REVIEW: Article

Fruits of Science: Biotech Food for the Hungry

The number of people who die of starvation dwarfs the number who die from terrorism. Last year, 625 people died from terrorism; ten million from starvation. Every five seconds someone dies for lack of food; 25,000 people will die of hunger today. So, just as we must explore every means to defeat terrorism, we must also explore every means to meet the most basic need of every human being—food. 

As the largest provider of food aid in the world, the United States is just as committed to the struggle to feed the hungry as it is to the struggle against terrorism.  But we want to do more than provide handouts. We want countries to be able to feed themselves.

With this in mind, the United States Embassy to the Holy See recently sponsored an international conference in Rome to examine the potential of biotechnology to help meet this challenge of hunger. Scientists, farmers from developing countries, senior government officials and theologians spoke in broad agreement that biotechnology is an indispensable tool to meet the world’s growing demand for more food. 

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the Pope’s scientific advisory board, joined with us in these discussions as a full sponsor in trying to seek the truth and dispel myths about biotech foods.

Dr. C. S. Prakash, an Indian-born scientist whose research has increased the nutritional value of the sweet potato fourfold, told our conference that half of sub-Saharan Africans are malnourished today, a figure that is expected to increase to 70 percent by 2010. He said that world population growth has reduced the amount of arable land, making greater agricultural productivity a necessity:  “We must produce more food with less land, less water, and less chemicals.” 

Biotechnology can do this.

The best assessment of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) potential came from farmers themselves. Sabina Khoza, a South African maize farmer, and Edwin Paraluman, a corn farmer in the Philippines, told us that their yields and incomes are up, and their use of harmful pesticides is down. 

Unfortunately, the ability of farmers such as Khoza and Paraluman to take advantage of this new tool has been severely restricted in many countries by widespread resistance based upon misinformation about biotechnology safety—misinformation sown by ideologically motivated groups and nurtured by European Union trade protectionists.

These critics continue to claim that GMO foods are unsafe despite the fact that millions of Americans, Canadians, Australians, Argentines and other people have been eating genetically modified food for nearly a decade—without one proven case of an illness, allergic reaction or even the hiccups.  

Activists even convinced African governments facing drought-induced famine in late 2002 to return tons of World Food Programme corn because it was produced in America using biotechnology. Better to die than eat the food that Americans eat every day.

For those who question the morality of biotechnology, suggesting that it is unnatural, the scientists pointed out that mankind has been genetically altering food throughout human history. In fact, almost none of the foods we consider “natural” today exist in nature; all have been genetically modified for human use. 

In exploring the potential contributions of biotechnology, the United States and the Holy See are very aware that world hunger has many causes: poverty, drought, disease, armed conflicts, inadequate transportation and government corruption. All play their part in this tragedy, and all must be addressed if we are to end hunger and malnutrition.

But biotech foods, now the food staple of choice for America and millions of others, ought to be allowed in Africa to mitigate the plight of people suffering from starvation.  There is not one shred of scientific evidence to suggest otherwise. 

Ensuring all men their daily bread is the best way to promote the dignity of humankind. Biotechnology offers a scientifically sound means to feed the world’s neediest.  As Dr. Raven, one of the world’s leading genetic scientists, explained, “to a mother in a famine-struck region of Africa, the disease she and her children suffer from is hunger, and the cure is food.” 

That is why sharing the fruits of biotechnology with those who hunger is a moral imperative. The conscience of all committed to the common good should demand it.*

* Editor’s Note: This text first appeared in The International Herald Tribune, of October 2-3, 2004. It is reprinted by permission of the author.

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United States Ambassador to the Holy See