Jim Martin-Schramm, an Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, wrote a fully inclusive investigation of the role that genetically engineered crops may or may not play in Sub-Saharan Africa that may easily be extrapolated into the role of biotechnology in other situations. I’ve read a lot of articles and case studies that tried to summarize the GMO debate but none have come close to this one, particularly when it comes to neutrality and allowing readers to make conclusions on their own. The document is written as a case study, which seems to be is a really effective way to get the information across. While it is from December 2003, little if anything has changed.
I urge everyone who has ever had a question about the risks, benefits, ethics, or science of GMOs to read this. As always, I welcome readers to comment on the subject at hand so that all participants may better understand the issues. The author thoughtfully included paragraph numbers which leads to easy discussion. So, if you want to discuss a particular section, simply indicate the paragraph number in your comment. You may find the full text at the Journal of Lutheran Ethics. I’ve also pasted the full text after the cut just in case it ever becomes unavailable from the original site, because I feel that loss of the article from the public domain would be a terrible shame. I’ve placed this post in the “guest post” category to indicate that the work is not mine. However – if you are the author, copyright holder, or publisher and find my reposting of the article inappropriate, please let me know and I will take it down immediately.
Harvesting Controversy: Genetic Engineering and Food Security in Sub-Saharan Africa
by Jim Martin-Schramm
Case “It’s been quite a year,” thought Tom Moline.” On top of their normal efforts at hunger advocacy and education on campus, the twenty students in the Hunger Concerns group were spending the entire academic year conducting an extensive study of hunger in sub-Saharan Africa. Tom’s girlfriend, Karen Lindstrom, had proposed the idea after she returned from a semester-abroad program in Tanzania last spring. With tears of joy and sorrow, she had described for the group the beauty and suffering of the people and land. Wracked by AIDS, drought, and political unrest, the nations in the region are also fighting a losing war against hunger and malnutrition. While modest gains have been made for the more than 800 million people in the world that are chronically malnourished, sub-Saharan Africa is the only region in the world where the number of hungry people is actually increasing. It was not hard for Karen to persuade the group to focus attention on this problem and so they decided to devote one of their two meetings per month to this study. In the fall, Karen and Tom led three meetings examining root causes of hunger in various forms of powerlessness wrought by poverty, war, and drought.  What Tom had not expected was the special attention the group would give to the potential which biotechnology poses for improving food security in the region. This came about for two reasons. One was the participation of Adam Paulsen in the group. Majoring in economics and management, Adam had spent last summer as an intern in the Technology Cooperation Division of Monsanto. Recognized, and often vilified, as a global leader in the field of agricultural biotechnology, Monsanto has also been quietly working with agricultural researchers around the world to genetically modify crops that are important for subsistence farmers. For example, Monsanto researchers have collaborated with governmental and non-governmental research organizations to develop virus-resistant potatoes in Mexico, “golden mustard” rich in beta-carotene in India, and virus-resistant papaya in Southeast Asia.  In December, Adam gave a presentation to the group that focused on the role Monsanto has played in developing virus-resistant sweet potatoes for Kenya. Sweet potatoes are grown widely in Kenya and other developing nations because they are nutritious and can be stored beneath the ground until they need to be harvested. The problem, however, is that pests and diseases can reduce yields by up to 80 percent. Following extensive research and development that began in 1991, the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) began field tests of genetically modified sweet potatoes in 2001. Adam concluded his presentation by emphasizing what an important impact this genetically modified (GM) crop could have on food security for subsistence farmers. Even if losses were only cut in half, that would still represent a huge increase in food for people who are too poor to buy the food they need.  The second reason the group wound up learning more about the potential biotechnology poses for increasing food production in Kenya was because a new member joined the group. Josephine Omondi, a first-year international student, had read an announcement about Adam’s presentation in the campus newsletter and knew right away that she had to attend. She was, after all, a daughter of one of the scientists engaged in biotechnology research at the KARI laboratories in Nairobi. Struggling with homesickness, Josephine was eager to be among people that cared about her country. She was also impressed with the accuracy of Adam’s presentation and struck up an immediate friendship with him when they discovered they both knew Florence Wambugu, the Kenyan researcher that had initiated the sweet potato project and had worked in Monsanto’s labs in St. Louis.  Naturally, Josephine had much to offer the group. A month after Adam’s presentation, she provided a summary of other biotechnology projects in Kenya. In one case, tissue culture techniques are being employed to develop banana varieties free of viruses and other diseases that plague small and large-scale banana plantations. In another case, cloning techniques are being utilized to produce more hearty and productive chrysanthemum varieties, a plant that harbors a chemical, pyrethrum, that functions as a natural insecticide. Kenya grows nearly half the global supply of pyrethrum, which is converted elsewhere into environmentally-friendly mosquito repellants and insecticides.1  Josephine reserved the majority of her remarks, however, for two projects that involve the development of herbicide- and insect-resistant varieties of maize (corn). Every year stem-boring insects and a weed named Striga decimate up to 60 percent of Kenya’s maize harvest.2 Nearly 50 percent of the food Kenyans consume is maize, but maize production is falling. While the population of East Africa grew by 20 percent from 1989 to 1998, maize harvests actually declined during this period.3 Josephine stressed that this is one of the main reasons the number of hungry people is increasing in her country. As a result, Kenyan researchers are working in partnership with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) to develop corn varieties that can resist Striga and combat stem-borers. With pride, Josephine told the group that both projects are showing signs of success. In January 2002, KARI scientists announced they had developed maize varieties from a mutant that is naturally resistant to a herbicide which is highly effective against Striga. In a cost-effective process, farmers would recoverthe small cost of seeds coated with the herbicide through yield increases of up to 400 percent.4  On the other front, Josephine announced that significant progress was also being made between CIMMYT and KARI in efforts to genetically engineer “Bt” varieties of Kenyan maize that would incorporate the gene that produces Bacillus thuringiensis, a natural insecticide that is used widely by organic farmers. Josephine concluded her remarks by saying how proud she was of her father and the fact that poor subsistence farmers in Kenya are starting to benefit from the fruits of biotechnology, long enjoyed only by farmers in wealthy nations.  A few days after Josephine’s presentation, two members of the Hunger Concerns group asked if they could meet with Tom since he was serving as the group’s coordinator. As an environmental studies major, Kelly Ernst is an ardent advocate of organic farming and a strident critic of industrial approaches to agriculture. As much as she respected Josephine, she expressed to Tom her deep concerns that Kenya was embarking on a path that was unwise ecologically and economically. She wanted to have a chance to tell the group about the ways organic farming methods can combat the challenges posed by stem-borers and Striga.  Similarly, Terra Fielding thought it was important that the Hunger Concerns group be made aware of the biosafety and human health risks associated with genetically modified (GM) crops. Like Terra, Tom was also a biology major so he understood her concerns about the inadvertent creation of herbicide-resistant “superweeds” and the likelihood that insects would eventually develop resistance to Bt through prolonged exposure. He also understood Terra’s concern that it would be nearly impossible to label GM crops produced in Kenya since most food goes directly from the field to the table. As a result, few Kenyans would be able to make an informed decision about whether or not to eat genetically-engineered foods. Convinced that both sets of concerns were significant, Tom invited Kelly and Terra to give presentations in February and March.  The wheels came off during the meeting in April, however. At the end of a discussion Tom was facilitating about how the group might share with the rest of the college what they had learned about hunger in sub-Saharan Africa, Kelly Ernst brought a different matter to the attention of the group: a plea to join an international campaign by Greenpeace to ban GM crops. In the murmurs of assent and disapproval that followed, Kelly pressed ahead. She explained that she had learned about the campaign through her participation in the Environmental Concerns group on campus. They had decided to sign on to the campaign and were now actively encouraging other groups on campus to join the cause as well. Reiterating her respect for Josephine and the work of her father in Kenya, Kelly nevertheless stressed that Kenya could achieve its food security through organic farming techniques rather than the “magic bullet” of GM crops, which she argued pose huge risks to the well-being of the planet as well as the welfare of Kenyans.  Before Tom could open his mouth, Josephine offered a counter proposal. Angry yet composed, she said she fully expected the group to vote down Kelly’s proposal, but that she would not be satisfied with that alone. Instead, she suggested that a fitting conclusion to their study this year would be for the group to submit an article for the college newspaper explaining the benefits that responsible use of agricultural biotechnology poses for achieving food security in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in Kenya.  A veritable riot of discussion ensued among the twenty students. The group appeared to be evenly divided over the two proposals. Since the meeting had already run well past its normal ending time, Tom suggested that they think about both proposals and then come to the next meeting prepared to make a decision. Everybody seemed grateful for the chance to think about it for a while, especially Tom and Karen.
