Thursday, March 31, 2011

How we engineered the food crisis

Thanks to dysfunctional regulation of genetic engineering and misguided biofuels policy, the world's poorest are going hungry

Henry Miller,

Sunday 20 March 2011

Food prices worldwide were up by a whopping 25% in 2010, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, and February marked the eighth consecutive month of rising global food prices. Within the past two months, food riots helped to trigger the ousting of ruling regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. (It is noteworthy that food prices increased 17% last year in Egypt, and the price of wheat, a critical staple there, soared by more than 50%.)

For poor countries that are net importers of food, even small increases in food prices can be catastrophic, and recent bumps have been anything but small. There are several causes of rising prices.

First, large-scale disasters have precipitated localised crop failures, some of which have had broad ripple effects – for example, Russia's ban on grain exports through at least the end of this calendar year resulted from fires and drought.

Second, deadly strains of an evolving wheat pathogen (a rust) named Ug99 are increasingly threatening yields in the major wheat-growing areas of southern and eastern Africa, the central Asian Republics, the Caucasus, the Indian subcontinent, South America, Australia and North America.

Third, rising incomes in emerging markets like China and India have increased the ability of an expanding middle class to shift from a grain-based diet to one that contains more meat.

And fourth, against this backdrop of lessened supply and heightened demand, private investment in R&D on innovative practices and technologies has been discouraged by arbitrary and unscientific national and international regulatory barriers – against, in particular, new varieties of plants produced with modern genetic engineering (aka recombinant DNA technology or genetic modification, or GM).

Genetic engineering offers plant breeders the tools to make crops do spectacular new things. In more than two dozen countries, farmers are using genetically engineered crop varieties to produce higher yields, with lower inputs and reduced impact on the environment. But exploiting this advanced technology has been a tough row to hoe.

Regulation commonly discriminates specifically against the use of the newest, most precise genetic engineering techniques, subjecting field trials to redundant case by case reviews and markedly inflating R&D costs. A veritable alphabet soup of United Nations' agencies and programmes are prime offenders, perpetuating a regulatory approach that is both unscientific and obstructionist.

These public policy failures, in turn, inhibit the adoption and diffusion of new plants that boast a broad spectrum of new high value-added input and output traits.

Can the flawed public policy that prevails in most of the world be rationalised? Nina Fedoroff, professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University, former state department senior adviser and currently visiting professor at King Abdullah University in Saudi Arabia, is not optimistic: "The continuing distaste for [genetically engineered plants] and their consequent absurd over-regulation means that the most up-to-date, environmentally benign crop protection strategies are used almost exclusively for the mega-crops that are profitable for biotech companies.

The public agricultural research sector remains largely excluded from using modern molecular technology. Will this change soon? I don't think so." Fedoroff continues: "The screams of pain will come first from the poorest countries that already import way beyond their ability to pay and [are] too poor (or perhaps unwise) to make the requisite investments in developing new high-tech approaches to agriculture in hot places. And now we we're pouring our ag [agriculture] bucks into biofuels, of all the imaginable absurdities."

In fact, the United States and Europe are diverting vast and increasing amounts of land and agricultural production into making ethanol. The United States is approaching the diversion of 40% of the corn harvest for fuel and the EU has a goal of 10% biofuel use by 2020. The implications are worrisome.

On 9 February, the US department of agriculture reported that the ethanol industry's projected orders for 2011 rose 8.4%, to 13.01bn bushels, leaving the United States with about 675m bushels of corn left at the end of the year. That is the lowest surplus level since 1996. If only the ingenuity of genetic engineers were unleashed, we would likely see innovative approaches to the production of energy from non-food organisms, including switchgrass, trees and algae.

But as Steven Strauss, professor at Oregon State University and an expert in genetic engineering of plants, has pointed out, regulators' approach to such sources of energy make field trials and commercialisation unfeasible.

Related to this issue is that discriminatory regulation has been complemented by outright antagonism to genetically engineered crops from anti-technology, anti-business NGOs, and some governments, which has caused farmers to become concerned about the acceptability of such crops to importers of seeds and other agricultural products. This is part of the ripple effect of flawed, discriminatory regulation.

Finally, the United Nations' brokering of an international agreement on "Liability and Redress" in the event of damages, real or imaginary, from the use of genetically engineered crops is yet another drag on investment in and the use of these products.

What are the implications of this profound and costly policy failure?

Mixed, according to Juergen Voegele, director for agriculture and rural development at the World Bank: "Somewhat higher food prices are a good thing for overall global food production because they stimulate investments in the agricultural sector which are long overdue. Those investments need [to] be economically, socially and environmentally sustainable, everywhere, but particularly in poor countries because they are most vulnerable to climate change and social disruption."

That might be so, but the classic relationship between supply and demand is being distorted by public policy that discourages the private sector investment that would otherwise be stimulated by market forces.

Voegele goes on to observe that the inflation of food prices also has negative implications: "Somewhat higher food prices are a bad thing for the poor because they cannot afford a healthy diet in the first place and are forced to make further cuts on education and health spending if their food bill goes up. We already have close to one billion people go[ing] hungry today, not because there is not enough food in the world but because they cannot afford to buy it." And therein lies the real – and escalating – tragedy of our current, flawed regulatory excesses.

Voegele muses about whether we will be able to feed 9 billion people in 2050: "Without a doubt we can. But not by continuing business as usual. Or we will have 1.5 to 2 billion hungry people in the world by 2050. It will require very significant investments in agriculture R&D and in overall productivity increases."

But investment alone will not be enough: like trying to run a locomotive with the brakes on, it is wasteful – and ultimately futile – to focus on the "supply side" of research without considering the inhibitory effects of gatekeeper regulation; the regulatory barriers are, in fact, rate limiting. Greater global food security certainly cannot be accomplished without innovative technology. And that, in turn, cannot be developed in the face of unscientific, gratuitous and excessive regulatory barriers.

As Professor Strauss says, "Solving these problems will require new ways of thinking and strong scientific and political leadership to move us toward a regulatory system that enables, rather than arbitrarily blocks, the use of genetic engineering."

He is correct, but there is neither impetus nor momentum to move us in that direction, no hint of bureaucrats' willingness to correct past mistakes. Yet again, the poorest and most vulnerable and powerless among us will suffer most.

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