Food crunch opens doors to bioengineered crops
(Associated Press –
By ELAINE KURTENBACH
outdoor laboratory in the terraced hills of southern
"See these plants? They can tolerate the cold," Zeng says as he walks through a checkerboard of test
fields sown with different rice varieties on the outskirts of
"We can extract the cold-tolerant gene from this plant and use it in a genetically manipulated variety to improve its cold tolerance," Zeng says.
In a mountainous place like
Surging costs, population growth, and drought and other setbacks linked to global climate change are pressuring world food supplies, while soaring prices on the street have triggered riots and raised the number of people going hungry to more than 923 million, according to U.N. estimates.
With food demand forecast to increase by half by 2030, the incentive to use genetic engineering to boost harvests and protect precious crops from insects and other damage has never been greater.
In Europe, Africa and
"Influential voices around the world are calling for
a re-examination of the GM debate," says C.S. Prakash,
a professor of plant molecular genetics at
Genetic manipulation to insert desirable genes or accelerate changes traditionally achieved through crossbreeding can help make crops resistant to insects and disease or enable them to tolerate herbicides. Livestock similarly can be altered by inserting a gene from one animal into the DNA of another.
Many researchers believe such methods are essential for a second "green revolution," now that the gains from the first, in the mid-20th century, are tapering off.
Bioengineered crops are widely grown in
Biotechnology is bound to play an important role in the
agriculture of the future, Robert Zeigler, director of the International Rice
Research Institute, said in an interview with The Associated Press at IRRI's headquarters south of
Such crops "bring tremendous power and advantages to producers and consumers," Zeigler said, noting the potential savings from reduced use of farm chemicals and of fuel for the tractors to spread them.
After delaying the long-expected commercialization of GM
grains for years,
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is a champion of the new agriculture.
"I strongly advocate making great efforts to pursue transgenic engineering. The recent food shortages around the world have further strengthened that belief," Wen recently told Science magazine.
He praised the benefits _ higher farm incomes and reduced use of pesticides _ from widespread use of so-called Bt cotton engineered to prevent bollworm infestations.
The trend extends beyond
European countries face growing pressure, under World Trade Organization rules, to open their markets to GM products. Many among the EU's 27 member nations remain wary and, backed by consumers opposed to what some call "Franken-foods," are fighting to keep genetically altered crops out of their fields and supermarkets.
"Why should we change what nature has given us, when
it is everything we need?" asked Filippo De
Angelis, selling newspapers at a kiosk in
"It's impossible to know if it's harmful to the
body," said Zheng Wencai,
a retired architect in
Those test facilities are kept under high security, both
to prevent contamination of non-GM crops and to protect the country's own GM
"In general, the government has a very positive view
toward GM technology and its products," says Lu Baorong,
a member of the National Biosafety Committee, whose
He wouldn't speculate on a timeline for commercial approvals of GM rice.
Ultimately, widespread cultivation of such crops will depend on work done at IRRI and by researchers like Zeng, who have spent years painstakingly searching for traits that might unlock the secrets to future abundance.
Zeng views genetic engineering as just one of many strategies, including irrigation and soil improvements and better farm management, needed to increase productivity to ensure future generations will have enough to eat.
"Without all these, it will be very hard to boost output further. There will be breakthroughs, but it will be very hard," he said. 11-30-08
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