II Three days later, an intense conversation was taking place at a corner table after dinner in the cafeteria.  “Come on, Adam. You’re the one that told us people are hungry because they are too poor to buy the food they need,” said Kelly. “I can tell you right now that there is plenty of food in the world; we just need to distribute it better. If we quit feeding 60 percent of our grain in this country to animals, there would be plenty of food for everyone.”  “That may be true, Kelly, but we don’t live in some ideal world where we can wave a magic wand and make food land on the tables of people in Africa. A decent food distribution infrastructure doesn’t exist within most of the countries. Moreover, most people in sub-Saharan Africa are so poor they couldn’t afford to buy our grain. And even if we just gave it away, all we would do is impoverish local farmers in Africa because there is no way they could compete with our free food. Until these countries get on their feet and can trade in the global marketplace, the best thing we can do for their economic development is to promote agricultural production in their countries. Genetically modified crops are just one part of a mix of strategies that Kenyans are adopting to increase food supplies. They have to be able to feed themselves.”  “Yes, Africans need to feed themselves,” said Kelly, “but I just don’t think that they need to follow our high-tech approach to agriculture. Look at what industrial agriculture has done to our own country. We’re still losing topsoil faster than we can replenish it. Pesticides and fertilizers are still fouling our streams and groundwater. Massive monocultures only make crops more susceptible to plant diseases and pests. At the same time, these monocultures are destroying biodiversity. Our industrial approach to agriculture is living off of biological capital that we are not replacing. Our system of agriculture is not sustainable. Why in God’s name would we want to see others appropriate it?”  “But that’s not what we’re talking about,” Adam replied. “The vast majority of farmers in the region are farming a one hectare plot of land that amounts to less than 2.5 acres. They’re not buying tractors. They’re not using fertilizer. They’re not buying herbicides. They can’t afford those things. Instead, women and children spend most of their days weeding between rows, picking bugs off of plants, or hauling precious water. The cheapest and most important technology they can afford is improved seed that can survive in poor soils and resist weeds and pests. You heard Josephine’s report. Think of the positive impact that all of those projects are going to have for poor farmers in Kenya.”  Kelly shook her head. “Come on, Adam. Farmers have been fighting with the weather, poor soils, and pests forever. How do you think we survived without modern farming methods? It can be done. We know how to protect soil fertility through crop rotations and letting ground rest for a fallow period. We also know how to intercrop in ways that cut down on plant diseases and pests. I can show you a great article in WorldWatch magazine that demonstrates how organic farmers in Kenya are defeating stem-borers and combating Striga. In many cases they have cut crop losses down to 5 percent. All without genetic engineering and all the dangers that come with it.”  Finally Karen broke in. “But if that knowledge is so wide-spread, why are there so many hungry people in Kenya? I’ve been to the region. Most farmers I saw already practice some form of intercropping, but they can’t afford to let their land rest for a fallow period because there are too many mouths to feed. They’re caught in a vicious downward spiral. Until their yields improve, the soils will continue to become more degraded and less fertile.”  Adam and Kelly both nodded their heads, but for different reasons. The conversation seemed to end where it began; with more disagreement than agreement.
III Later that night, Tom was in the library talking with Terra about their Entomology exam the next day. It didn’t take long for Terra to make the connections between the material they were studying and her concerns about Bt crops in Kenya. “Tom, we both know what has happened with chemical insecticide applications. After a period of time, the few insects that have an ability to resist the insecticide survive and reproduce. Then you wind up with an insecticide that is no longer effective against pests that are resistant to it. Bt crops present an even more likely scenario for eventual resistance because the insecticide is not sprayed on the crop every now and then. Instead, Bt is manufactured in every cell of the plant and is constantly present, which means pests are constantly exposed. While this will have a devastating effect on those insects that don’t have a natural resistance to Bt, eventually those that do will reproduce and a new class of Bt-resistant insects will return to munch away on the crop. This would be devastating for organic farmers because Bt is one of the few natural insecticides they can use and still claim to be organic.”  “I hear you, Terra. But I know that Bt farmers in the U.S. are instructed by the seed distributors to plant refuges around their Bt crops so that some pests will not be exposed to Bt and will breed with the others that are exposed, thus compromising the genetic advantage that others may have.”  “That’s true, Tom, but it’s my understanding that farmers are not planting big enough refuges. The stuff I’ve read suggests that if you’re planting 100 acres in soybeans, 30 acres should be left in non-Bt soybeans. But it doesn’t appear that farmers are doing that. And that’s here in the States. How reasonable is it to expect a poor, uneducated farmer in East Africa to understand the need for a refuge and also to resist the temptation to plant all of the land in Bt corn in order to raise the yield?”  As fate would have it, Josephine happened to walk by just as Terra was posing her question to Tom. In response, she fired off several questions of her own. “Are you suggesting Kenyan farmers are less intelligent than U.S. farmers, Terra? Do you think we cannot teach our farmers how to use these new gifts in a wise way? Haven’t farmers in this country learned from mistakes they have made? Is it not possible that we too can learn from any mistakes we make?”  “Josephine, those are good questions. It’s just that we’re talking about two very different agricultural situations. Here you have less than two million farmers feeding 280 million people. With a high literacy rate, a huge agricultural extension system, e-mail, and computers, it is relatively easy to provide farmers with the information they need. But you said during your presentation that 70 percent of Kenya’s 30 million people are engaged in farming. Do you really think you can teach all of those people how to properly utilize Bt crops?”  “First of all, U.S. farmers do not provide all of the food in this country. Where do you think our morning coffee and bananas come from? Rich nations import food every day from developing nations, which have to raise cash crops in order to import other things they need in order to develop, or to pay debts to rich nations. You speak in sweeping generalizations. Obviously not every farmer in Kenya will start planting Bt corn tomorrow. Obviously my government will recognize the need to educate farmers about the misuse of Bt and equip them to do so. We care about the environment and have good policies in place to protect it. We are not fools, Terra. We are concerned about the biosafety of Kenya.”  Trying to take some of the heat off of Terra, Tom asked a question he knew she wanted to ask. “What about the dangers to human health, Josephine? The Europeans are so concerned they have established a moratorium on all new patents of genetically-engineered foods and have introduced GM labeling requirements. While we haven’t done that here in the U.S., many are concerned about severe allergic reactions that could be caused by foods made from GM crops. Plus, we just don’t know what will happen over the long term as these genes interact or mutate. Isn’t it wise to be more cautious and go slowly?”  There was nothing slow about Josephine’s reply. “Tom, we are concerned about the health and well-being of our people. But there is one thing that you people don’t understand. We view risks related to agricultural biotechnology differently. It is reasonable to be concerned about the possible allergenicity of GM crops, and we test for these, but we are not faced primarily with concerns about allergic reactions in Kenya. We are faced with declining food supplies and growing numbers of hungry people. As Terra said, our situations are different. As a result, we view the possible risks and benefits differently. The people of Kenya should be able to decide these matters for themselves. We are tired of other people deciding what is best for us. The colonial era is over. You people need to get used to it.”  With that, Josephine left as suddenly as she had arrived. Worn out and reflective, both Tom and Terra decided to return to studying for their exam the next day.
IV On Friday night, Karen and Tom got together for their weekly date. They decided to have dinner at a local restaurant that had fairly private booths. After Karen’s semester in Tanzania last spring, they had learned to cherish the time they spent together. Eventually they started talking about the decision the Hunger Concerns group would have to make next week. After Karen summarized her conversation with Kelly and Adam, Tom described the exchange he and Terra had with Josephine.  Karen said, “You know, I realize that these environmental and health issues are important, but I’m surprised that no one else seems willing to step back and ask whether anyone should be doing genetic engineering in the first place. Who are we to mess with God’s creation? What makes us think we can improve on what God has made?”  “But Karen,” Tom replied, “human beings have been mixing genes ever since we figured out how to breed animals or graft branches onto apple trees. We didn’t know we were engaged in genetic manipulation, but now we know more about the science of genetics, and that has led to these new technologies. One of the reasons we can support six billion people on this planet is because scientists during the Green Revolution used their God-given intelligence to develop hybrid stocks of rice, corn, and other cereal crops that boosted yields significantly. They achieved most of their success by cross-breeding plants, but that takes a long time and it is a fairly inexact process. Various biotechnologies including genetic engineering make it possible for us to reduce the time it takes to develop new varieties, and they also enable us to transfer only the genes we want into the host species. The first Green Revolution passed by Africa, but this second biotechnology revolution could pay huge dividends for countries in Africa.”  “I understand all of that, Tom. I guess what worries me is that all of this high science will perpetuate the myth that we are masters of the universe with some God-given mandate to transform nature in our image. We have got to quit viewing nature as a machine that we can take apart and put back together. Nature is more than the sum of its parts. This mechanistic mindset has left us with all sorts of major ecological problems. The only reason hybrid seeds produced so much food during the Green Revolution is because we poured tons of fertilizer on them and kept them alive with irrigation water. And what was the result? We produced lots of grain but also huge amounts of water pollution and waterlogged soils. We have more imagination than foresight. And so we wind up developing another technological fix to get us out of the problem our last technological innovation produced. Instead, we need to figure out how to live in harmony with nature. Rather than be independent, we need to realize our ecological interdependence. We are made from the dust of the universe and to the dust of the earth we will return.”  “Huh, I wonder if anyone would recognize you as a religion major, Karen? I agree that our scientific and technological abilities have outpaced our wisdom in their use, but does that mean we can’t learn from our mistakes? Ultimately, aren’t technologies just means that we put to the service of the ends we want to pursue? Why can’t we use genetic engineering to end hunger? Why would God give us the brains to map and manipulate genomes if God didn’t think we could use that knowledge to better care for creation? Scientists are already developing the next wave of products that will give us inexpensive ways to vaccinate people in developing nations from debilitating diseases with foods like bananas that carry the vaccine. We will also be able to make food more nutritious for those that get precious little. Aren’t those good things, Karen?”  Karen, a bit defensive and edging toward the other side of the horseshoe-shaped booth, said, “Look Tom, the way we live is just not sustainable. It scares me to see people in China, and Mexico, and Kenya all following us down the same unsustainable road. There has got to be a better way. Kelly is right. Human beings lived more sustainably in the past than we do now. We need to learn from indigenous peoples how to live in harmony with the earth. But instead, we seem to be tempting them to adopt our expensive and inappropriate technologies. It just doesn’t seem right to encourage developing nations like Kenya to make huge investments in biotechnology when less expensive solutions might better address their needs. I really do have my doubts about the ability to teach farmers how to use these new seeds wisely. I’ve been there, Tom. Farmers trade seeds freely and will always follow a strategy that will produce the most food in the short-term because people are hungry now. Eventually, whatever gains are achieved by biotechnology will be lost as weeds and insects become resistant or the soils just give out entirely from overuse. But I am really struggling with this vote next week because I also know that we should not be making decisions for other people. They should be making decisions for themselves. Josephine is my friend. I don’t want to insult her. But I really do think Kenya is heading down the wrong road.”  “So how are you going to vote next week, Karen?”  “I don’t know, Tom. Maybe I just won’t show up. How are you going to vote?”
