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l BIOTECHNOLOGY: FOOD PROTECTION AND NEW PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT -
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THE GENE REVOLUTION Albert Gore, Jr. I commend the Food and Nutrition Board for tackling this challenge. In America, we have long taken the food supply for granted. Now we appear to be taking biotechnology for granted as well--with little regard for the difficult ques- tions it will raise. As a long-time advocate of new tech- nologies, I would like to thank the FNB for making these issues a matter of public debate. The sooner we prepare ourselves for the potential social and economic impacts of biotechnology, the more promising its prospects will be. As you know, the science of genetic engineering presents wondrous possibilities. It will enable us to develop hardier crop strains, bigger and better livestock breeds, and new miracle drugs. Genetically altered vaccines, growth hormones, and other new products could eventually make hunger obsolete--even as the world population continues to soar. But many fear that the brave new world of biotechnology will also have a dark side. Some of the new crops and livestock we develop may have no natural enemies and will be genetically superior to their predecessors. New orga- nisms could multiply wildly, like kudzu or the gypsy moth, crowding out everything else. In theory, a genetically altered crop strain could have some tragic flaw that might not become apparent until it was already in wide use. 3
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No one knows for certain how great those risks are. The uncertainty and confusion that surround the environmental release of genetically altered organisms have allowed staunch opponents like Jeremy Rifkin to block the new technology at every turn. Unwilling to wait for the United States to sort out the regulatory muddle, some companies have tested organisms abroad. Angered by a rabies vaccine experiment near Buenos Aires, Argentina recently accused us of engaging in environmental imperialism. The Argentines believe that by conducting these tests on foreign soil, American companies run the risk of a biotechnological Bhopal. Perhaps pressure from overseas will push us along. We can't afford to leave environmental release in limbo forever. Uncertainty hurts industry and regulators alike. But the most lasting impact of biotechnology on the food supply may come not from something going wrong, but from everything going right. Sooner or later, every inventor-- from Albert Einstein to Dr. Frankenstein--confronts the same questions: First, how do we make the thing work? Second, how do we keep it from working too well? For every use of biotechnology there is a potential misuse. For every benefit, there is a potential hazard. The challenge is to know when we are about to go too far with the technology and when the drawbacks outweigh the advantages. My biggest fear is not that by accident we will set loose some genetically defective Andromeda strain. Given our record in dealing with agriculture, we are far more likely to accidentally drown ourselves in a sea of excess grain. The Green Revolution made America the world's breadbasket, but it also brought on an age of intractable overproduc- tion. Unless we plan more carefully, the Gene Revolution could do the same--on an even grander scale. What is the price of progress? Will the supercow trample the small dairy farmer? Is the family farm about to be genetically altered out of existence? Meanwhile, will biotechnology help to feed the starving millions? Or will it leave the Third World behind to eat our dust? 4
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the high startup costs. After the ruinous expansion of farm debt in the 1970s, banks may be more reluctant to lend small farmers money for expensive new investments--and quicker to foreclose on them if anything goes wrong. OnlY the large farms will be able to afford a new tecnnotogy, which if it works could drive their smaller competitors out of business. Biotechnology will be a hollow victory for science or for society if only the big guys survive to divide the spoils. It doesn't have to be that way. With the right planning, biotechnology could be the salvation of the family farm rather than the death of it. One way or another, biotech- nology will become a cornerstone of our future prosperity. The challenge is to make sure it will help those who need it--from the wheat grower in West Tennessee to the starving peasant farmer in Africa. How can we turn this revolution into the common man's revenge? We can start by changing our approach to agri- cultural research. In our all-out rush to boost total production during the Green Revolution, we stopped worrying about producers. We almost forgot the small farmer, who needed cost-effective anolied technology. The yield on a large farm in Iowa is 40 times that of a subsistence farm in Nigeria--not just because American farmers are more efficient but also because the world has yet to develop agricultural techniques that work on a small scale. Traditionally, 95% of all agricultural research has been geared toward agribusiness, to ever greater efficiencies of scale. _ _ Today we're paying for that policy of bigger is better-- with bigger farm debts, a bigger price-support program, and big troubles for all but the biggest farms. We cannot afford to make that mistake again. Biotechnology can and ought to be a Great Equalizer, making a miraculous yield possible on even a small plot of land. That should be an important goal of our research. Instead of rewarding agribusiness interests or distributing academic pork barrel, government grants should target the individual farmer. I hope we never see another U. S. Department of Agriculture study on how long Americans take to cook breakfast. We should worry instead about what 6
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Let's look first at the threat of overproduction. As you know, these are hard times down on the farm--and if anything, the prospects are worse. We live in an age of excess--excess capacity, that is. A worldwide glut, lackluster domestic markets, and misguided agricultural policies have put American farmers in a precarious financial position. Since 1982, the value of American farmland has plunged $150 billion. The farm bankruptcy rate has quadrupled. Farm debt now exceeds $200 billion-- more than the foreign debt of Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina combined. From the standpoint of the small farmer, even the Green Revolution has been a mixed blessing. Increased agricul- tural efficiency forced many family farms out of business and left others hostage to the increasing volatility of glutted commodity markets. How, then, can the small farmer possibly survive the Gene Revolution? The effect of genetic advances on production will dwarf the triumphs of the past two decades. Already, we have seen bovine growth hormone that can make cows produce up to 40% more milk. Scientists are working on supercows, superpigs, even supersized salmon. Other experiments have led to multiple births, more rapid growth, and higher resistance to disease. Unless we can somehow find a way to create very hungry superhumans, each of these advances may produce nothing but glut. In the next few years, our capacity to expand the food supply will grow at an unprecedented rate. The Gene Revolution will do for animal products what the Green Revolution did for crop yields. Much to the chagrin of the farmers, it will have the same effect on food prices as well. Robert Kalter, an agricultural economist at Cornell, predicts that "the unparalleled speed and magnitude of the expected productivity gains" will flood commodity markets. As prices fall, he thinks the cost of maintaining price supports will rise so rapidly that the government may have to abandon the program. Moreover, for the individual farmer, most of these new developments in biotechnology will be out of reach. The quarter million family-size farms in this country, which are already on the ropes, will be hard pressed to afford 5
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Americans are eating for breakfast and how the farmer can provide a cheap, tasty, and nutritious product. Unless we consciously steer progress toward the little guy, it will trickle down too late to do much good. I would like to explore the possibility of a Biotechnology Extension Service that would offer technological assistance in agricultural areas. Biotechnology will bloom and grow only if it is affordable and easy to understand. The government might also consider a Rural Development Bank to give small farmers low-interest loans for appro- priate biotechnology. Eventually, we could apply our success in the Third World, so the areas that need progress most don't fall further behind. Here at home, we can use our technological research to target the individual consumer. One biotech company (DNA Plant Technology) has begun to produce healthy snacks, such as carrots that are extra sweet and popcorn that tastes buttery without adding butter. Instead of continually trying to change people's diets, we may some day be able to take the dietary risk out of high-risk foods. The Gene Revolution is still young and full of possibili- ties. It can bring on a brave new era--or just a lot more of the same old thing. The choice is ours. Will we sit back and watch the gap widen between rich and poor, North and South, the agribusinessman and family farmer? Or will we use this fabulous opportunity to leap ahead together? In the years to come, government must learn to give people the tools to control their own destiny, make their own choices, and find their own way. Biotechnology is a key to that future. Let's make sure it ends up in the right hands. 7
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