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8 Ways to Fix the Global Food Crisis

Marianne Lavelle and Kent Garber, . S. News and World Report,
 May 19, 2008

'Ideas range from improving aid programs to taking a break on biofuels'

The world food crisis has two faces. Here in the United States, shoppers stare in disbelief at the rising price of milk, meat, and eggs. But elsewhere on the globe, anguish spills into the streets, as in Somalia last week when tens of thousands of rioters converged on the capital to protest for food.

The strain on U.S. consumers, grappling with the sharpest increase in grocery prices in years, is small compared with the starvation that toppled Haiti's government, ignited riots around the world, and is deepening the tragedy of Myanmar's cyclone survivors. And yet the connection between the developed and developing worlds will be crucial to solving what one United Nations official has called a "silent tsunami" of food prices that has plunged 100 million people deeper into poverty. To stem the misery, relief officials are calling both for emergency aid and for changes in policy worldwide.

Solutions will not be easy to sort out, since the dramatic food price escalation has numerous causes. Skyrocketing oil prices have strained every stage of food production, from fertilizer to tractors to transport. At the same time, demand for grain has never been higher, not only to feed the rising affluence of populous China and India but also to fuel cars and trucks as the world turns to ethanol and biodiesel. Supply, meanwhile, is being squeezed by a years-long drought in Australia, a major grain exporter, and experts worry that climate change may be a factor. In all, there could not be a worse time for investors to pour money into agricultural commodities, but they have, in reaction to the weakening U.S. dollar accelerated by Federal Reserve interest rate cuts. Around the world, panicked governments have responded to high commodity prices by slapping restrictions on exports - thus only worsening the food shortage.

Addressing this unparalleled confluence of events will require extraordinary leadership. U.S. farmers, who labored through years of anemic prices, now question how the use of their corn for ethanol could possibly be blamed for the shortage of a different grain - rice - in far-off Central Asia. Past approaches to foreign aid and trade have been politically expedient but have not helped poor countries become self-sufficient. And the U.N., already coping with a 55 percent rise in food aid costs, now confronts a new crisis, as it ships food to Myanmar.

That disaster makes only more urgent the need for world leaders to act. The ideas they weigh will not ease the global food strife quickly, but they can lay the groundwork for a planet with enough resources for its growing and increasingly connected inhabitants. Among them:

Produce Higher Yields

The average African farmer uses one tenth as much fertilizer as her westernized counterpart. She - most are female - applies little or no pesticide or fungicide to her crops, and her soil has been so overtilled that her annual yields are woefully puny.

History repeatedly has shown that better farming techniques can help alleviate shortages. But development programs of the 1960s and 1970s flopped at boosting African production, and interest cooled in the 1980s during the Reagan years. Now a group of philanthropists led by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has, along with the World Bank, begun investing hundreds of millions of dollars in developing countries, particularly Africa. Their focus: training and empowering poor farmers and native researchers. Vouchers help local farmers buy fertilizer, which has risen in price along with its petroleum feedstock. "In Kenya, a bag of fertilizer may cost 2,000 shillings, and the voucher provides 1,500," says Gary Toenniessen of the Rockefeller Foundation. In Malawi in 2006 and 2007, he says, vouchers for fertilizer helped increase production 50 percent.

The Gates Foundation recently announced $306 million in grants to boost agricultural yields in the developing world, with nearly $165 million to replenish depleted soils in Africa. Says Rajiv Shah, director for agricultural development at the Gates Foundation: "There is so much [untapped] potential, and that could go a long way toward helping address the price issue around the world."

These efforts are not without controversy: Critics charge that western philanthropists are violating African "food sovereignty" and promoting American agribusiness - Monsanto, DuPont, and the like - at the expense of peasant farmers knowledgeable about local practices. But local practices have yielded scarcity. A farmer in India grows three to four times as much food on the same amount of land as a farmer in Africa; a farmer in China, roughly seven times as much.

Grow Better Crops

Can genetically modified plants cure the food crisis? Proponents say that environmentalists and Europeans should quit their opposition to this technology if they want to accelerate global food production. Producing more hardy varieties than those found in nature, by inserting genes into crops in the laboratory, would be a benefit to all, they say. But it's not that simple. There's another factor that may trump enviros' worry about health risks and damage to native species that grow near the altered crops. Expensive gm crops simply haven't had much impact in boosting global food supply.

It makes sense to consider improved crops because conventional breeding has produced so much success. More productive strains of rice and wheat accounted for 21 percent of the growth in crop yields in developing countries from 1961 to 1980 and an astonishing 50 percent increase in yield from 1981 to 2000. "We need another breakthrough," says Norman Borlaug, who won a Nobel Prize for launching this so-called green revolution.

Genetically modified plants, which first hit the market in the mid-1990s, are widely used today for corn, soybeans, canola, and cotton. Just two engineered traits are sold: resistance to glyphosate, a herbicide used to kill weeds around crops, and the insect-killing powers of BT, a microorganism that produces chemicals toxic to bugs, not humans. gm crops have been embraced in the United States and in Brazil, Argentina, Australia, and Canada. But those crops have so far had little appeal in the developing world, where most farmers can't afford the herbicides or the high-priced gm seeds.

The only gm crops used in the developing world so far are BT cotton and canola, popular in India and China. Pesticide use has dropped 42 percent in India in 2005 as a result of BT cotton, but controversy has erupted as to whether the cotton is as productive as non-BT strains.