Commentary This commentary offers background information on global food security, agricultural biotechnology, and genetically modified organisms before it turns to general concerns about genetically modified crops and specific ethical questions raised by the case.
Food Security The nations of the world made significant gains in social development during the latter half of the 20th century. Since 1960, life expectancy has risen by one third in developing nations, child mortality has been cut in half, the percentage of people who have access to clean water has more than doubled, and the total enrollment in primary schools has increased by nearly two- thirds. Similar progress has been made in achieving a greater measure of food security. Even though the world’s population has more than doubled since 1960, food production grew at a slightly faster rate so that today per capita food availability is up 24 percent. More importantly, the proportion of people who suffer from food insecurity has been cut in half from 37 percent in 1969 to 18 percent in 1995.5  According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, the world currently produces enough food to meet the basic needs for each of the planet’s six billion people. Nevertheless, more than 800 million people suffer from food insecurity. For various reasons, one out of every eight human beings on the planet cannot produce or purchase the food they need to lead healthy, productive lives. One out of every three preschool-age children in developing nations is either malnourished or severely underweight.6 Of these, 14 million children become blind each year due to Vitamin A deficiency. Every day, 40,000 people die of illnesses related to their poor diets.7  Food security is particularly dire in sub-Saharan Africa. It is the only region in the world where hunger has been increasing rather than decreasing. Since 1970, the number ofmalnourished people has increased as the amount of food produced per person has declined.8 According to the United Nations Development Programme, half of the 673 million people living in sub-Saharan Africa at the beginning of the 21st century are living in absolute poverty on less than $1 a day.9 Not surprisingly, one third of the people are undernourished. In the eastern portion of this region, nearly half of the children suffer from stunted growth as a result of their inadequate diets, and that percentage is increasing.10 In Kenya, 23 percent of children under the age of five suffer from malnutrition.11  Several factors contribute to food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa. Drought, inadequate water supplies, and crop losses to pests and disease have devastating impacts on the amount of food that is available. Less obvious factors, however, often have a greater impact on food supply. Too frequently, governments in the region spend valuable resources on weapons, which are then used in civil or regional conflicts that displace people and reduce food production. In addition, many governments—hamstrung by international debt obligations—have pursued economic development strategies that bypass subsistence farmers and focus on the production of cash crops for export. As a result, a few countries produce significant amounts of food, but it is shipped to wealthier nations and is not available for local consumption. Storage and transportation limitations also result in inefficient distribution of surpluses when they are produced within nations in the region.12  Poverty is another significant factor. Globally, the gap between the rich and the poor is enormous. For example, the $1,010 average annual purchasing power of a Kenyan pales in comparison with the $31,910 available to a citizen of the United States.13 Poor people in developing nations typically spend 50-80 percent of their incomes for food, in comparison to the 10-15 percent that people spend in the United States or the European Union.14 Thus, while food may be available for purchase, fluctuating market conditions often drive prices up to unaffordable levels. In addition, poverty limits the amount of resources a farmer can purchase to “improve” his or her land and increase yields. Instead, soils are worked without rest in order to produce food for people who already have too little to eat.  One way to deal with diminished food supplies or high prices is through the ability to grow your own food. Over 70 percent of the people living in sub-Saharan Africa are subsistence farmers, but the amount of land available per person has been declining over the last thirty years. While the concentration of land in the hands of a few for export cropping plays an important role in this problem, the primary problem is population growth in the region. As population has grown, less arable land and food is available per person. In 1970, Asia, Latin America, and Africa all had similar population growth rates. Since then Asia has cut its rate of growth by 25 percent, and Latin America has cut its rate by 20 percent.15 In contrast, sub-Saharan Africa still has a very high population growth rate, a high fertility rate, and an age structure where 44 percent of its population is under the age of fifteen. As a result, the United Nations projects that the region’s population will more than double by 2050, even after taking into account the devastating impact that AIDS will continue to have on many countries.16  Local food production will need to increase substantially in the next few decades in order to meet the 133 percent projected growth of the population in sub-Saharan Africa. Currently, food aid donations from donor countries only represent 1.1 percent of the food supply. The region produces 83 percent of its own food and imports the rest.17 Given the limited financial resources of these nations, increasing imports is not a viable strategy for the future. Instead, greater efforts must be made to stimulate agricultural production within the region, particularly among subsistence farmers. Unlike Asia, however, increased production will not likely be achieved through the irrigation of fields and the application of fertilizer. Most farmers in the region are simply too poor to afford these expensive inputs. Instead, the main effort has been to improve the least expensive input: seeds.  A great deal of public and private research is focused on developing new crop varieties that are resistant to drought, pests, and disease and are also hearty enough to thrive in poor soils.18 While the vast majority of this research utilizes traditional plant-breeding methods, nations like Kenya and South Africa are actively researching ways that the appropriate use of biotechnology can also increase agricultural yields. These nations, and a growing list of others, agree with a recent statement by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization:  Biotechnology provides powerful tools for the sustainable development of agriculture, fisheries and forestry, as well as the food industry. When appropriately integrated with other technologies for the production of food, agricultural products and services, biotechnology can be of significant ass
istance in meeting the needs of an expanding and increasingly urbanized population in the next millennium…. It [genetic engineering] could lead to higher yields on marginal lands in countries that today cannot grow enough food to feed their people. 19
Agricultural Biotechnology The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) defines biotechnology as “any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use.”20 The modification of living organisms is not an entirely new development, however. Human beings have been grafting branches onto fruit trees and breeding animals for desired traits since the advent of agriculture 10,000 years ago. Recent advances in the fields of molecular biology and genetics, however, considerably magnify the power of human beings to understand and transform living organisms.  The cells of every living thing contain genes that determine the function and appearance of the organism. Each cell contains thousands of genes. Remarkably, there is very little difference in the estimated number of genes in plant cells (26,000) and human cells (30,000). Within each cell, clusters of these genes are grouped together in long chains called chromosomes. Working in isolation or in combination, these genes and chromosomes determine the appearance, composition, and functions of an organism. The complete list of genes and chromosomes in a particular species is called the genome.21  Like their predecessors, plant breeders and other agricultural scientists are making use of this rapidly growing body of knowledge to manipulate the genetic composition of crops and livestock, albeit with unprecedented powers. Since the case focuses only on genetically modified crops, this commentary will examine briefly the use in Africa of the five most common applications of biotechnology to plant breeding through the use of tissue culture, marker-assisted selection, genetic engineering, genomics, and bioinformatics.22  Tissue culture techniques enable researchers to develop whole plants from a single cell, or a small cluster of cells. After scientists isolate the cell of a plant that is disease-free or particularly hearty, they then use cloning techniques to produce large numbers of these plants in vitro, in a petri dish. When the plants reach sufficient maturity in the laboratory, they are transplanted into agricultural settings where farmers can enjoy the benefits of crops that are more hearty or disease-free. In the case, Josephine describes accurately Kenyan successes in this area with regard to bananas and the plants that produce pyrethrum. This attempt to micro-propagate crops via tissue cultures constitutes approximately 52 percent of the activities in the 37 African countries engaged in various forms of biotechnology research.23  Marker-assisted selection techniques enable researchers to identify desirable genes in a plant’s genome. The identification and tracking of these genes speeds up the process of conventional cross-breeding and reduces the number of unwanted genes that are transferred. The effort to develop insect-resistant maize in Kenya uses this technology to identify local varieties of maize that have greater measures of natural resistance to insects and disease. South Africa, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, and Côte d’Ivoire are all building laboratories to conduct this form of research. 24  Genetic engineering involves the direct transfer of genetic material between organisms. Whereas conventional crossbreeding transfers genetic material in a more indirect and less efficient manner through the traditional propagation of plants, genetic engineering enables researchers to transfer specific genes directly into the genome of a plant in vitro. Originally, scientists used “gene guns” to shoot genetic material into cells. Increasingly, researchers are using a naturally occurring plant pathogen, Agrobacterium tumefaciens, to transfer genes more successfully and selectively into cells. Eventually, Josephine’s father intends to make use of this technology to “engineer” local varieties of maize that will include a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a naturally occurring bacterium that interferes with the digestive systems of insects that chew or burrow into plants. Recent reports from South Africa indicate thatsmallholder farmers who have planted a Bt variety of cotton have experienced “great success.”25  Genomics is the study of how all the genes in an organism work individually or together to express various traits. The interaction of multiple genes is highly complex and studies aimed at discerning these relationships require significant computing power. Bioinformatics moves this research a step further by taking this genomic information and exploring the ways it may be relevant to understanding the gene content and gene order of similar organisms. For example, researchers recently announced that they had successfully mapped the genomes of two different rice varieties.26 This information will likely produce improvements in rice yields, but researchers drawing on the new discipline of bioinformatics will also explore similarities between rice and other cereal crops that have not yet been mapped. Nations like Kenya, however, have not yet engaged in these two forms of biotechnology research because of the high cost associated with the required computing capacity.
