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Feeding the World: Panel of Renowned Experts Discusses Biotech Options

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Why does the world embrace biomedical technologies but tend to fear advancements in agricultural biotechnology?

That was one of the questions that came to the forefront when a panel of eminent scientists and policy experts met at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., during a historic blizzard in February to discuss solutions to the growing global food crisis.

Panelist Gale Buchanan, former dean of the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, said the public’s fear of innovation in agriculture is understandable, given that every major agricultural advancement has been hotly debated.

“People complained that tractors would damage the soil, they had issues with hybrid seed corn, and pesticides have also been very controversial,” Buchanan said. “Why are we surprised when every innovation in agriculture has been of questionable use?”

The panel discussion, “Now Serving 9 Billion: A Global Dialogue on Meeting Food Needs for the Next Generation,” was conducted as a town hall and moderated by journalist and George Washington University professor Frank Sesno. As many as 50,000 participants from more than 30 countries and four continents joined in, sending questions to panelists via e-mail, Twitter and YouTube.

More Mouths, Less Land

Panelists and audience members grappled with the weighty topic of feeding an ever-expanding population. The United Nations predicts there will be 1.7 billion more mouths to feed by 2030 in Africa and Asia alone. The world’s population is exploding at a time when the ratio of available farmland to population is steadily declining, which means that the world must produce more food on less land.

Much of the discussion centered around hunger in Africa and East Asia, as well as the ability of large population centers in Brazil, China and India to feed themselves.

The panel also included Nina V. Fedoroff, science and technology adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; Robert Paarlberg of Wellesley College; Calestous Juma of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government; and Mark Cantley, former head of the biotechnology unit at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. All agreed that the world looks to the United States for leadership.

“We need to help the rest of the world design science-based regulations,” said Fedoroff. “We also need to focus more on education; for example, 20 years ago we educated thousands of African students here in the United States, but today the number is less than 1,000.”

The Kennedy School’s Juma said some nations, including some in East Africa, are taking it upon themselves to educate their citizens. “While we’re not getting much help from the developed nations, we’re seeing a new generation of universities embedded into the Ministry of Agriculture,” he explained.

Wellesley College’s Paarlberg said another major issue in Africa is that there is an absence of modern agricultural technology.

“Most small farmers have no access to improved seeds, nitrogen fertilizers or irrigation infrastructure,” he said. “They are stuck with technology that produces about one-tenth of what a farmer would produce in a developed nation, which means the people live on one dollar a day and one-third of the population is chronically malnourished.”

Paarlberg also pointed out that since 1980, U.S. assistance to agricultural development in Africa has declined 85 percent, and assistance to agricultural research has dropped 75 percent.

“While I want stronger speeches from the politicians, I also want stronger action,” he said. “The reality is that we can’t feed 9 billion people without technology.”