to American farmers”.

The threat of global warming makes biotechnology extremely appealing but this is no time to loosen regulations. The article mentions that this new focus on drought and flood resistance could be more risky than previous endeavors: “changing the water needs of a plant requires a more fundamental alteration of its metabolism than adding a gene to make the plant resistant to insects.”

I think the threat of Global Warming is enough to accept that all options need to be explored, including Biotechnology, but I also think that those doing the research need to make the poor and those most vulnerable the priority. I also think regulations and incentives need to be set in place as soon as possible, to prevent biotech companies from diverting from the underlying problems, to prevent them from introducing any new problems, and to make their efforts visible and under the constant scrutiny of the public.

1 comment:

  1. Unfortunately biotechnology can only do so much in terms of climate change. Engineering a plant that can withstand more saline soils, or plants that can thrive in drier climates are all great tools. They will allow us to grow plants in tough climates. But the wisdom that comes along with being sustainable is understanding that eventually you will deteriorate the land your growing on, leaving farmers in africa with no where to go. These are not longterm solutions. Biotechnology has no real purpose in relation to climate change. Only sustainable farming practices. Now if we can create human-healthy engineered plants that can be grown organically, yes, biotechnology has great promise.