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UN: Biotech Crops Could Alleviate Hunger

posted on August 20, 2004

A new study finds that many of the world's largest industrialized nations will see their populations shrink between now and the year 2050. The report by the Population Reference Bureau says the decline will be fostered by low birth rates, struggling economies and tough immigration laws.

Population decline won't be the rule, however, in developing nations. In fact, rapidly increasing populations promote the twin plagues of poverty and hunger. That's why scientists and anti-hunger advocates are looking for new ways to not only feed the malnourished, but to break the cycle of poverty that keeps people hungry. The answer, they say, may lie in the laboratories of the developed world. John Nichols explains.


UN: Biotech Crops Could Alleviate Hunger

More than 850 million people worldwide are threatened by hunger. And according to the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization, the world's farmers will have to sustain an additional two billion people over the next 20 years from an increasingly fragile resource base.

It's a daunting task, but the FAO's recently released report on The State of Food and Agriculture says genetically modified crops hold "great promise" for improving the lives of people in underdeveloped nations. The report marked first time a United Nations-sponsored agency had backed the use of genetically modified crops to address world hunger.

The key to bringing the promise of GM foods to the Third World, according to FAO, is convincing the commercial developers of biotech crops, as well as their public sector colleagues, to spread the knowledge from their laboratories to the dirt floors of Africa and Asia.

Dr. Prabhu Pingali is one of the authors of the report.

Dr. Prabhu Pingali, FAO: "... as you look at the Gene Revolution, much of the investment in agriculture research, much of the investment in biotechnology innovations is a private sector innovation. And, understandably, with the investment being driven through the private sector, the crops and the traits that the private sector would target are very much related to commercial orientation; to areas where the returns to commercial investment are high."

To be sure, there are obstacles well beyond shareholder welfare that will make it difficult to transform the "green revolution" of the 20th century into the "gene revolution" of the 21st century.

But the FAO's primary concern is that the corporate engine driving biotech research is not investing enough money into staple food crops like potatoes, rice and wheat. The FAO report found a dominant portion of private-sector investment is concentrated on just four crops -- canola, corn, cotton and soybeans.

The U.N. agency also is worried about a lack of study on seed traits like drought resistance and aluminum tolerance, two problems critical to the food-poor continent of Africa.

Analysts note that in 2003, 99 percent of the world's GM crops were grown in just six countries, consisted of the four dominant GM crops, and featured just the two main seed traits of insect resistance and herbicide tolerance.

Dr. Prabhu Pingali, FAO: "The question that our report addresses is, 'Can the Gene Revolution do the same thing? Can the Gene Revolution continue on the tradition of the Green Revolution in helping improve the lives and livelihoods of poor farm households around the world?'"

The FAO report says the challenge facing developing nations is to combine several biotech objectives. Among them: increasing yields and reducing costs; protecting the environment, addressing consumer concerns over food safety and quality; and, improving food security while diminishing poverty.

But often those nations lack the infrastructure and financial wherewithal to launch GM research. And while fledgling programs are under way in places like Peru and the Philippines, just a handful of nations have made progress in that area.

Political obstacles also exist. Resistance to GM foods in the industrialized nations of Europe and Asia has spread to some of the Third World.

In backing expanded research into biotech crops, the FAO was quick to say conventional forms of plant breeding should NOT be abandoned.

Dr. Prabhu Pingali, FAO: "The report also cautions that biotechnology should not be seen as a silver bullet solution to solving the problems of poor farmers. Biotechnology should be seen as one tool in a whole basket of tools that are available."

Dr. Norman Borlaug, Nobel Prize Laureate: "I don't pretend to have all the answers but I have seen some things that made quite an impact."

Dr. Norman Borlaug, the father of the so-called "Green Revolution" of the 1970s, has focused in recent years on developing drought-resistant crops for the poor nations of Africa. It was Borlaug's development of a high-yield wheat variety that stemmed the hunger tide in India and Pakistan, regions of the world considered to be hopeless in the battle against hunger and poverty.

Borlaug says new research must focus on subsistence crops like cassava, millet, cowpea and other cereal crops.

Dr. Norman Borlaug: "These are basics and if the situation on the food front is to be changed, the major emphasis has to be there."

Those challenges almost certainly will remain intact as long as questions surround the feasibility and safety of biotech crops. But in balancing the benefits with the risks, it also seems certain the expansion of GM crops to help feed a hungry world is inevitable.

For Market To Market, I'm John Nichols.


Tags: agriculture biotechnology crops genetic engineering hunger news poverty United Nations