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Biotechnology Can Boost Food Production in Developing World,
Experts Tell the World Bank

ISB News Report

The world population has increased by 2.3 billion people in the past 40 years, and by the year 2040, an additional 3.6 billion will be added to it. In fact, about 13,000 new people arrive into to this already burdened earth every hour! The African nations of Ethiopia, Nigeria or Egypt each add more people than all of Western Europe combined, notes the World Watch Institute based in Washington, DC. Most of this increase will be in the developing countries where already one billion people go hungry every day and live in abject poverty. It is thus a daunting task to feed the ever increasing population in the resource-poor countries where agriculture is already constrained by lack of new arable land, small sized farms, and certain destructive agricultural practices contributing to soil degradation and salination.

With this stark scenario in mind, World Bank and the CGIAR along with many international organizations convened some top scientific minds in October 1997 to review the status of world food supplies, identify the prospects and needs of the developing world and to examine the role of crop biotechnology in improving the food security in these countries. The resulting panel report 'Bioengineering of Crops' contends that the sensible use of biotechnology in developing countries can substantially increase food yields while promoting sustainable agriculture. Nobel Prize winner Henry W. Kendall, Professor of Physics at MIT and chair of the Union of Concerned Scientists chaired this panel which included Roger Beachy, Thomas Eisner, Fred Gould, Robert Herdt, Peter H. Raven, Jozef S. Schell and M.S. Swaminathan.

In an interview with Diversity, a news journal devoted to genetic resources, Ismail Serageldin, the CGIAR chief and Vice President at the World Bank, said "Biotechnology will be crucial part of expanding agricultural productivity in the 21st century" and "if safely deployed, could be a tremendous help in meeting the challenge of feeding an additional three billion human beings, 95 percent of them in the poor developing countries, on the same amount of land and water currently available".

The concise (30 pages) but thought-provoking report boldly outlines the present and future problems of world population and discusses the problems of food scarcity and malnutrition along with pressures on agriculture systems. The report then describes the bioengineering technology and various potential contributions that transgenic crops might make to the alleviate the problems of food security in the developing world. This includes prevention of crop damage through disease and pest resistant varieties thus decreasing the reliance on chemicals, enhanced stress tolerance, improving food quality, environmental well being and application to human health problems through therapeutic drugs and edible vaccines.

The report recognizes that investment so far in biotechnology research in developing countries has been meager; but the Rockefeller Foundation's support of the rice biotechnology research around the world should begin to pay off in two to five years, and that rice production in Asia may increase by 25 percent over the next ten years. The bioengineered crops are not in principle more injurious to the environment than traditionally bred crops, notes the report, but nevertheless underscores the need to evaluate potential costs such as the risk and biosafety concerns from the use of transgenic plants including gene flow to the weeds and the development of new diseases.

Finally, the report makes some concrete recommendations to the World Bank urging the Bank to:

*Support developing world's agricultural science including training of scientists in biotechnology;
* Support high quality genetic engineering research programs aimed at promoting sustainable agriculture and higher yields in these countries;
* Support national regulatory structures in client nations;
* Develop in each country an early warning system to identify any potential troubles;
* Increase its support for biotechnology research including ecological and sociological studies at international agricultural research centers; and
* Continue to give high priority to all aspects of increasing agricultural productivity in the developing world while encouraging the necessary transition to sustainable methods.

To obtain a copy of the report, contact:

The Secretariat, CGIAR,
1818 H St. NW,
Washington DC 20433.