Magazine edition: 1-2013

Article title:

Bhaskar Vira & David Nally on biotechnology & food security

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Bhaskar Vira & David Nally on biotechnology & food security

Food security and nutrition have emerged as major priorities for the international development agenda after 2015, when the UN Millennium Development Goals expire. They represent a touchstone for progress across a range of development outcomes, including health, education, employment, livelihood security and the environment.

Last year, the UN Secretary-General launched his ‘Zero Hunger Challenge’ at the Rio+20 Summit, to urge the international community to eliminate hunger within our lifetimes. In February 2013, a global consultation on hunger, food security and nutrition held in Rome confirmed the centrality of these issues to addressing poverty and inequality.

Eliminating hunger will require action on a host of areas, from governance issues and social protection mechanisms to investment in agriculture and the provision of decent work and opportunities (especially for smallholders). Partnerships between governments, civil society groups and industry will be of particular importance. Such partnerships are not easy to broker, as stakeholder views differ, often irreconcilably, on a number of vital issues. One particularly contentious area is the role and appropriate use of genetic technologies as a key component in the transition towards what has been described as ‘resilient’ and ‘climate-smart’ agriculture for the 21st century.

There seems little doubt that securing future food security will involve some use of agricultural biotechnologies such as genetic modification. What is more contentious is the way in which these technologies are likely to be rolled out and, more to the point, who stands to benefit. As with most technologies, the development, deployment and control of agro-biotechnology is likely to result in winners and losers. Despite the common rhetoric of a ‘win-win’ situation, there is simply no such thing as ‘socially neutral’ or ‘apolitical’ technology. There are, for example, considerable differences between publicly-funded genetic research, which is made freely available to farmers and other producers, and patented and protected technologies that are distributed under the proprietary control of private companies. In reality, developing these technologies is likely to involve some compromise between the need to provide adequate incentives for research and development within the private sector – including the possibility of using limited patents to propel innovation and protect profitability – and the need for these technologies to be used at a sufficient scale to offer truly sustainable solutions to the challenge of feeding over seven billion people.

Concerns about the safety of these technologies are equally paramount. For proponents to dismiss these as the ‘irrational fears’ of misinformed consumers is short-sighted and seriously underestimates the power of the consumer voice, especially in the digital communication age and with the emergence of strong online lobby groups. It is also patronising. It suggests that consumers should have choice on the shelves but not on the level of information provided on the origins of these products.

National attitudes matter as well. The debate in Europe over the use and deployment of genetically-modified (GM) foods is considerably more cautious than that in North America, and European regulators are far more sensitive to public opinion in their approach to GM crops. In India, one of the largest public consultation exercises on such issues led to the imposition of a two-year moratorium on growing GM brinjal (aubergine) in 2010, despite a report by six of the country’s science academies concluding that the crop was safe for cultivation and consumption.

As global food markets become more integrated, the regulation of new biotechnologies, whether in Europe, India or elsewhere, will have a much wider impact. Indeed, we have already witnessed the tragic consequences of US food aid being rejected by the Zambian government at the height of a major famine in 2002. While people were in desperate need of food, the Zambian leadership felt unable to accept it because the majority of US corn and soya was GM, citing health concerns (perhaps unfounded, as Americans were consuming the same stocks) as well as potential longer-term consequences of GM strains entering the Zambian food system. These included the possible impact on Zambia’s future ability to export to GM-wary European markets. The decision to avoid risks associated with ‘bio-pollution’ may compromise poorer countries’ ability to engage in agricultural trade.

The regulation and control of biotechnologies, the transparency of these developments and the right to make informed consumption choices – these concerns are likely to lead to a broader debate, as we move towards an ever-more globalised food production system. The outcomes will profoundly shape our ability to respond to the challenges of feeding the world in the 21st century. While some form of biotechnology is likely to be part of the solution, its proponents need to recognise that there are political, social and economic consequences which go beyond technocentric debates about efficiency and effectiveness. Only by recognising this interplay can we harness the promise of these developments in a manner that provides solutions for global food security that are socially acceptable and better for human and environmental wellbeing.

Bhaskar Vira is Senior Lecturer in Environment and Development and David Nally is Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge. They are members of the University of Cambridge Strategic Initiative in Global Food Security,