New Technology, Same Old Logic: Evaluating CRISPR’s Existence in Economic Development
Fri, 05 Apr 2019 || By Sri Handayani Nasution

Bill Gates has argued that the existence of the new gene editing technology, CRISPR, would improve the economic situation of people, especially those in the developing country.[1] Further, he also argues that CRISPR would improve productivity in the agricultural sector that thus leads to the end of extreme poverty and what he calls as ‘feeding the world.[2] Similarly, the US government also believes CRISPR would be a huge breakthrough in a lot of sectors, including agricultural.[3] CRISPR or clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats is an advanced gene-editing technology that allows bacteria to acquire immunity from viruses.[4] There are a lot of sectors that could benefit from the application of CRISPR such as but not limited to health and medicine, biomedical and clinical research, industrial biotechnology, ecosystem management and conservation, and agricultural sector.[5]

This writing focuses on the effect of CRISPR in the agricultural sector in relations to the economic development of a developing country whose economy often relies on the farm industry. In this writing, I attempt to evaluate those discourses that focus on agricultural productivity and the potential of CRISPR in improving the world hunger condition and economic development. I argue that first, increasing productivity does not necessarily improve the world hunger condition. Second, the over-production that is caused by the use of CRISPR, in the long run, would further hurt the farmer.

            First, amid the promising possibility of CRISPR in improving the productivity of the agricultural sector, it is a shame that the belief that productivity as the key to tackle the world hunger persists. Without negating the fact that avoiding crop failure is essential, I believe that the unavailability of agriculture goods is not the main reason for hunger. The classic example of this is the research of Bengal Famine conducted by Amartya Sen where he discovered that the cause of the famine is not food shortage but the failure of entitlement.[6]

In the existence of CRISPR, it is important not to only focus on the production stage of agricultural goods, but also the distribution of food. It is important to acknowledge that there is fundamental problems in the way food are distributed and the availability of resources to access it.[7] For instance, in the conflict area such as Yemen, the failure to distribute food aid is the cause of chronic hunger in the area.[8] The failure of distribution could also happen in a more stable area like the US where 48 million people are categorized as food insecure as of 2012.[9] With the existence of CRISPR, it is then crucial for the policymaker in the future to not only focus on the production stage but also in the distribution stage of food. 

            Second, the over-production of agricultural goods could harm the prices of products that will lead to harmful impact for the farmer. Similar to the Cochrane's Treadmill effect, pest control using new agricultural technologies results on the increase of output that leads to the rise in profit for early adopter in the short run but then leads to more abundant supplies, lower prices and falling income for farmers in the long term.[10] The CRISPR technology would help the farmer to produce agricultural with less risk of crop failure. However, the question is how to make these productivity results in more income for the farmer. It is vital for the government to consider agricultural reforms that encompass this problem and provide the solutions for the possibility of unstable prices in agrarian goods.

            In conclusion, CRISPR could enhance productivity in the agriculture sector. However, productivity is not the only key to the improvement of economic development. It has already been researched before that the old productivity logic is not the sole and instant solutions of hunger, let alone poverty. The promising future that CRISPR offer in the agricultural sector needs to be accompanied by regulations that could solve the problem of food distribution. Not only that, agricultural reforms that could provide the solutions to unstable prices to ensure the improvement of the quality of life of the farmers is also necessary.

Editor: Janitra Haryanto

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[1] Gates, B. (2018). Gene Editing for Good. [online] Foreign Affairs. Available at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2018-04-10/gene-editing-good [Accessed 27 Mar. 2019].

[2] Ibid.                                                                                                                                                  

[3] Congressional Research Service of US Government. (2018). Advanced Gene Editing: CRISPR-Cas9. CRS Report. [online] Available at: https://crsreports.congress.gov [Accessed 29 Mar. 2019].

[4] Gutmann, A. and Moreno, J. (2018). Keep CRISPR Safe. [online] Foreign Affairs. Available at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2018-04-16/keep-crispr-safe [Accessed 29 Mar. 2019].

[5] Congressional Research Service of US Government (2018).

[6] Nayak, P. (2000). Understanding the entitlement approach to hunger. Journal of Assam University, 5(1), pp.62.

[7] FAO (n.d.). REDUCING POVERTY AND HUNGER: THE CRITICAL ROLE OF FINANCING FOR FOOD, AGRICULTURE AND RURAL DEVELOPMENT. [online] Fao.org. Available at: http://www.fao.org/3/y6265e/y6265e03.htm [Accessed 31 Mar. 2019].

[8] Alles, L.. (2017). Missiles and Food: Yemen's human-made food security crisis. Oxfam.

[9] McMillan, T. (n.d.). The New Face of Hunger. [online] National Geographic. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/foodfeatures/hunger/ [Accessed 31 Mar. 2019].

[10] Mitchell, P., Brown, Z. and McRoberts, N. (2017). Economic issues to consider for gene drives. Journal of Responsible Innovation, 5(sup1), pp.S180-S202.