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'No end to woes sans biotech'

War, drought and runaway population growth will thwart efforts to halve global hunger unless science is fully utilised, researchers said on Wednesday.

tech reviews Updated: Jul 12, 2003 20:20 IST

War, drought and runaway population growth will thwart efforts to halve global hunger by 2015 unless the full weight of science is brought to bear on food production, a farm research group for developing countries said on Wednesday.

Without urgent investment in agricultural development -- including controversial biotechnology -- hundreds of millions will remain underfed in coming years, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) said.

"There'll be about a 50 per cent increase in the world's population in the next 50 years, from six billion to something like nine billion," former World Bank president and CGIAR founder Robert McNamara told a seminar in Tokyo.

"And the food requirement will increase by approximately 100 per cent. I don't know of any way to deal with that problem other than increasing agricultural productivity...by applying the technology and knowledge we have, and by research."

World leaders gathered in Rome last year to renew a 1996 pledge to halve by 2015 the number of hungry from around 815 million in 1992. The United Nations and others have since called that goal unrealistic, even by 2030.

"The world is not on track to cutting hunger at least by half by 2015," said Joachim Von Braun, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), citing natural disasters, military conflicts and unequal economic development.

CGIAR, which groups governments, research organisations and private foundations, supports biotechnology to promote farm growth. That puts it at loggerheads with opponents of genetically modified (GM) food who are worried about safety risks.

The European Union has placed a moratorium on approvals of GM foods since 1998, while some African countries facing food shortages, including Zambia and Zimbabwe, are so wary of gene-altered crops that they have refused such food aid.

GREEN REVOLUTION FOR AFRICA?

CGIAR members said natural calamities, war, political corruption and acute water shortages in many of the world's poorest countries made the case for biotechnology more pressing than ever.

"I believe the opportunity is ripe for a green revolution in many poor areas, including Cambodia and Africa," said Keijiro Otsuka, incoming chairman of the International Rice Research Institute.

"East and southern African countries have been particularly neglected. In my observation, they possess high-growth potential. According to my calculations, with investment of $10-20 million, there can be revolutionary changes in farming in Africa."

A so-called "green revolution" using innovative farm technologies boosted food supplies in much of Asia in the 1960s and 1970s, reducing poverty levels.

Debate raged last year in southern Africa on whether to accept U.S.-produced GM food aid that could have helped some 13 million facing starvation but endangered countries' key export markets in Europe.

Zimbabwe, worst hit by the food crisis with six million people at risk, said it would not accept imports of GM whole maize, citing fears local farmers could use it as planting seed.

Other countries are struggling to fortify domestic crops against the ravages of drought.

"North Africa, central Asia and west Africa have the biggest water problems," said Adel El-Beltagy, director general of the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas.

"We need to have intervention on two levels. One level is to optimise the use of available water. The other is to change the genetic make-up of plants to produce higher quality food as well as high yields with less water."

Some researchers acknowledged the need to address safety concerns.

"For us in the CGIAR, the key elements of new technology related to biotech and infotech need to be brought to bear on the problems of small-lot farmers," the IFPRI's Von Braun said.

"Of course, sound bio-safety policies are necessary for that."