Over in the United States and parts of Europe, we tend to see anti-GMO activists complaining about safety and regulation of genetically modified foods while their bellies are full. These are the same activists that have a gluten-free breakfast every morning, chow down on their organic salads at lunch, and then indulge in a nice, filling – and humanely raised – dinner before snuggling up in their warm and comfortable beds.
But in many parts of the world, food doesn’t come so easily. Nor do people have the time or resources to necessarily worry about how that food was produced and whether it should be labeled a certain way. These are the places that could most benefit from biotechnology. Unfortunately, groups like Greenpeace have already shown up and spread their agenda of fear. (Why else would a mom allow her child to go blind when there’s a safe alternative?)
If we think science education in the United States is lacking, I imagine it isn’t much better in bitterly poor areas of Africa.
In any case, there are lots of opportunities for biotechnology to really improve the lives of lots of people in poorer parts of the world. For example, Golden Rice, which I wrote about a couple months ago. In fact, the United States House of Representatives’ Agriculture Committee hosted a panel in July of 2014 to discuss the societal benefits of GMOs. The panel members identified 3 distinct examples of how biotechnology is helping people around the world. I’m sure there are lots more, but I looked a little deeper into those 3 examples and present them below.
Eggplant, or “brinjal,” is a big deal in India. In fact, it is a staple in many traditional Indian dishes, including curry. Unfortunately, due to a changing climate, India has experienced a number of problems with growing sufficient quantities of eggplant. Pests and disease are rampant in the crop and have drastically reduced yields. At present, about 1.4 million Indian farmers cultivate brinjal, which requires 30-50 pesticide applications throughout the growing season. However, a genetically modified version of the eggplant, which uses the Bt gene, could be the solution to the problem. (I explained how the Bt trait works here.) Bt eggplant could drastically reduce the amount of pesticide applications necessary and help increase yields.
Genetically modified crops are not a new thing in India. In fact, the country has seen a lot of success with Bt cotton. After the Bt cotton was successfully introduced in the country, India benefited from higher yields and less applications of pesticides. It is now reported that 80% of the cotton in India employs the genetic modification. India is now the second largest producer of cotton in the world with 5 million Indian farmers producing Bt cotton.
But, predictably, there are lots of people spreading fear about the Bt eggplant in India. Critics have claimed that the government oversight and regulations are lacking in that country to keep the genetic traits in check (wait…don’t they say that about every country?). Of course, critics have also thrown out a lot of the other typical (and mostly unfounded) objections of corporate control and a lack of sufficient studies. In 2009, regulators in India approved the eggplant for commericial use. Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, Jairam Ramesh, the former Minister of Environment caved to the anti-GMO activists and put an indefinite moratorium on cultivation of the Bt eggplant.
Since the 1960’s Uganda’s banana growers have been plagued by Xanthomonas wilt. The wilt causes the plants to ooze a thick yellow substance after being cut. Within a month of infecting the banana plants, this wilt can completely kill the plant. Unfortunately, the African climate allows the bacteria to spread easily and quickly. The worst part is that there is absolutely nothing the farmers in the area, many of which small stakeholders, can do to stop or prevent the disease from spreading.
Bananas are an important part of not only the Uganda economy, but also the diet of the people living there. Reportedly, people in Uganda generally eat three times their body weight in bananas each year. The wilt cases $500 million in annual losses. Over the last decade, the financial hit ranges between $2-8 billion.
Biotechnology to the rescue.
By transferring two genes from green peppers into the banana plant, Uganda scientists have figured out that the plant can become resistant to the disease. I absolutely love this line: “A GM banana that is resistant to a bacterial wilt disease, which causes $500 million in annual losses and cannot be treated with pesticides, is being tested behind high security fences. The fences are there not to keep out anti-GM protesters, as in the West, but to keep out local farmers keen to grow the new crop.” (Source: WSJ.) It gives me hope that farmers in Uganda can work with scientists to find a solution to this devastating problem.
(Sources: PromUSA, Meridian Institute, The Guardian)
Nigeria, Maruca Blackeyed Peas
Small-scale farmers fighting these pests generally see $300 million in annual losses. To combat the insect, farmers in Nigeria have to import $500 million worth of pesticides each year. But most farmers operate on a smaller scale and are unable to purchase any of the pesticides to protect their crops.
If you want to see what these lovely little creatures look like, check out this website.
Once again, genetic modification relied on the Bt trait to thwart the Maruca vitrata. The scientists at the Institute for Agricultural Research at Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria developed a blackeyed pea variety resistant to the Maruca pod borer. The genetically modified version of the crop again contains the Bt protein which the bugs cannot consume.
Although anti-GMO activists attempted to scare the general public into not using this GE crops, President Goodluck Jonathan decided to sign legislation that would allow for their sale. Biotech crops should be sold commercially this year.