Genetically Modified Organisms in Agriculture
 In 1994, Calgene introduced the Flavr-Savr tomato. It was the first commercially produced, genetically modified food product. Engineered to stay on the vine longer, develop more flavor, and last longer on grocery shelves, consumers rejected the product not primarily because it was genetically modified, but rather because it was too expensive and did not taste any better than ordinary tomatoes.28
 By 1996, the first generation of genetically modified (GM) crops was approved for planting in six countries. These crops included varieties of corn, soybeans, cotton, and canola that had been engineered to resist pests or to tolerate some herbicides. Virus resistance was also incorporated into some tomato, potato, and tobacco varieties.
 Farmers in the United States quickly embraced these genetically modified varieties because they reduced the cost of pesticide and herbicide applications, and in some cases also increased yields substantially. In 1996, 3.6 million acres were planted in GM crops. By 2000 that number had grown to 75 million acres and constituted 69 percent of the world’s production of GM crops.29 According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2002 spring survey, 74 percent of the nation’s soybeans, 71 percent of cotton, and 32 percent of the corn crop were planted in genetically engineered varieties, an increase of approximately 5 percent over 2001 levels.30
 Among other developed nations, Canada produced 7 percent of the world’s GM crops in 2000, though Australia, France, and Spain also had plantings.31 In developing nations, crop area planted in GM varieties grew by over 50 percent between 1999 and 2000.32 Argentina produced 23 percent of the global total in 2000, along with China, South Africa, Mexico, and Uruguay.33
 In Kenya, no GM crops have been approved for commercial planting, though the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) received government permission in 2001 to field test genetically modified sweet potatoes that had been developed in cooperation with Monsanto.34 In addition, funding from the Novartis Foundation for Sustainable Development is supporting research KARI is conducting in partnership with the International Maize and Wheat and Improvement Center (CIMYYT) to develop disease and insect-resistant varieties of maize, including Bt maize.35 A similar funding relationship with the Rockefeller Foundation is supporting research to develop varieties of maize from a mutant type that is naturally resistant to a herbicide thatis highly effective against Striga, a weed that devastates much of Kenya’s maize crop each year.36 Striga infests approximately 2040 million hectares of farmlandin sub-Saharan Africa and reduces yields for an estimated 100 million farmers by 20-80 percent.37
 The first genetically modified organisms were developed for industry and medicine, not agriculture. In 1972, a researcher working for General Electric engineered a microbe that fed upon spilled crude oil, transforming the oil into a more benign substance. When a patent was applied for the organism, the case made its way ultimately to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1980 ruled that a patent could be awarded for the modification of a living organism. One year earlier, scientists had managed to splice the gene that produces human growth hormone into a bacterium, thus creating a new way to produce this vital hormone.27
General Concerns about Genetically Modified (GM) Crops The relatively sudden and significant growth of GM crops around the world has raised various social, economic, and environmental concerns. People in developed and developing countries are concerned about threats these crops may pose to human health and the environment. In addition, many fear that large agribusiness corporations will gain even greater financial control of agriculture and limit the options of small-scale farmers. Finally, some are also raising theological questions about the appropriateness of genetic engineering.  Food Safety and Human Health. Some critics of GM foods in the United States disagree with the government’s stance that genetically engineered food products are “substantially equivalent” to foods derived from conventional plant breeding. Whereas traditional plant breeders attempt to achieve expression of genetic material within a species, genetic engineering enables researchers to introduce genetic material from other species, families, or even kingdoms. Because researchers can move genes from one life form into any other, critics are concerned about creating novel organisms that have no evolutionary history. Their concern is that we do not know whatimpact these new products will have on human health because they have never existed before.38  Proponents of genetically engineered foods argue that genetic modification is much more precise and less random than the methods employed in traditional plant breeding. Whereas most genetically engineered foods have involved the transfer of one or two genes into the host, traditional crossbreeding results in the transfer of thousands of genes. Proponents also note that GM crops have not been proven to harm human health since they were approved for use in 1996. Because the United States does not require the labeling of genetically engineered foods, most consumers are not aware that more than half of the products on most grocery store shelves are made, at least in part, from products derived from GM crops. To date, no serious human health problems have been attributed to GM crops.39 Critics are not as sanguine about this brief track record and argue that it is not possible to know the health effects of GM crops because their related food products are not labeled.  The potential allergenicity of genetically modified foods is a concern that is shared by both critics and proponents of the technology. It is possible that new genetic material may carry with it substances that could trigger serious human allergic reactions. Proponents, however, are more confident than critics that these potential allergens can be identified in the testing process. As a case in point, they note that researchers working for Pioneer Seeds scuttled a project when they discovered that a genetically engineered varietyof soybeans carried the gene that produces severe allergic reactions associated with Brazil nuts.40 Critics, however, point to the StarLink corn controversy as evidence of how potentially dangerous products can easily slip into the human food supply. Federal officials had only allowed StarLink corn to be used as an animal feed because tests were inconclusive with regard to the dangers it posed for human consumption. In September 2000, however, StarLink corn was found first in a popular bran of taco shells and later in other consumer goods. These findings prompted several product recalls and cost Aventis, the producer of StarLink, over $1 billion.41  More recently the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration levied a $250,000 fine against ProdiGene Inc. for allowing genetically engineered corn to contaminate approximately 500,000 bushels of soybeans. ProdiGene had genetically engineered the corn to produce a protein that serves as a pig vaccine. When the test crop failed, ProdiGene plowed under the GM corn and planted food grade soybeans. When ProdiGene harvested the soybeans federal inspectors discovered that some of the genetically engineered corn had grown amidst the soybeans. Under federal law, genetically engineered substances that have not been approved for human consumption must be removed from the food chain. The $250,000 fine helped to reimburse the federal government for the cost of destroying the contaminated soybeans that were fortunately all contained in a storage facility in Nebraska. ProdiGenealso was required to post a $1 million bond in order to pay for any similar problems in the future.42  Another food safety issue involves the use of marker genes that are resistant to certain antibiotics. The concern is that these marker genes, which are transferred in almost all successful genetic engineering projects, may stimulate the appearance of bacteria resistant to common antibiotics.43 Proponents acknowledge that concerns exist and are working on ways to either remove the marker genes from the finished product, or to develop new and harmless markers. Proponents also acknowledge that it may be necessary to eliminate the first generation of antibiotic markers through regulation.44  Finally, critics also claim that genetic engineering may lower the nutritional quality of some foods. For example, one variety of GM soybeans has lowerlevels of isoflavones, which researchers think may protect women from some forms of cancer.45 Proponents of genetically modified foods, meanwhile, are busy trumpeting the “second wave” of GM crops that actually increase the nutritional value of various foods. For example, Swiss researchers working in collaboration with the Rockefeller Foundation, have produced “Golden Rice,” a genetically engineered rice that is rich in beta carotene and will help to combat Vitamin A deficiency in the developing world.  Biosafety and Environmental Harm. Moving from human health to environmental safety, many critics of GM crops believe that this use of agricultural biotechnology promotes an industrialized approach to agriculture that has produced significant ecological harm. Kelly summarizes these concerns well in the case. Crops that have been genetically engineered to be resistant to certain types of herbicide make it possible for farmers to continue to spray these chemicals on their fields. In addition, GM crops allow farmers to continue monocropping practices (planting huge tracts of land in one crop variety), which actually exacerbate pest and disease problems and diminish biodiversity. Just as widespread and excessive use of herbicides led to resistant insects, critics argue that insects eventually will become resistant to the second wave of herbicides in GM crops. They believe that farmers need to be turning to a more sustainable form of agriculture that utilizes fewer chemicals and incorporates strip and inter-cropping methodologies that diminish crop losses due to pests and disease.46  Proponents of GM crops are sympathetic to the monocropping critique and agree that farmers need to adopt more sustainable approaches to agriculture, but they argue that there is no reason why GM crops cannot be incorporated in other planting schemes. In addition, they suggest that biodiversity can be supported through GM crops that are developed from varieties that thrive in particular ecological niches. In contrast to the Green Revolution where hybrids were tak
