Biotechnology and Hunger:

Challenges for the biotech industry

Jeroen van Wijk

Keywords:  Developing countries; Private industry; Plant production; Public acceptance.
Correct citation: Wijk, J. van (2000), "Biotechnology and Hunger: Challenges for the biotech industry." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 41, p. 2-7.

According to the biotechnology industry, choosy consumers’ disapproval of genetically modified (GM) food stifles a further development of biotechnology and deprives the undernourished part of the world population from essential tools to raise their food production. This conceptual paper raises basic issues that help to analyse whether indeed agricultural biotechnology industries respond to the need of the poor.

Feeding the world?

To sell their products Life Science Companies not only advertise but also explain why their products or the technology they use are necessary. One of the main arguments is the need of more food because the world population is growing. The following quotations from company web sites as well as from public institutes illustrate this.

"Genetically Engineered Food Could Be Lifeline For Developing World
In the developed world, societies enjoy abundant diets more varied now than at any other time in history. That’s in stark contrast to the developing world where millions of people confront profound food insecurity every day. Part of the solution to righting this imbalance might involve something that is increasingly controversial in the developed world: genetically engineered food."
"Biotechnology: Promise for a brighter future
By the year 2020, the global population is expected to increase by more than 40 percent, possibly surpassing the 8 billion mark. Feeding these additional billions, with a limited supply of suitable farmland, poses a dilemma of immense proportions. […] The benefits of agricultural biotechnology are of particular importance to people living in developing nations. There, genetically improved seeds and other products will improve crop yields and quality and make farming possible in areas previously unsuitable for food production."
"To do list for the planet:
1. Make food grow where food can’t grow

Have crop protection products so food can flourish. Working on next-generation seeds that resist disease and insects.
Six billion people inhabit Earth now. In 2050, it is predicted that figure will double to twelve billion. How do we meet the needs of a growing population in a sustainable way? From Moroccan villages to remote Siberian farms, DuPont is working on the solution."
"Helping farmers feed the world
Crop protection: why bother?
Agriculture today feeds twice as many people as in 1960. But, if the world’s population is to continue to be fed production must double again over the next 30 years."
"[…] it is in the developing countries, not the industrial countries, where 800 millions people suffer from malnutrition today and where transgenic crops could increase crop productivity and contribute to the alleviation of hunger and poverty which are inextricably linked. During the next decade an increase in productivity of 10 to 25 percent from transgenic crops is both feasible and realistic and this will be a critical and significant contribution to global food security, more nutrious food and feed, and to a safer environment."
(James, C. (1998), "Global review of commercialized transgenic crops: 1998". ISAAA Briefs No. 8-1998.)
An estimated 800 million people, 15 per cent of the world’s population, are chronically undernourished and their number is increasing. Life Science Companies (LSCs) are preparing themselves to, in their own words, "feed the world" (see box). Since a significant expansion of cultivated area is not feasible in most parts of the world, increased food supply could only be achieved by a more efficient use of land already under cultivation. New plant varieties should be developed for this purpose. According to many scientists, biotechnology should play a major role in this process.

A major problem has arisen, however. Rather than being welcomed with enthusiasm, the first genetically modified (GM) crops released on the market have been received with an attitude ranging from reservation to outright hostility. The consumers’ dislike for GM food, particularly in Europe, is one of the reasons why the projected premium markets for GM crops are failing to materialize. This situation is bad news for biotechnology companies and their shareholders. They have invested massively in new plant products that are now rejected, sometimes for debatable reasons.

In an effort to turn the tide, LSCs, scientists, but also aid officials and public institutes have criticized the aversion to biotechnology. They reason that the affluence in industrialized countries enables consumers there to be choosy, and they stress a need for new pest and climate resistant plants and a requirement of genetic engineering to develop them. So called ‘eco-terrorists’, as Greenpeace and other opponents to GM food have been labelled, are accused of slowing down technological development. As a result of their actions, it is argued, the world’s poorest population will be deprived of opportunities to solve their tremendous nutrition problems. This argument is questionable, however.

First, it is striking that the industry’s own responsibility for the present negative image of GM food is not addressed. Consumers are blamed, while one could also claim that corporate strategy and public relations have failed hopelessly in assessing public attitude towards GM food. These departments did not detect or address the public confusion. Basic biological knowledge among consumers in industrialized countries is probably overestimated, while concerns about health and environmental impacts have not been convincingly refuted.

