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Feed the world: With or without genetic engineering?

In 2009 the number of starving and malnourished people in the world rose to over a billion. The UN’s millennium goal of halving the number of hungry people by 2015 is probably no longer attainable for a number of different reasons, ranging from population growth and water scarcity to climate change and the economic crisis. Can plant biotechnology play a role in reducing hunger and poverty? GMO Safety asked two experts.

Dr Hans Rudolf Herren, Millennium Institute, Arlington (USA):

Prof Matin Qaim, University of Göttingen:

The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report was commissioned by the FAO and the World Bank in 2002. Between 2005 and 2008, around 400 scientists, and government, NGO, producer and consumer representatives from all over the world took part in the consultation on the future of global agriculture. The final report was submitted in April 2009. The representatives of large-scale corporations like Monsanto had withdrawn from the process shortly beforehand.

In October and November the FAO is organising three expert forums to discuss how we can ensure that the world population will be fed over the coming decades. The preliminary discussion papers say that in view of the estimated growth in world population to around nine billion, food production would have to be increased by 70 per cent globally by 2050, and by almost 100 per cent in developing countries. The production increase would need to be achieved primarily through yield increases on the land already under cultivation.

However, opinions are divided as to how this target should be achieved. The main point of disagreement concerns the role that technological measures should play. The IAASTD report, which was published in April 2009, and was commissioned in part by the FAO, concludes that focusing primarily on yield increases through technological developments would be too one-sided. Technological measures would, they conclude, have to be part of broader concepts that would need to include the strengthening of regional markets and improved access to know-how, as well as more efficient use of resources and reduced use of chemicals, e.g. through biological pest control.

The main point of controversy is whether and to what extent plant biotechnology can assist in solving the hunger problem. GM critics complain that genetically modified plants would only be suitable for agriculture in industrialised nations, and not for small-scale farmers in developing countries. They warn against letting the seed market become monopolised by multinational corporations. In fact, the use of biotechnology in today’s crop plants is restricted almost exclusively to herbicide and insect resistance in a few commercial crops. Almost all of them come from the Monsanto laboratories, with a few from other firms. Half of the fields growing GM plants are in the USA, and almost a third in Brazil and Argentina, i.e. in countries dominated by large farm enterprises and monoculture.

Nevertheless, GM plants are also grown by small-scale farmers in developing and newly industrialising nations. In India and China, which, together with the USA, are the world’s largest cotton producers, insect-resistant Bt cotton is being grown on an increasing scale, primarily by small-scale farmers. A large number of small-scale farmers in South Africa and the Philippines grow Bt maize. New economic studies show that the cultivation of Bt cotton in India increases the household income of poor families.

Numerous research projects around the world are studying genetically modified crops that are needed for food. Bt rice and various Bt vegetables are on the verge of being commercialised in some parts of Asia. In addition, new GM plants enriched with micronutrients are being developed worldwide. The most well-known example of this is ‘golden rice’ with increased vitamin A content, but there are also various projects for increasing the nutrient content of cassava, bananas and millet. Some of these research projects are being funded by public-sector institutions, with the international agricultural research centres playing an important role. In many cases, however, local or international companies are making their technology available to public-sector research institutes within public private partnerships. Some research projects in Africa are being financed by large foundations, including the Gates Foundation.