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Monday, June 14, 1999 Published at 17:50 GMT 18:50 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Asians eating better than ever

Increased production is the key to food shortages

By the BBC's Clare Doyle

Asians are eating better than ever in the 1990s because of improved farming methods and economic growth, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has said.

Speaking in Bangkok to a meeting on food supply, the FAO's assistant director-general, Prem Nath, played down the importance of the Asian economic crisis, which he described as a blip in the region's long-term development.

The reliability of food supplies would suffer unless population increases were curbed, he warned, and said genetic modification offered the best hope for increased agricultural productivity in the next century.

Mr Nath told the meeting that, contrary to some analyses, periods of economic growth in Asia had benefited the poorer sections of society. He said there was reason for optimism as the regional economic crisis showed signs of abating.

Mr Nath said: "There is a wide range from low to high, but when you take the average - we're talking of the region or sub-region - it gives you a better picture. If you cut across, it's not a negative picture."

Danger of food shortage

[ image: A roadside market in East Asia]
A roadside market in East Asia
But he warned that unless population growth was curbed, the benefits of economic growth would be wiped out and East Asia could face food shortages in the next century.

He said the move into cities was leading to a reduction in the amount of land available for agriculture.

Heavy pesticide use and the cultivation of marginal land - land unsuitable for agriculture such as hillsides or areas which flood regularly - was increasing pollution and soil erosion.

Use of biotechnology

The solution Mr Nath proposed was increased agricultural productivity through biotechnology.

Mr Nath said the cultivation of genetically-modified crops was only an extension of techniques which were already in use.

"If we have a particular insect-resistant variety, I think that will help a lot," he said.

"What we are looking for, we have been doing in the past, through the genetic resources that we have, but still we have not achieved. So this biotechnology is one of the promising frontiers coming in future agricutural technology," he said.

While he acknowleged there has been great anxiety in Europe over the possible adverse effects of genetic modification, Prem Nath said, like any new technology, it could be used well or badly.

But he said that if it could be harnessed in rural parts of Asia, biotechnology could change agricultural development at the same speed the Internet has revolutionised business and communications.

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