Second, the biotechnology industry lacks a proper conception of how malnutrition in the world has been caused and how it could be reduced. The industry is developing highly advanced and indeed fascinating techniques that can be used in agro-food production. But we should realize that this was the easiest part. Eradicating hunger is not an inherent characteristic of biotechnology, and hunger is not simply the consequence of insufficient production of food. Making new techniques that are useful in the field, for example having better plant varieties successfully grown by farmers in diverging ecological and socioeconomic circumstances in developing countries, is far more complicated. Moreover, as will be discussed below, it is often not realized that adoption of biotechnology may also increase the malnutrition problem that the technology is supposed to solve.

The LSCs face at least two challenges:

Producing superior plant varieties?

Until the 1970s, the seed sector in industrialized countries was fragmented and consisted of manifold family firms and public institutes with a strong rural background. Publicly financed breeding research dominated the development of new plant varieties. This situation began to change when agro-chemical companies began to expand their research budgets in biotechnology, particularly in genetic engineering. Since then, companies such as Monsanto (USA), Novartis (Switzerland) and DuPont (USA) have become centres in industrial conglomerates consisting of various biotechnology, chemical, seed and software firms.

Because of their tremendous investment in research and development (R&D) in the past 20 years, these conglomerates seem to have replaced governments as the key organizers in crop development. Private agricultural R&D expenditure in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries increased from US$ 3.9 billion in 1981 to more than US$ 7 billion in 1993, almost equalling total public R&D expenditure on agriculture. LSCs have spent many billions of dollars on acquisitions and hundreds of millions on genetic engineering-related research during the past years. Monsanto alone, for example, allocated US$ 1.2 billion for biotechnology research in 1998. In the same year, Novartis announced the establishment of its Agricultural Discovery Institute, which is dedicated to genomics studies, at a cost of US$ 600 million (see also the article by Pereira in Monitor No. 40).

This private investment contrasts sharply with the public spending on biotechnology, especially in the agriculture of developing countries. The largest organization in this field, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), has a total annual budget of around US$ 340 million, of which only 7 per cent is allocated to biotechnology.

The increasing privatization of crop development, combined with the concentration in the biotechnology industry, raises the question of the optimal organization of crop development worldwide. A structure consisting of transnational biotechnology companies as the core of industrial breeding networks has the obvious advantage that economies of scale in R&D can be achieved. The conglomerates have the capacity to design research programmes that are beyond the reach of any small or medium-sized breeding company or institute. However, the large-scale R&D investments have been accompanied by an aggressive protection strategy. Rather than using plant variety protection (PVP), new plant varieties are protected under patent laws. Patents protect the seed companies both against propagation of varieties by farmers, as well as against the use of the plant genetic information by other breeders. Terminator technology (see also the article by Lehmann in Monitor No. 35) has been developed for similar purposes. If this tendency continues unrestricted, most smaller breeding companies and public institutes may lose access to their technology sources. Eventually they may have to accept a subordinate position in the value chain of crop development and be satisfied with the local testing and marketing of varieties created elsewhere.

The fundamental, and as yet unanswered, question is whether the hundreds of millions of undernourished people in the world will benefit from this emerging international division of labour in crop development. For more than 15 years, many plant breeders and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been opposing the centralization tendency in R&D. They have argued that, especially for developing countries, the maintenance of a decentralized industry structure (encompassing small and medium-sized breeding firms as well as publicly financed institutes) seems very useful. Such a system represents a collective innovative effort of thousands of plant breeders worldwide who exchange plant material and build on each other’s work. The decentralized structure enables breeders to take into account local differences in ecosystem, farm capacity, culture, knowledge and resources. Will centralized biotechnology be able to perform better than these local breeders?

Can resource-poor farmers benefit from biotechnology?

The second challenge to the industry is related to the historical and macroeconomic context of biotechnology. The release of GM varieties should actually be conceived as a new phase in a long-term process of agro-industrialization that started in the nineteenth century, particularly in industrializing nations. Little by little, single elements of farming have been transformed by industry. Horses and rural labour have been replaced by tractors, manure by synthetic fertilizer and on-farm saved seeds of landraces by commercial seed of advanced plant varieties. These developments have rationalized agro-food production. Fewer and fewer farmers produce more and more food.

