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Last Updated: Monday, 17 May, 2004, 12:33 GMT 13:33 UK
Gene revolution 'could help poor'
A Vietnamese farmer harvests her rice crop, AFP
GM crops could help poor farmers
Genetically modified crops could form part of the answer to world hunger, according to a United Nations report.

With the world population set to rise by two billion over the next 30 years, such crops could help meet food needs.

Drought and insect-resistant crops could boost yields and incomes, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says.

But it warns that biotechnology is no panacea and must focus on the needs of developing countries.

Global attitudes

The report comes days after the decision by US agri-chemical company Monsanto to stop marketing modified wheat because of consumer opposition.

Hunger is not a problem that needs technical solutions; it needs political will and appropriate policies
Dr Doreen Stabinsky, Greenpeace
Commercial resistance to a strain of wheat called Roundup Ready has been so strong the company has decided to shelve its original plans.

But the UN report suggests that although many Europeans are opposed to the idea of GM food on their plates, many in the developing world are not.

It cites a survey in which the majority of those questioned in India, Colombia and Nigeria believed the benefits of biotechnology outweighed its risks.

In its State of Food and Agriculture report, the Organization said that biotechnology could help poorer farmers by increasing both the amount of crop grown and its quality.

"Biotechnology has tremendous potential to improve agricultural productivity and raise farm incomes," FAO's Terri Raney, author of the report, told BBC News Online.

Gene revolution

Genetic modification, Raney said, could create crops that targeted the specific problems and needs of developing countries.

Vitamin-laced strains of rice and protein-enriched vegetables could improve nutrition levels.

In India, researchers are developing a "protato" - a protein-rich variety of the tuber - which includes genes from a high-protein South American wheat called amaranth.

And in the Philippines, "golden rice" - a strain genetically engineered to produce beta-carotene - is estimated to have potential economic benefits of $137m.

How a plant is genetically modified

Critics say these kinds of GM foods will not solve fundamental problems of poverty and undernourishment, and are "technical fixes" for problems that could be solved by, for example, greater investment in distribution networks and a fairer system of international trade.

"We know there is ample food on the planet. Most of the problems are not technical, they're about access to markets, access to credit, land," Dr Doreen Stabinsky, a Greenpeace science adviser, told the Associated Press.

"Hunger is not a problem that needs technical solutions; it needs political will and appropriate policies."

Research for the poor

It also remains unclear exactly what impact GM crops have on both human health and the environment.

"The only way to find out is to cautiously experiment with those crops," Raney said.

At the moment, FAO said, biotech companies were making crops for the industrialised world and not for those who farmed in developing countries.

It argued multinationals needed to be persuaded that it made financial sense to invest in new varieties of crops already grown in the developing world, such as rice, millet, cassava, banana and white maize.

Currently just four crops - soybean, maize (corn), BT cotton and canola (oilseed rape) account for 99% of global genetically modified crops.

The bulk of these are grown in six countries - the US, Argentina, Canada, Brazil, China and South Africa.

Any potential gains would take time to arrive, Raney said.

"There are big challenges - much of the science is still in the pipeline," she said. "We won't start to see the impact for at least five or 10 years."

WHERE THE WORLD'S GM CROPS ARE GROWN
Others: 0.3 mha (Australia, Bulgaria, Colombia, Germany, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Philippines, Romania, Spain and Uruguay)




SEE ALSO:
'Medicinal' GM crops produced
17 May 04  |  Science/Nature
GM wheat 'delayed, not abandoned'
11 May 04  |  Science/Nature
Bayer deals blow to UK GM crops
31 Mar 04  |  Science/Nature
GM rice: A growing Philippines debate
26 Sep 03  |  Asia-Pacific
'Mirage' of GMs' golden promise
24 Sep 03  |  Science/Nature


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