en from one part of the world and planted in another, GM crops can be tailored to indigenous varieties that have other desirable properties. On the herbicide front, proponents argue that GM crops make it possible to use less toxic herbicides than before, thus lowering the risks to consumers. They also point to ecological benefits of the newest generation of herbicides which degrade quickly when exposed to sunlight and do not build up in groundwater.47 Critics, however, dispute these claims and point to evidence that herbicides are toxic tonon-target species, harm soil fertility, and also may have adverse effects on human health.48 Just as critics are convinced that insects will develop resistance to herbicides, so also are they certain that insects will develop resistance to Bt crops. Terra makes this point in the case. It is one thing to spray insecticides on crops at various times during the growing season; it is another thing for insects to be constantly exposed to Bt since it is expressed through every cell in the plant, every hour of the day. While the GM crop will have a devastating impact on most target insects, some will eventually survive with a resistance to Bt. Proponents acknowledge that this is a serious concern. As is the case with herbicides, however, there are different variants of Bt that may continue to be effective against partially resistant insects. In addition, proponents note that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency now requires farmers planting Bt crops to plant refuges of non-Bt crops so that exposed insects can mate with others that have not been exposed, thus reducing the growth of Bt-resistant insects. These refuges should equal 20 percent of the cropped area. Critics argue that this percentage is too low and that regulations do not sufficiently stipulate where these refuges should be in relation to Bt crops.49  Critics are also concerned about the impact Bt could have on non-target species like helpful insects, birds, and bees. In May 1999, researchers at Cornell University published a study suggesting that Bt pollen was leading to increased mortality among monarch butterflies. This research ignited a firestorm of controversy that prompted further studies by critics and proponents of GM crops. One of the complicating factors is that an uncommon variety of Bt corn was used in both the laboratory and field tests. Produced by Novartis, the pollen from this type was 40-50 times more potent than other Bt corn varieties, but it represented less than 2 percent of the Bt corn crop in 2000. When other factors were taken into account, proponents concluded that monarch butterflies have a much greater chance of being harmed through the application of conventional insecticides than they do through exposure to Bt corn pollen. Critics, however, point to other studies that indicate Bt can adversely harm beneficial insect predators and compromise soil fertility.50  Both critics and proponents are concerned about unintended gene flow between GM crops and related plants in the wild. In many cases it is possible for genes, including transplanted genes, to be spread through the normal cross-pollination of plants. Whether assisted by the wind or pollen-carrying insects, cross-fertilization could result in the creation of herbicide-resistant superweeds. Proponents of GM crops acknowledge that this could happen, but they note that the weed would only be resistant to one type of herbicide, not the many others that are available to farmers. As a result, they argue that herbicide-resistant superweeds could be controlled and eliminated over a period of time. Critics are also concerned, however, that undesired gene flow could “contaminate” the genetic integrity of organic crops or indigenous varieties. This would be devastating to organic farmers who trade on their guarantee to consumers that organic produce has not been genetically engineered. Proponents argue that this legitimate concern could be remedied with relatively simple regulations or guidelines governing the location of organic and genetically engineered crops. Similarly, they argue that care must be taken to avoid the spread of genes into unmodified varieties of the crop.51  Agribusiness and Economic Justice. Shifting to another arena of concern, many critics fear that GM crops will further expand the gap between the rich and the poor in both developed and developing countries. Clearly the first generation of GM crops has been profit-driven rather than need-based. Crops that are herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant have been developed for and marketed to relatively wealthy, large-scale, industrial farmers.52 To date, the benefits from these crops have largely accrued to these large producers and not to small subsistence farmers or even consumers. Proponents, however, argue that agricultural biotechnologies are scale-neutral. Because the technology is in the seed, expensive and time-consuming inputs are not required. As a result, small farmers can experience the same benefits as large farmers. In addition, proponents point to the emerging role public sector institutions are playing in bringing the benefits of agricultural biotechnology to developing countries. Partnerships like those described above between KARI, CIMMYT, and various governmental and non-governmental funding sources indicate that the next generation of GM crops should have more direct benefits for subsistence farmers and consumers in developing nations.  While these partnerships in the public sector are developing, there is no doubt that major biotech corporations like Monsanto have grown more powerful as a result of the consolidation that has taken place in the seed and chemical industries. For example, in 1998, Monsanto purchased DeKalb Genetics Corporation, the second largest seed corn company in the United States. One year later, Monsanto merged with Pharmacia & Upjohn, a major pharmaceutical conglomerate. A similar merger took place between Dow Chemical Corporation and Pioneer Seeds.53 The result of this consolidation is the vertical integration of the seed and chemical industries. Today, a company like Monsanto not only sells chemical herbicides; it also sells seed for crops that have been genetically engineered to be resistant to the herbicide. In addition, Monsanto requires farmers to sign a contract that prohibits them from cleaning and storing a portion of their GM crop to use as seed for the following year. All of these factors lead critics to fear that the only ones who will benefit from GM crops are rich corporations and wealthy farmers who can afford to pay these fees. Critics in developing nations are particularly concerned about the prohibition against keeping a portion of this year’s harvest as seed stock for the next. They see this as a means of making farmers in developing nations dependent upon expensive seed they need to purchase from powerful agribusiness corporations.54  Proponents acknowledge these concerns but claim that there is nothing about them that is unique to GM crops. Every form of technology has a price, and that cost will always be easier to bear if one has a greater measure of wealth. They note, however, that farmers throughout the United States have seen the financial wisdom in planting GM crops and they see no reason why farmers in developing nations would not reach the same conclusion if the circumstances warran
t. Proponents also note that subsistence farmers in developing nations will increasingly have access to free or inexpensive GM seed that has been produced through partnerships in the public sector. They also tend to shrug off the prohibition regarding seed storage because this practice has been largely abandoned in developed nations that grow primarily hybrid crop varieties. Harvested hybrid seed can be stored for later planting, but it is not as productive as the original seed that was purchased from a dealer. As farmers invest in mechanized agriculture, GM seed becomes just another cost variable that has to be considered in the business called agriculture. Critics, however, bemoan the loss of family farms that has followed the mechanization of agriculture. The seed storage issue reflects broader concerns about the ownership of genetic material. For example, some developing nations have accused major biotech corporations of committing genetic “piracy.” They claim that employees of these corporations have collected genetic material in these countries without permission and then have ferried them back to laboratories in the United States and Europe where they have been studied, genetically modified, and patented. In response to these and other concerns related to intellectual property rights, an international Convention on Biological Diversity was negotiated in 1992. The convention legally guarantees that all nations, including developing countries, have full legal control of “indigenous germplasm.”55 It also enables developing countries to seek remuneration for commercial products derived from the nation’s genetic resources. Proponents of GM crops affirm the legal protections that the convention affords developing nations and note that the development of GM crops has flourished in the United States because of the strong legal framework that protects intellectual property rights. At the same time, proponents acknowledge that the payment of royalties related to these rights or patents can drive up the cost of GM crops and thus slow down the speed by which this technology can come to the assistance of subsistence farmers.56  Theological Concerns. In addition to the economic and legal issues related to patenting genetic information and owning novel forms of life, some are also raising theological questions about genetic engineering. One set of concerns revolves around the commodification of life. Critics suggest that it is not appropriate for human beings to assert ownership over living organisms and the processes of life that God has created. This concern has reached a fever pitch in recent years during debates surrounding cloning research and the therapeutic potential of human stem cells derived from embryonic tissue. For many, the sanctity of human life is at stake. Fears abound that parents will seek to “design” their children through genetic modification, or that embryonic tissue will be used as a “factory” to produce “spare parts.”  While this debate has raged primarily in the field of medical research, some critics of GM crops offer similar arguments. In the case, Karen gives voice to one of these concerns when she suggests that we need to stop viewing nature as a machine that can be taken apart and reassembled in other ways. Ecofeminist philosophers and theologians argue that such a mechanistic mindset allows human beings to objectify and, therefore, dominate nature in the same way that women and slaves have been objectified and oppressed. Some proponents of genetic engineering acknowledge this danger but argue that the science and techniques of agricultural biotechnology can increase respect for nature rather than diminish it. As human beings learn more about the genetic foundations of life, it becomes clearer how all forms of life are interconnected. For proponents of GM crops, agricultural biotechnology is just a neutral means that can be put to the service of either good or ill ends. Critics, however, warn that those with power always use technologies to protect their privilege and increase their control.  Another set of theological concerns revolves around the argument that genetic engineering is “unnatural” because it transfers genetic material across species boundaries in ways that do not occur in nature. Researchers are revealing, however, that “lower” organisms like bacteria do not have the same genetic stability as “higher” organisms that have evolved very slowly over time. In bacteria, change often occurs by the spontaneous transfer of genes from one bacterium to another of a different species.57 Thus, specie boundaries may not be as fixed as has been previously thought. Another example can be found in the Pacific Yew tree that produces taxol, a chemical that is useful in fighting breast cancer. Recently, researchers discovered that a fungus that often grows on Yew trees also produces the chemical. Apparently the fungus gained this ability through a natural transfer of genes across species and even genera boundaries from the tree to the fungus.58  Appeals to “natural” foods also run into problems when closer scrutiny is brought to bear on the history of modern crops. For example, the vast majority of the grain that is harvested in the world is the product of modern hybrids. These hybrid crops consist of varieties that could not cross-breed without human assistance. In fact, traditional plant breeders have used a variety of high-tech means to develop these hybrids, including exposure to low-level radiation and various chemicals in order to generate desired mutations. After the desired traits are achieved, cloning techniques have been utilized to develop the plant material and to bring the new product to markets. None of this could have occurred “naturally,” if by that one means without human intervention, and yet the products of this work are growing in virtually every farm field. Given the long history of human intervention in nature via agriculture, it is hard to draw a clear line between what constitutes natural and unnatural food.59  This leads to a third, related area of theological concern: With what authority, and to what extent, should human beings intervene in the world that God has made? It is clear from Genesis 2 that Adam, the first human creature, is given the task of tending and keeping the Garden of Eden which God has created. In addition, Adam is allowed to name the animals that God has made. Does that mean that human beings should see their role primarily as passive stewards or caretakers of God’s creation? In Genesis 1, human beings are created in the image of God (imago dei) and are told to subdue the earth and have dominion over it. Does this mean that human beings, like God, are also creators of life and have been given the intelligence to use this gift wisely in the exercise of human dominion?  Answers to these two questions hinge on what it means to be created in the image of God. Some argue that human beings are substantially like God in the sense that we possess qualities we ascribe to the divine, like the capacity for rational thought, moral action, or creative activity. These distinctive features confer a greater degree of sanctity to human life and set us apart from other creatures—if not above them. Others argue that creation in the image of God has less to do with being substantially different from other forms of life, and more to do with the relationality of God to creation. In contrast to substantialist views which often set human beings above other
