Will Biotechnology Feed the World's Hungry?

Article excerpt

ONCE AGAIN, THE WORLD'S 800 MILLION MALNOURISHED and hungry are being promised the magic of science, in this case agricultural biotechnology, as a solution to all of their food security problems. Scientists, industry, and many governments are promoting biotechnology as the potential means of vanquishing hunger. Much of the recent enthusiasm has focused on the potential role of vitamin A enhanced Golden Rice[Symbol Not Transcribed] [trademark] in ameliorating malnourishment in developing countries. While many see this as a 'grain of hope' others see it as 'fool's gold.'

Other scientific breakthroughs, such as hybrid crops, the industrialization of the agri-food sector, and the Green Revolution greatly accelerated the world's food production capacity and lowered the proportion of the world's population that is short of food, but it did not eliminate hunger. The new biotechnology offers even greater opportunities and greater hope that technical constraints will be removed, but they have somewhat limited commercial, economic, social, and political applicability in developing countries.

THE HUNGER PROBLEM

The International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that in the early 1990s there were approximately 780 million malnourished people in the world, disproportionately located in subsaharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and parts of Latin America. Although that number is down from 940 million in 1970, population pressures threaten to sustain if not exacerbate the hunger problem.

Demographers at the United Nations have projected that world population will rise from approximately six billion at present to about eight billion by 2020. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Bank have expressed concern that the food required to feed an additional two billion people will exceed the world's capacity to produce it. On the supply side of the equation, future production gains are uncertain. Worldwatch Institute's State of the World, 1996 noted that the world grains industry, the most efficient means of feeding people, must adjust to three longer-term global trends that are slowing production growth: a gradual reduction in grain area since 1981, little or no growth in irrigation since 1990, and a decline in world fertilizer use since 1989. At the regional level, there is real reason for concern. Demographers estimate that more than 90 per cent of projected population growth is likely to occur in the developing world, where hunger and malnourishment are already endemic.

The causes of hunger vary widely. It is perhaps counterintuitive that a large share of the malnourished are from rural, agrarian areas and that many of them are women or children in farm families. A mixture of cultural, political, and economic forces makes it difficult to feed these people rapidly and adequately. In some cases, the hungriest are on the margins of society and lack access to inputs or markets to enable them to produce sufficient quantities of food. Others face politically erected barriers to production, often in the form of discriminatory taxes or restraints on production and marketing of food. Some live in regions with ineffective infrastructure because of sheer absence of capacity, civil strife, or states of war. Ultimately, these factors all combine to frustrate the ability of markets to feed these people. They are outside the global food market and many face serious restraints to entering that martet quickly.

Even so, the fact that many of the hungry are poor farmers raises hope that new technologies might be able to improve their lot. If new technologies can reduce or eliminate production constraints, then the resulting higher productivity for those farmers could improve their income levels, providing both the ability to reinvest to expand and diversify their productive capacity and greater disposable income to sustain them.

PAST SCIENTIFIC ADVANCEMENTS

The 'magic of science' has done much to reduce the food problem over the past 100 years. …