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San Francisco Saturday, 17 February, 2001, 00:11 GMT
Health risks from crowded Earth
Graphic BBC
By John Duce in San Francisco

Scientists and agricultural experts have warned that the rapidly growing numbers of livestock projected for the coming decades could considerably increase the risk of the spread of disease, particularly in the developing world.

They said that as the populations of animals and people rose, congested space would encourage the spread of bacteria and other disease-carrying agents.

Experts have also reiterated the need for huge increases in food production to feed the world in the next half century.

The predictions were made at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in San Francisco.

Protein diet

Scientists expect meat production around the world to increase by 50% in the next 20 years. The vast majority of this increase will be needed to feed the developing world, where people are already eating a diet richer in protein.

But the scientists and food experts at the AAAS meeting warned that as animal and human populations grew, they would be forced to live closer together, aiding the spread of disease by passing on bacteria and viruses.

Christopher Delgado, senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, said governments needed to encourage husbandry methods that reduced the risks to human health.

"There is the technology to do this," he said. "We know the routes to research and we know the policies to put in place. But whether there's the consciousness of the problem is debatable. We know there will be in 10 years because the consequences will be dire."

GM technology

Agricultural experts again underlined the need for huge increases in food production to feed the world's population, which is expected to rise from six billion now to nearly nine billion people by the year 2050.

Rice production would have to increase by 50% in the next 30 years, they said. Similar large increases in yields would also have to be achieved for wheat and maize. This was partly because these types of grain would be needed as extra animal feed, the researchers explained.

Some of the scientists taking part in the debate argued that as there was a limit to the amount of extra land capable of sustaining crops, the only way to massively increase yields was to make greater use of genetic research to create hardier and more productive varieties.

Although the scientists accepted there was considerable public disquiet about the use and development of GM crops, particularly in Europe, they argued that the billions of extra mouths that needed to be fed in the future meant there were few, realistic alternatives to the use of the new plant technologies.

See also:

22 Feb 00 | Washington 2000
26 Jan 99 | Anaheim 99
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