creatures, the relational conception of being created in the image of God seeks to set humanity in a proper relationship of service and devotion to other creatures and to God. Modeled after the patterns of relationship exemplified in Christ, human relationships to nature are to be characterized by sacrificial love and earthly service.60 It is not necessary to choose between one of these two conceptions of what it means to be created in the image of God, but it is important to see how they function in current debates surrounding genetic engineering. Proponents of genetic engineering draw on the substantialist conception when they describe the technology as simply an outgrowth of the capacities for intelligence and creativity with which God has endowed human beings. At the same time, critics draw upon the same substantialist tradition to protect the sanctity of human life from genetic manipulation. More attention, however, needs to be given to the relevance of the relational tradition to debates surrounding genetic engineering. Is it possible that human beings could wield this tool not as a means to garner wealth or wield power over others, but rather as a means to improve the lives of others? Is it possible to use genetic engineering to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and otherwise to redeem a broken world? Certainly many proponents of genetic engineering in the non-profit sector believe this very strongly.  Finally, another theological issue related to genetic engineering has to do with the ignorance of human beings as well as the power of sin and evil. Many critics of genetic engineering believe that all sorts of mischief and harm could result from the misuse of this new and powerful technology. In the medical arena, some forecast an inevitable slide down a slippery slope into a moral morass where human dignity is assaulted on all sides. In agriculture, many fear that human ignorance could produce catastrophic ecological problems as human beings design and release into the “wild” novel organisms that have no evolutionary history.  There is no doubt that human technological inventions have been used intentionally to perpetrate great evil in the world, particularly in the last century. It is also abundantly clear that human foresight has not anticipated enormous problems associated, for example, with the introduction of exotic species in foreign lands or the disposal of high-level nuclear waste. The question, however, is whether human beings can learn from these mistakes and organize their societies so that these dangers are lessened and problems are averted. Certainly most democratic societies have been able to regulate various technologies so that harm has been minimized and good has been produced. Is there reason to believe that the same cannot be done with regard to genetic engineering?
Specific Ethical Questions Beyond this review of general concerns about GM crops and genetic engineering are specific ethical questions raised by the case. These questions are organized around the four ecojustice norms that have been discussed in this volume.  Sufficiency. At the heart of this case is the growing problem of hunger in sub-Saharan Africa. It is clear that many people in this region simply do not have enough to eat. In the case, however, Kelly suggests that the world produces enough food to provide everyone with an adequate diet. Is she right?  As noted earlier, studies by the International Food Policy and Research Institute indicate that the world does produce enough food to provide everyone in the world with a modest diet. Moreover, the Institute projects that global food production should keep pace with population growth between 2000-2020. So, technically, Kelly is right. Currently, there is enough food for everyone—so long as people would be satisfied by a simple vegetarian diet with very little meat consumption. The reality, however, is that meat consumption is on the rise around the world, particularly among people in developing nations that have subsisted primarily on vegetarian diets that often lack protein.61 Thus, while it appears that a balanced vegetarian diet for all might be possible, and even desirable from a health standpoint, it is not a very realistic possibility. In addition, Adam raises a series of persuasive arguments that further challenge Kelly’s claim that food just needs to be distributed better. At a time when donor nations only supply 1.1 percent of the food in sub-Saharan Africa, it is very unrealistic to think that existing distribution systems could be “ramped up” to provide the region with the food it needs.  Does that mean, however, that GM crops represent a “magic bullet” when it comes to increasing food supplies in the region? Will GM crops end hunger in sub-Saharan Africa? It is important to note that neither Adam nor Josephine make this claim in the case; Kelly does. Instead, Adam argues that GM crops should be part of a “mix” of agricultural strategies that will be employed to increase food production and reduce hunger in the region. When stem-borers and Striga decimate up to 60 percent of the annual maize harvest, herbicide- and insect-resistant varieties could significantly increase the food supply. One of the problems not mentioned in the case, however, is that maize production is also very taxing on soils. This could be remedied, to some extent, by rotating maize with nitrogen-fixing, leguminous crops.  In the end, the primary drain on soil fertility is the heavy pressure which population growth puts on agricultural production. Until population growth declines to levels similar to those in Asia or Latin America, food insecurity will persist in sub-Saharan Africa. One of the keys to achieving this goal is reducing the rate of infant and child mortality. When so many children die in childhood due to poor diets, parents continue to have several children with the hope that some will survive to care for them in their old age. When more children survive childhood, fertility rates decline. Thus, one of the keys to reducing population growth is increasing food security for children. Other keys include reducing maternal mortality, increasing access to a full range of reproductive health services including modern means of family planning, increasing educational and literacy levels, and removing various cultural and legal barriers that constrain the choices of women and girl children.  A third question raised by the sufficiency norm has to do with the dangers GM crops might pose to human health. Does Kenya have adequate policies and institutions in place to test GM crops and protect the health of its citizens? The short answer to this question is no. While the nation does have a rather substantial set of biosafety regulations, government officials have not developed similar public health regulations. One of the reasons for this is because Kenya is still in the research stage and does not yet have any GM crops growing in its fields. Thus, regulations have not yet been developed because there are no GM food products available for consumers. Nevertheless, even when products like GM sweet potatoes or maize do become available, it is likely that Kenya may still not develop highly restrictive public health regulations. This is because the Ministry of Health faces what it perceives to be much more immediate threats to public health from large-scale outbreaks of malaria, polio, and HIV-AIDS. The potential allergenicity of GM crops pales in comparison to the real devastation wrought by these diseases. In addition, it is likely that officials will continue to focus on more mundane problems that contaminate food products like inadequate refrigeration or the unsanitary storage and preparation of food. 62In the end, people who are hungry tend to assess food safety risks differently from those who are well fed. Hassan Adamu, Minister of Agriculture in Nigeria, summarizes this position well in the following excerpt from an op-ed piece published in The Washington Post:
We do not want to be denied this technology [agricultural biotechnology] because of a misguided notion that we do not understand the dangers and future consequences. We understand…. We will proceed carefully and thoughtfully, but we want to have the opportunity to save the lives of millions of people and change the course of history in many nations. That is our right, and we should not be denied by those with a mistaken idea that they know best how everyone should live or that that they have the right to impose their values on us. The harsh reality is that, without the help of agricultural biotechnology, many will not live.63 Despite Adamu’s passionate plea, other leaders in Africa are not as supportive of genetically modified crops. During the food emergency that brought over 30 million people in sub-Saharan Africa to the brink of starvation in 2002, President Levy Mwanawasa of Zambia rejected a shipment of genetically modified food aid furnished by the U.N. World Food Programme. Drawing on a report produced by a team of Zambian scientists, and appealing to the precautionaryprinciple, Mwanawasa said, “We will rather starve than give something toxic [to our citizens.]”64 In addition to concerns about the impact that GM food may have on human health, Mwanawasa also expressed concern that the GM maize might contaminate Zambia’s local maize production in the future. Given Josephine’s ardent support for agricultural biotechnology in the case, it is important to note that not all Africans share her confidence about the benefits of GM crops.  Sustainability. If, however, Kenyans downplay the dangers posed to human beings by GM crops, how likely is it that the nation will develop policies and regulatory bodies to address biosafety and protect the environment?  In fact, Kenya does have serious biosafety policies on the books. Prompted by the work that Florence Wambugu did on GM sweet potatoes in collaboration with Monsanto in the early 1990s, these policies were developed with substantial financial assistance furnished by the government of the Netherlands, the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the United Nations Environment Programme. The Regulations and Guidelines for Biosafety in Biotechnology in Kenya establish laboratory standards and other containment safeguards for the handling of genetically modified organisms. In addition, the regulatory document applies more rigorous biosafety standards to G
