Feed the World -- But How?
by Thomas M. Zinnen
"Remember, it's about food," noted Cyrus Ndiritu at
the conference entitled "Agricultural Biotechnology for a
Better World" held April 28-30, 1997 at the Asilomar Center
at Pacific Grove, California. Ndiritu, of the Kenya Agricultural
Research Institute, outlined his research strategy to approximately
150 participants from around the world.
The meeting brought together researchers, government officials,
and business people from around the world to address technical,
legal and social issues of biotechnology applied to agriculture.
The event was organized by Michigan State University and the
United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
The meeting place was apt. Asilomar was the site of the famous
1975 Asilomar Conference on safety and regulation of recombinant
DNA technologies discovered in the early 1970's by researchers
working 100 miles north in the San Francisco Bay Area. Issues
of safety, risk, costs, benefit and regulation raised 22 years
earlier are still being wrestled with today.
Global Issues Affecting Food Production.
Humans face the challenge of producing enough food to meet the
demands imposed by several biological and agricultural factors:
- Rising population.
- Rising income, and an expectation of a higher quality, more diverse diet.
- Decreasing amount of land available for food production.
- Decreasing the use of synthetic pesticides.
- Preserving biodiversity.
Capacity Building: Fish versus Fishing
What does it take for a developing nation to identify and solve
its own problems using primarily resources from its own people
and land? How can nations build their own modern biotechnology
community capable of education, training, research, development,
and application of biotechnology to increase and improve the food
These are some of the challenges of international "Technology
Transfer." Science and knowledge, like news, can spread
relatively fast to anywhere, by mail or phone or e-mail. But
skill, know-how and technology are slower to transfer. This takes
an exchange of ideas and an interchange among people and a commitment
of time and money and patience.
Many biosciences teachers in US high schools can understand the
challenge of establishing a biotechnology infrastructure. It's
one thing to teach about DNA. It's another thing to have year
after year the budget, the supplies, the equipment, and the access
to expertise and supplies needed to train students to work with
DNA and to explore the edge of molecular biology.
Scientists as Bureaucrats and Diplomats and Tacticians
Scientists organized this meeting, because scientists run the
organizations that sponsor the research featured at the meeting.
Yet many students in high school or college might not know that
people trained as scientists often end up serving as government
officials. Although trained as biological researchers, some develop
the skills needed to run a bureaucracy. They need the savvy of
the diplomat-- a combination of tact, respect and resolve.
Within their own national governments, these scientists/public
administrators compete for budgets and personnel and programs.
People in departments of agriculture negotiate with their colleagues
in the departments of environment over the national stances on
regulation, GATT (Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) or the
Between nations, these scientists/diplomats build partnerships
to use biotechnology as a way to improve agriculture, while respecting
cultural differences between the cooperating countries.
Asking and Giving
The great range in biotechnology capacity
among countries requires both tact and bluntness by the cooperating
countries. Like other people, scientists can't read each others'
minds. Kenya's Dr. Ndiritu emphasized that developing countries
need to be specific when asking for assistance, and that developed
countries need to be straightforward in providing the requested
assistance--and let the needs, not the technology, drive the
Agricultural Biotechnology as a Global Activity in the Classroom
Ask your students to examine a globe and compare it to a flat map of the world.
Which is the more accurate model of the world?
What criteria do the students use in comparing the globe to the map?
Globes give a more accurate image than flat maps of physical geography, the scale and location of lands and oceans.
Globes can also help illustrate differences in climates and carrying capacity of the land.
A globe showing national borders is a great tool for learning
international politics. Students can better understand the connections
between language, law, religion and regulation as affected by
history, including colonization, and by current trading patterns,
including the size, scope and value of international trade.
Globes are a way to locate where crops originated, and to trace
how humans have spread many crops around the world. Potato, tomato,
corn, pepper and squash have spread from the New World to the
whole world. Oil palm in the past century was introduced to Malaysia
from west Africa and South America. Wheat and barley from the
eastern Mediterranean grow around the world. These origins and
past migrations still influence how food is grown, and how new
cultivated varieties are developed.
The center of diversity of a crop is also considered its "ancestral
homeland," the place biologists believe the crop originated.
Can your students locate the ancestral homes of such key crops
At this conference, a key issue included the risks and benefits
of planting transgenic crops in the center of diversity of that
crop. An example would be planting transgenic potatoes in Peru
or transgenic corn in Mexico.
What risks and benefits do your students identify?
The concern is whether transgenic crops significantly threaten
landraces of the crop or plants such as teosinte that are wild
ancestors of a crop. For example, what is the likely damage if
the "transgene" transfers by pollen to native "landraces"
of the crop or to a wild ancestor? Would the landraces of the
crop become weedy, or weak, or less valuable as a crop to the
local farmers? Alternatively, would farmers choose to use the
new transgenic varieties, and stop planting seeds of the traditional
landraces that have been bred for generations?