Engineering Plenty

Article excerpt

Technology, not aid, will feed the starving, writes Louise Staley.

As the debate over climate change rages on, the old ideological battleground - biotechnology - is finally starting to clear.

At Borlaug Dialogue in October - an annual gathering of development experts, farmers, policy makers, and biotechnology companies - Bill Gates put the alleviation of poverty firmly in the hands of genetically modified food.

According to Gates, to feed the world now, and into the future, we will need 70 per cent more food which requires a multitude of responses. And genetically modified food is going to be a big part ofthat solution.

Mr Gates' comments mark a watershed moment in development issues. As the world's richest man and a very substantial benefactor, he cannot be accused of supporting GM agriculture for personal gain or for being on the payroll of any multinational seed company - the accusations usually thrown at supporters of GM. By putting his substantial moral authority - and hundreds of millions of dollars - behind a variety of technologies to solve world hunger, food development issues gain a very powerful friend.

And compared to government food agencies such as the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation can move quickly to try different approaches - localising the successful ones.

For most of the last century, in fact all the way until 2007, there was a clear improvement in the lives of the planet's poorest people. It was possible to be very optimistic as fewer people were starving. In the middle of the twentieth century, the green revolution brought self-sufficiency to Mexico, India, and then China, saving hundreds of millions of lives. Free trade played its part as well, although the European and US predilections for supporting their farmers at the expense of lower cost producers stymied the potential gains from free trade.

By the turn of the twenty-first century, poverty and starvation were largely confined to war zones and nations with endemic political corruption.

But there was a sharp reversal of these gains in 2007: world wheat prices tripled and rice prices more than doubled. For the fifty per cent of the world's population that relies on a bowl of rice as their main meal; this was catastrophic. Since 2007, with continuing high food prices (although nowhere near the heady days of 2007), and the global financial crisis, the wellbeing of the world's poorest people has taken a turn for the worse. …