M crops than it does to crops that have not been genetically modified. In general, Kenya’s extensive regulations reflect a very cautious approach to GM products.65 The problem, however, is that although Kenya has a strong biosafety policy on paper, the administrative means to implement and enforce the policy are weak. The National Biosafety Committee (NBC) was established in 1996 to govern the importation, testing, and commercial release of genetically modified organisms, but limited resources have hampered its effectiveness. In 2001, the NBC employed only one full-time staff person and had to borrow funds to do its work from Kenya’s National Council for Science and Technology.66 One of the consequences of this inadequate regulatory capacity has been a delay in conducting field tests on Wambugu’s GM sweet potatoes. Clearly much progress needs to be achieved on this front before such tests take place on varieties of maize that have been genetically modified to be insect- or herbicide-resistant. It is important to note, however, that KARI and CIMMYT are both well aware of the biosafety dangers related to the development of these GM crops and are engaged in studies todetermine, for example, the appropriate size and placement of refuges for Bt varieties of maize.67 Because much of KARI’s work is supported by grants from foreign donors, necessary biosafety research will be conducted and made available to the NBC. The problem is that the NBC currently lacks the resources to make timely decisions after it receives the data.  Another concern in the case has to do with the ecological consequences of industrial agriculture. Karen disagrees with Tom’s glowing account of the Green Revolution. While it produced food to feed more than two billion people during the latter half of the 20th century, it did so only by exacting a heavy ecological toll.68 It also had a major impact on the distribution of wealth and income in developing nations. As a result, Karen is concerned about Tom’s view that GM crops could have a tremendous impact on increasing food supply in sub-Saharan Africa. Karen fears that GM crops in Kenya may open the floodgates to industrial agriculture and create more problems than it solves.  The question, however, is whether this is likely to happen. With the significant poverty and the small landholdings of the over 70 percent of Kenyans who are subsistence farmers, it is hard to see how the ecologically damaging practices of the Green Revolution could have a significant impact in the near future. The cost of fertilizers, herbicides, or irrigation put these practices out of reach for most farmers in Kenya. If anything, most of the ecological degradation of Kenya’s agricultural land is due to intensive cropping and stressed soils. Yield increases from GM crops might relieve some of this pressure, although much relief is not likely since food production needs to increase in order to meet demand.  This raises a third question related to the sustainability norm. Can organic farming methods achieve the same results as GM crops? Certainly Kelly believes that this is the case, and there is some research to support her view. On the Striga front, some farmers in East Africa have suppressed the weed by planting leguminous tree crops during the dry season from February to April. Since Striga is most voracious in fields that have been consistently planted in maize and thus have depleted soil, the nitrogen-fixing trees help to replenish the soil in their brief three months of life before they are pulled up prior to maize planting. Farmers report reducing Striga infestations by over 90 percent with this method of weed control. A bonus is that theuprooted, young trees provide a nutritious feed for those farmers who also have some livestock.69  A similar organic strategy has been employed in Kenya to combat stem-borers. In this “push-pull” approach, silver leaf desmodium and molasses grass are grown amidst the maize. These plants have properties that repel stem-borers toward the edges of the field where other plants like Napier grass and Sudan grass attract the bugs and then trap their larvae in sticky substances produced by the plants. When this method is employed, farmers have been able to reduce losses to stemborers from 40 percent to less than 5 percent. In addition, silver leaf desmodium helps to combat Striga infestation, thus further raising yields.70  Results like these indicate that agroecological methods associated with organic farming may offer a less expensive and more sustainable approach to insect and pest control than those achieved through the expensive development of GM crops and the purchase of their seed. Agroecology utilizes ecological principles to design and manage sustainable and resource-conserving agricultural systems. It draws upon indigenous knowledge and resources to develop farming strategies that rely on biodiversity and the synergy among crops, animals, and soils.71 More research in this area is definitely justified.  It is not clear, however, that agroecological farming techniques and GM crops need to be viewed as opposing or exclusive alternatives. Some researchers argue that these organic techniques are not as effective in different ecological niches in East Africa. Nor, in some areas, do farmers feel they have the luxury to fallow their fields during the dry season.72 In these contexts, GM crops might be able to raise yields where they are desperately needed. It is also not likely that the seeds for these crops will be very expensive since they are being produced through research in the public and non-profit sectors. Still, it is certainly the case that more serious ecological problems could result from the use of GM crops in Kenya, and even though donors are currently footing the bill for most of the research, agricultural biotechnology requires a more substantial financial investment than agroecological approaches.  Participation. The source of funding for GM crop research in Kenya raises an important question related to the participation norm. Are biotechnology and GM crops being forced on the people of Kenya?  Given the history of colonialism in Africa, this question is not unreasonable, but in this case it would not appear warranted. Kenya’s Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) began experimenting with tissue culture and micropropagation in the 1980s. A few years later, one of KARI’s researchers, Florence Wambugu, was awarded a three-year post-doctoral fellowship by the U.S. Agency for International Development to study how sweet potatoes could be genetically modified to be resistant to feathery mottle virus. Even though this research was conducted in Monsanto’s laboratory facilities, and the company provided substantial assistance to the project long after Wambugu’s fellowship ended, it is clearly the case that this groundbreaking work in GM crop research was initiated by a Kenyan to benefit the people of her country.73 In addition, the funding for GM crop research in Kenya has come almost entirely through public sector institutions rather than private corporate sources. Even the Novartis funds that support the insect-resistant maize project are being provided from a founda
tion for sustainable development that is legally and financially separate from the Novartis Corporation. Thus, it does not appear that transnational biotechnology corporations are manipulating Kenya, but it is true that the country’s openness to biotechnology and GM crops may open doors to the sale of privately-developed GM products in the future. Josephine, however, might turn the colonialism argument around and apply it to Greenpeace’s campaign to ban GM crops. Specifically, Greenpeace International urges people around the world to “write to your local and national politicians demanding that your government ban the growing of genetically engineered crops in your country.”74 Though Josephine does not pose the question, is this well-intentioned effort to protect the environment and the health of human beings a form of paternalism or neocolonialism? Does the Greenpeace campaign exert undue pressure on the people of Kenya and perhaps provoke a lack of confidence in Kenyan authorities, or does it merely urge Kenyans to use the democratic powers at their disposal to express their concerns? It is not clear how these questions should be answered, but the participation norm requires reflection about them.  The concern about paternalism also arises with regard to a set of questions about appropriate technology. Are GM crops an “appropriate” agricultural technology for the people of Kenya? Genetic engineering and other forms of agricultural biotechnology are very sophisticated and expensive. Is such a “high-tech” approach to agriculture “appropriate” given the status of a developing nation like Kenya? Is it realistic to expect that undereducated and impoverished subsistence farmers will have the capacities and the resources to properly manage GM crops, for example through the appropriate use of refuges?  In the case, Josephine responds aggressively to concerns like these when she overhears Terra’s conversation with Tom. She asserts that Kenya will do what it takes to educate farmers about the proper use of GM crops, and it is true that KARI is designing farmer-training strategies as a part of the insect-resistant maize project.75 Compared to other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Kenya has very high rates of adult literacy. In 2000, 89 percent of men and 76 percent of women were literate. At the same time, only 26 percent of boys and 22 percent of girls are enrolled in secondary education.76 Thus, while literacy is high, the level of education is low. The hunger and poverty among many Kenyans, however, may be the most significant impediment to the responsible use of GM crops. In a situation where hunger is on the rise, how likely is it that subsistence farmers will plant 20 percent of their fields in non-Bt maize if they see that the Bt varieties are producing substantially higher yields?  This is a fair question. The norm of participation supports people making decisions that affect their lives, but in this case the immediate threat of hunger and malnutrition may limit the range of their choices. At the same time, GM crops have the potential to significantly reduce the amount of time that women and children spend weeding, picking bugs off of plants, and scaring birds away. Organic farming methods would require even larger investments of time. This is time children could use to attend more school or that women could use to increase their literacy or to engage in other activities that might increase family income and confer a slightly greater degree of security and independence. Aspects of the participation norm cut both ways.  Solidarity. Among other things, the ecojustice norm of solidarity is concerned about the equitable distribution of the burdens and benefits associated with GM crops. If problems emerge in Kenya, who will bear the costs? If GM crops are finally approved for planting, who will receive most of the benefits?  Thus far, critics argue that the benefits of GM crops in developed nations have accrued only to biotech corporations through higher sales and to large-scale farmers through lower production costs. Moreover, critics claim that the dangers GM crops pose to human health and biosafety are dumped on consumers who do not fully understand the risks associated with GM crops and the food products that are derived from them. It is not clear that the same could be said for the production of GM crops in Kenya where these crops are being developed through partnerships in the non-profit and public sectors. Researchers expect to make these products available at little cost to farmers and few corporations will earn much money off the sale of these seeds. Thus, the benefits from GM crops should accrue to a larger percentage of people in Kenya because 70 percent of the population is engaged in subsistence agriculture. Like developed nations, however, food safety problems could affect all consumers and a case could be made that this would be more severe in a nation like Kenya where it would be very difficult to adequately label GM crop products that often move directly from the field to the dinner table.  Another aspect of solidarity involves supporting others in their struggles. Josephine does not explicitly appeal to this norm in the case, but some members of the Hunger Concerns group are probably wondering whether they should just support Josephine’s proposal as a way to show respect to her and to the self-determination of the Kenyan people. There is much to commend this stance and, ultimately, it might be ethically preferable. One of the dangers, however, is that Josephine’s colleagues may squelch their moral qualms and simply “pass the buck” ethically to the Kenyans. Karen seems close to making this decision, despite her serious social, ecological, and theological concerns about GM crops. Friendship requires support and respect, but it also thrives on honesty.