The need to speed up the industrialization of agriculture is increasing. Due to a liberalizing international economy and lower protective trade barriers, farmers have to compete directly with the most productive producers in other parts of the world. In order to remain competitive, they must produce under appropriate conditions, acquire the latest plant varieties and use the most advanced equipment. This process has boosted food production to an unprecedented level, but the social consequences for the farm population have also been considerable. The rationalization of farming inevitably results in many small farms being considered non-viable production units, in which neither the government nor established farm unions wish to invest further. In most industrialized countries the rural population has decreased drastically since the Second World War. Thanks to expanding industry and well-developed social security mechanisms, this change has taken place relatively smoothly. The typical situation in many developing countries is quite different, however. With no alternative employment opportunities and inadequate social security schemes, superfluous farmers are left to fend for themselves.

It is against this background that we should consider the introduction of biotechnology in developing countries. The new phase in agro-industrialization may be a blessing for those farmers that can afford to purchase the new varieties and the necessary equipment. But for those who have little to spend, the benefit of the new technology is not obvious. Small-scale farmers may be quickly outcompeted by farmers in other regions and forced to move to the margins of the economy. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that developing countries can be strongly divided over the issue of biotechnology.

In Chile and Colombia, for example, the advocates of biotechnology can be found especially among the fruit and cut-flower exporters and among the producers of national commercial crops. Chile is a large fruit exporter, and Colombia the second largest cut-flower exporter in the world. These producers are favouring a further industrialization of the agro-food sector, they welcome biotechnology and have little problem with accepting intellectual property rights (IPR) on plant materials.

Opposition comes particularly from nature and farm-oriented NGOs and indigenous people’s organizations. These organizations act as a last resort for many peasant communities that focus on the improvement of small-scale farming systems. The farmers involved use on-farm saved seeds of native varieties and other locally available natural resources not because of romantic ideals about maintaining biodiversity or economic autarky, but simply because they have no other option.

It is difficult to see how such resource-poor farmers could gain from biotechnology. These farmers lack the land, the appropriate soil, capital, markets and infrastructure that are necessary to benefit from advanced varieties. They consider the biotechnology industry as an exponent of industrialized, export-oriented agriculture from which they can expect little. This is a major reason for the opposition in developing countries to the introduction of GM varieties, IPR, the terminator technology and the free collection of plants and seeds by foreign institutions.


The overemphasis on genomics and genetic engineering carries the risk of underfunding other approaches to crop development. Scientific support for the non-industrial production strategies of subsistence farmers seems to have a low priority. The low-cost efforts to improve the efficiency of traditional varieties, farm-saved seed and organic fertilizer contrast sharply with the fascinating new technological achievements. They are increasingly perceived as backward forms of production that should already have been replaced. Nevertheless, improvement of the non-industrial approach deserves to be considered as a goal in itself by everyone who is committed to reducing malnutrition, because it is the inevitable survival strategy of the poorest category of farmers.

The LSCs could grant technical assistance to research dedicated to resource-poor farmers. In order to be successful, the assistance should in no way increase farmers’ dependence on external inputs. This would imply that the industry lifts its restrictions on the diffusion of new varieties for the non-industrial farming sector. Technical restrictions by the terminator technology, or legal restrictions by patenting and plant variety protection, are definitely not helpful to feed the poor segment of the world population. The biotechnology industry has still to prove that its projected GM varieties are serving the world’s undernourished people a more secure, nutritious and tasty dinner.
Jeroen van Wijk

Department of Business-Society Management (FB 52), Faculty of Business Administration, Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam, PO Box 1738, 3000 DR Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
Fax (+31) 10 408 9019; E-mail jwijk@fbk.eur.nl

Alston, J.M., Pardey, P.G. and Smith, V.H. (1998), "Financing agricultural R&D in rich countries: what’s happening and why". The Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics, Vol. 42, pp. 51-82.

"Don’t denounce biotech". Deccan Herald, Bangalore, India, July 6, 1999; http://www.gene.ch/genet/1999/Jul/msg00066.html

Glickman, D. (1999), "How will scientists, farmers, and consumers learn to love biotechnology and what happens if they don’t?" Remarks as prepared for delivery by Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman to the National Press Club on New Crops, New Century, New Challenges. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington D.C., USA.

Pistorius, R. and van Wijk, J. (1999), The Exploitation of Plant Genetic Information. Political Strategies in Crop Development. Wallingford, UK: CABI Publishing.

"Time for Africa to join biotechnology revolution". Nairobi Daily Nation, Kenya, July 15, 1999;

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