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Can Biotech Put Bread On Third World Tables?


Science & Technology

CAN BIOTECH PUT BREAD ON THIRD WORLD TABLES?

What distinguishes Florence M. Wambugu from the 950 other researchers at Monsanto Co.'s huge life-sciences technology campus west of St. Louis are the plants crowding the climate-controlled chamber in which she works. They aren't the genetically altered strains of corn, wheat, or cotton the chemical giant hopes will become blockbuster ag biotech products. Instead, the Kenyan virologist is probing the viral susceptibility of the sweet potato. It's a minor U.S. crop, "but in countries like Kenya, it's a staple or dietary supplement--a poor man's crop where up to 50% is lost to virus," says Wambugu. "When we use biotechnology on sweet potatoes, the improvement goes to poor people."

That's the promise and the curse of ag biotech as it applies to the Third World. Initially, advocates trumpeted biotech as a tool to fight hunger. But industrial countries do most research on their own lucrative cash crops. Staples of developing nations get scant attention, because they promise scant profit. Less than $275 million has been spent on these in the past decade. And most of it has come from public or philanthropic sources.

Now, headway is finally being made. Gene mapping is leading to better rice. And Western companies, including Monsanto, Britain's Imperial Chemical Industries, and New Jersey-based DNA Plant Technology, have started programs--funded in part by international aid agencies--to train scientists such as Wambugu in ag biotech.

FEW GLADIATORS. The need is clear. The developing world, now 70% of earth's population, will make up 90% in a generation. The World Bank says Third World food production must double in 25 years to keep pace, and Western hybrid crops and conventional farming probably can't do the job alone. Tapping biotech to increase yields or develop hardier crops could mean the difference between life or death in some poor nations by 2015.

Trouble is, most Third World nations have few biochemists and molecular biologists--the gladiators of crop engineering. Only 10 Third World nations have significant ag biotech programs. Industry won't fill the void. Most Third World countries can't afford to buy biotech products. And many don't give patent protection for Western gene discoveries or seed varieties.

That makes philanthropies and government bodies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) the purveyors of ag biotech. In the past decade, the World Bank and other public agencies have invested $180 million in the effort. And since 1985, the Rockefeller Foundation has added $50 million more. As a result, countries such as China and Thailand are making big gains in techniques needed to produce better rice strains. Biotech work on crops grown in Africa and other tropical countries is still paltry, however. "You could count the number of labs working on banana biotech on one hand," says Rockefeller Foundation Associate Director Gary Toenniessen.

There's also a lag in bringing research to market. To make that happen faster, AID has given contracts to the U.S. unit of Britain's ICI to develop insect-resistant corn for Indonesia and to DNA Plant Technology to train Costa Rican and Indonesian biotech companies in high-volume cloning of tropical crops. Both efforts include U.S. training for scientists from those countries. And the companies retain rights or royalties to any commercial products.

NO TIES. Wambugu's three-year stint at Monsanto, financed by the company and by AID, aims to prepare her to introduce viral resistance into African sweet potatoes later this decade. Monsanto, which is waiving any rights to sweet potatoes that arise from Wambugu's work, also expects her to help train other Kenyan researchers. "This means we're not just tied down to altering sweet potatoes," says Cyrus G. Ndiritu, director of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, Wambugu's employer.

Transferring technology is only part of the solution. Better farming and distribution methods--often lacking in African nations--are needed to boost production of food and get it to hungry people. "Biotech will be an important tool, but it won't end world hunger," cautions John H. Dodds, managing director of the Agricultural Biotechnology for Sustainable Productivity Project at Michigan State University.

Still, for Wambugu, any progress is welcome. "Real security isn't wealth," she says, "it's food. Biotechnology can give security to poor farmers." In the end, that may be ag biotech's most important payoff.James E. Ellis in St. Louis


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