Page last updated at 00:24 GMT, Wednesday, 21 October 2009 01:24 UK

UK urged to lead on future food

By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website

Vegetable market
The world's food supply has to rise by about 50% in 40 years, the report says

The UK should plough £2bn ($3.3bn) into crop research to help stave off world hunger, says the Royal Society.

It says the world's growing population means food production will have to rise by about 50% in 40 years and the UK can lead the research needed.

Approaches it endorses include genetic modification, improved irrigation and systems of growing crops together that reduce the impact of diseases.

It says that rising yields have brought "complacency" over food supplies.

Earlier in the year, the G8 pledged to spend $20bn (£12bn) improving food security for the developing world.

Professor Sir David Baulcombe: ''We have to look at all the options that we have''

The Royal Society's report, Reaping the Benefits: Science and the Sustainable Intensification of Global Agriculture, concludes that science has to have a significant role if the food supply is to be maintained in 2050, when the world population may have reached nine billion.

The Green Revolution that created new high-yielding strains of crops such as rice and maize in the 1950s and 60s reduced hunger and improved food security, it says, but a new push is needed quickly.

"We need to take action now to stave off food shortages," said Professor Sir David Baulcombe from Cambridge University who chaired the study.

"If we wait even five to 10 years, it may be too late.

"In the UK we have the potential to come up with viable scientific solutions for feeding a growing population, and we have a responsibility to realise this potential."

GM divide

In June, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said there were now one billion hungry people in the world - "the first time in history" there had been so many.

Sir Paul McCartney at rally
Celebrities such as Sir Paul McCartney have embraced the anti-GM cause

Although it said rising unemployment and lower incomes were to blame for recent increases in the number of hungry people, investment in science to increase the supply of food was also needed.

The Royal Society says the UK should spend £200m per year for the next 10 years on food-oriented research.

Short-term plans could involve improving irrigation so water is used more efficiently, and promoting management patterns where plants are grown together for the benefit of crops.

Techniques include growing plants around the edges of agricultural fields that attract predators of insect pests.

Investment should also go into advanced plant-breeding technologies, including genetic modification.

Although acknowledging the approach can lead to problems such as the unwanted spread of inserted genes into neighbouring wild plants, it says the genetic modification can in principle produce crop strains resistant to disease, drought, salinity, heat and toxic heavy metals.

Experimental strains resistant to drought and salinity are showing promise, it says - conclusions that were welcomed by the Agricultural Biotechnology Council (ABC), the UK group representing companies in the field.

MODERN PLANT-BREEDING TOOLS
Traditional cross-breeding
Comparative genomics - analysing genes responsible for key traits
Marker-assisted selection - genetic and genomic analysis is used to select varieties to cross
Embryo rescue - plant-breeder's equivalent of special care baby unit, where embryos from difficult crosses are raised in special conditions
Genetic engineering

"Food security is one of the biggest challenges we currently face," said ABC's chairman Julian Little.

"Advanced crop breeding using biotechnology and GM methods... are already being used by more than 13 million farmers around the world and helping to deliver higher and more reliable crop yields while mitigating major threats to crop production, such as damaging effects of pests, diseases and droughts."

But environmental groups were less enthusiastic.

"The bottom line is that governments have made the wrong R&D investments, focusing research on unrealised biotech solutions, rather than on the needs of poorer farmers", said Becky Price, a researcher with GeneWatch UK.

"The use of transgenics is often described as a powerful tool. However to date, the only widely used traits developed by genetic modification are herbicide tolerance and Bt insect resistance."

Herbicide tolerant crops are made resistant to a proprietary weedkiller, while Bt crops include genes that produce an insect-killing toxin.

The Royal Society also said that climate change is likely to increase the scale of the "challenge" ahead, by decreasing crop yields in most parts of the world.

Richard.Black-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk



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