The benefits to date for farmers using gm seeds have not been larger crops - yields of gm soybeans run about 10 percent less than non-gm beans - but savings on chemicals and labor.

In April, a multinational review on the future of food production found that gm foods haven't been around long enough for researchers to know how they will affect human health and the environment. Genes from gm crops can drift into nonengineered crops, which threatens organic farmers and could destroy native plant strains. Mexico approved limited use of gm corn earlier this year but only after buffer zones were established to protect native corn.

Traditional plant breeding has been eclipsed by the hype surrounding gm crops. But even traditional breeders say there is much they can do to improve yields. This includes so-called transgenic methods, which tackle fungus and insects, and marker-assisted breeding, in which genes associated with desirable traits are tagged to speed up the breeding process.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center has been working with local scientists to develop drought-resistant strains of corn, including open-pollinated varieties that can be replanted from saved seeds. More than 50 of these strains and hybrids have been created, with yields 20 to 50 percent higher than regular strains in a drought.


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The latest issue of Plant Physiology (July 2008; Volume 147, Issue 3) has a special section on next generation of biotech crops especially on nutritional improvement.  These papers can
be downloaded free!

Influence of Transgenosis on the Plant-Insect- Relationships, in Particular on Chemically       Mediated Interactions

Effect of Transgenes Conferring Enhanced Pathogen Resistance on the Interaction with Symbiotic        Fungi in Rice

Impact on the Soil Ecosystem through Natural and Genetically Engineered Organisms:
      Effects, Methods and Definition of Damage as Contribution to Risk Assessment

The Decomposition of Bt-Corn on the Fields and its Impact on Earthworms and on other        Macroorganisms in the Soil

Environmental Post-market Monitoring of Bt-maize:
       Approaches to Detect Potential Effects on Butterflies and Natural Enemies

Columns by Dan Gardner

Against the Grains: 'The Terminator Hoax '

Decisions taken in the 84th Meeting of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee

Brazilian Health Biotech: Fostering Crosstalk Between Public and Private Sectors

Biotechnology Related Article Appeared on 'Samyukta Karnataka' ( Regional Language )
June 12, 2008.

Nothing Left to the Imagination

The Politics of GM Food
Kirit S Javali

Hi-tech seed factories: Sowing Seeds of Success

"Indian Seed Industry is Well Placed to Serve Both Domestic and International Markets"
Dr MK Sharma,
Managing Director,
Mahyco Monsanto

"If we Facilitate Seed Industry, we Facilitate Growth in Agriculture"
Dr Govind Garg,
Krishidhan Seeds

Metagenomics: Window to the Microbial Universe

Few Checks to Prevent Entry of GM Food

Gene Campaign Criticises India’s ‘Silence’ at Global Bio-Safety Meet

An Enforceable International Compact for Infectious Diseases

"Indian Science in Genomics has been Able to Place Itself on the Global Map"

Indian Gene Decoded

The Development of RNAi as a Therapeutic Strategy

FAO E-Conference on Biotechnologies and Water Scarcity

Genetic Landscape

Biotechnology in Food and Agriculture

RH Nature Reviews Genetics 08- Opposition to Transgenic Technologies

Germany: Discussion Paper of German Ag-Industry about EU Biotech Policy Implications

Bt maize performance in Spain

Arsenic speciation varies with type of rice

Why I Am Bothered by Neo-Colonialist NGOs

China experts identify gene for yield, height in rice

The French government has called for a debate on the review of the EU
The World Trade Organisation (WTO) has also repeatedly criticised the EU for "undue delays" in the authorisation of GMOs. See the latest WTO ruling:

The legal bans are in France, Austria, Poland, Hungary and Greece.

EU delays decision on approving more GM crops

UCR Geneticist Plays Scientific Advisor to Movie about “Love, Adventure and ... Genetically Modified Rice”

Gujrat worst-hit by illegal Bt cotton production

Farmers seek ban on GM crops

Call for policing
Ijaz Ahmed Rao discusses the virtues of a bio-safety framework for genetically modified crops, now that they have become farmers’ favourite

Stem cells: The 3-billion-dollar question

Genes as the solution

Food crisis spurs research spending

Global Food Crisis / UN / Bilingual Transcript of Statements by Secretary-General, Heads of Concerned Agencies, and Response to Questions at Press Conference on Global Food CrisisGM Crops, A World View

Mass Protests against GM Crops in IndiaInterference at the EPA

Open letter to Robert B. Zoellick, President, World BankNew BT variety may push short staple cotton output.

The future of agricultural biotechnology: Creative, destruction, adoption, or irrelevance? ICABR Conference 2008

Soaring food prices and global grain shortages are bringing new pressures on governments, food companies and consumers to relax their longstanding resistance to genetically engineered crops.

Prof. Kameswara Rao and Dr. T.M. Manjunath's Participation in 2008 Biotech Activities

Scrutinizing Industry-Funded Science: The Crusade Against Conflicts of Interest

LEADER: Nurturing nanotech

Center for Indigenous Knowledge for Agriculture and Rural Development

Scientists find potential schistosomiasis treatment

Islamic conference boosts S&T with new resolutions

Mexico publishes GM approval guidelines

Uganda 'close to stamping out Hib meningitis'

New method 'prevents spread of GM plants'

Social factors 'help women with post-tsunami stress'

Women scientists celebrated in new charter

Sub-Saharan Africa news in brief: 13–25 March

Brazil creates US$18 million fund for young scientists

Health weeks 'powerful tools' for deworming children

Rotavirus vaccine, not treatment, 'cheaper for Panama'