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The promise and potential of biotechnology to feed the world

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Christine's Blog, Christine Ross, New Zealand Delegation to BIO 2010, May 5, 2010

The promise and potential of biotechnology to feed the world was explored today in a panel discussion that turned the spotlight on the role of politics as an impediment to the cause. Long time advocate of GM crop development and Professor at Tuskegee University C.S Prakash chaired the panel and shared his passion for enabling the use of agricultural biotechnologies by third world countries. With the recent case of Bt Brinjal (eggplant) being approved and then quickly having a moratorium issued on its use in his former home country India, Prakash enlightened the audience on what happens when politics works in opposition to sound science. The real tragedy in this farcical decision is that conventional Brinjal requires massive amounts of pesticide to survive and be edible, in the vicinity of 46 tonnes per hectare.

Panelist , Professor of Plant Pathology at UC Davis and co-author of Tomorrow's Table Pam Ronald advocated for more science-based information and science communciation which she beleives in lacking in the US. As she pointed out, the world has had 15 years of GM crop development and 2 billion acres planted without a single validated problem. Michael Specter followed with an impassioned opinion about the dangers of idealising the past, a trend towards organic produce he terms 'food elitism' and the rise of high technology anxiety. The New Yorker staff writer (and author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress) believes fear and ignorance are founding problems in the current focus by certain (vocal) groups on the risks of food related biotech.

Deputy Director of the Congressional Hunger Centre Margaret Zeigler explained the organisation's mandate as raising awareness of the plight of the poor in developing countries and urban people who do not have enough to eat, who are on the rise in the US. She made an insightful observation about resistance to using innovative agricultural technologies in some nations being based on their historically negative experience of colonisation and the Western World in general. However, even poor farmers in remote areas desire better crops that require less pesticide and are aware that such things exist. Zeigler identified Brazil as an agbiotech leader in the developing world, managing the fine balance of maximising the use of new technologies, good policies and safety programmes.