Conclusion Tom and Karen face a difficult choice, as do the other members of the Hunger Concerns group. Next week they will have to decide if the group should join the Greenpeace campaign to ban GM crops or whether it wants to submit an article for the campus newspaper supporting the responsible use of GM crops to bolster food security in Kenya. While convenient, skipping the meeting would just dodge the ethical issues at stake. As students consider these alternatives and others, the goods associated with solidarity need to be put into dialogue with the harms to ecological sustainability and human health that could result from the development of GM crops in Kenya. Similarly, these potential harms also need to be weighed against the real harms that are the result of an insufficient food supply. The problem of hunger in sub-Saharan Africa is only getting worse, not better.
© Orbis Books Printed by permission.
©December 2003 Journal of Lutheran Ethics (JLE) Volume 3, Issue 12
Klaus M. Leisinger, et al., Six Billion and Counting: Population and Food Security in the 21st Century (Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute, 2002), pp. 4-6. I am indebted to Todd Benson, an old friend and staff member at the International Food Policy Research Institute, for better understanding issues related to food security in sub-Saharan Africa.
Ibid, p. x. Globally, the World Bank estimates that 1.3 billion people are trying to survive on $1 a day. Another two billion people are trying to get by on only $2 a day. Half of the world’s population is trying to live on $2 a day or less.
J. DeVries and G. Toenniessen, Securing the Harvest, p. 29. See also, Per Pinstrup-Andersen and Ebbe Schiøler, Seeds of Contention, pp. 59-67. I am indebted to Gary Toenniessen at the Rockefeller Foundation for his wise counsel as I began to research ethical implications of genetically modified crops in sub-Saharan Africa.
Population Reference Bureau, 2001 World Population Data Sheet, book edition (Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau, 2001), pp. 3-4. I am indebted to Dick Hoehn at Bread for the World Institute for helping me better understand the root causes of hunger in sub-Saharan Africa.
International Maize and Wheat and Improvement Center and The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, Annual Report 2000: Insect Resistant Maize for Africa (IRMA) Project,, IRMA Project Document, No. 4, September 2001, pp. 1-12.
Per Pinstrup-Andersen and Marc J. Cohen, “Rich and Poor Country Perspectives on Biotechnology,” in The Future of Food: Biotechnology Markets and Policies in an International Setting, P. Pardey, ed., (Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute, 2001), pp. 34-35. See also, Bill Lambrecht, Dinner at the New Gene Café: How Genetic Engineering is Changing What We Eat, How We Live, and the Global Politics of Food (New York: St, Martin’s Press, 2001), p. 7.
Philip Brasher, “American Farmers Planting More Biotech Crops This Year Despite
International Resistance,” accessed on line March 29, 2002: http://www.pressanddakotan.com/stories/032902/ new_0329020005.shtml.
J. DeVries and G. Toenniessen, Securing the Harvest, p. 68. I am indebted to Jill Montgomery, director of Technology Cooperation at Monsanto, for better understanding how Monsanto has assisted biotechnology research and subsistence agriculture in Kenya.
Miguel A. Altieri, Genetic Engineering in Agriculture: The Myths, Environmental Risks, and Alternatives (Oakland, CA: Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, 2001), pp. 16-17. Concerns about the dangers GM crops could pose to human and ecological health lead many critics to invoke the “precautionary principle” in their arguments. For more information about this important concept, see sections of the case and commentary for the preceding case, “Chlorine Sunrise?”
See Per Pinstrup-Andersen and Ebbe Schiøler, Seeds of Contention, p. 47-49 and Miguel A. Altieri, Genetic Engineering in Agriculture, pp. 29-31. See also Daniel Charles, Lords of the Harvest, pp. 247-248; Bill Lambrecht, Dinner at the New Gene Café, pp. 78-82; and Alan McHughen, Pandora’s Picnic Basket: The Potential and Hazards of Genetically Modified Foods (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 190.
See Per Pinstrup-Andersen and Ebbe Schiøler, Seeds of Contention, p. 49-50 and Miguel A. Altieri, Genetic Engineering in Agriculture, pp. 23-25. Controversy erupted in 2002 after the prestigious scientific journal, Nature, published a study by scientists claiming that gene flow had occurred between GM maize and indigenous varieties of maize in Mexico. Since Mexico is the birthplace of maize, this study ignited alarm and produced a backlash against GM crops. In the spring of 2002, however, Nature announced that it should not have published the study because the study’s methodology was flawed. See Carol Kaesuk Yoon, “Journal Raises Doubts on Biotech Study,” The New York Times, April 5, 2002, accessed on-line April 5, 2002: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/04/05/science/ 05CORN.html
Opposition reached a fevered pitch when the Delta and Pine Land Company announced that they had developed a “technology protection system” that would render seeds sterile. The company pointed out that this would end concerns about the creation of superweeds through undesired gene flow, but opponents dubbed the technology as “the terminator” and viewed it as a diabolical means to make farmers entirely dependent on seed companies for their most valuable input, seed. When Monsanto considered purchasing Delta and Pine Land in 1999, Monsanto bowed to public pressure and declared that it would not market the new seed technology if it acquired the company. In the end, it did not. See Bill Lambrecht, Dinner at the New Gene Café, pp. 113-123.
See Douglas John Hall, Imaging God: Dominion as Stewardship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986), pp. 89-116; and The Steward: A Biblical Symbol Come of Age (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990).
Hassan Adamu, “We’ll feed our people as we see fit,” The Washington Post, (September 11, 2000), p. A23; cited by Per Pinstrup-Andersen and Marc J. Cohen, “Rich and Poor Country Perspectives on Biotechnology,” in The Future of Food, p. 20.
James Lamont, “U.N. Withdraws Maize Food Aid From Zambia,” Financial Times (Johannesburg), December 10, 2002. Reprinted in Today in AgBioView, accessed on-line December 11, 2002: http://www.agbioworld.org/.
For a brief summary, see a section devoted to the rise of dysfunctional farming in Brian Halweil, “Farming in the Public Interest,” in State of the World 2002 (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2002), pp. 53-57.
These observations are based on remarks made by researchers from sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and the United States in response to a presentation by Brian Halweil at a conference I attended in Washington, DC on March 6, 2002. The conference was sponsored by Bread for the World Institute and was titled, Agricultural Biotechnology: Can it Help Reduce Hunger in Africa?