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close this bookWIT's World Ecology Report - Vol. 10, No. 2 - Critical Issues in Health and the Environment (WIT, 1998, 16 p.)
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Health and Environment

Feeding 8 Billion People in 2015

In 1996, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) convened the World Food Summit in Rome, Italy. At the Summit, one hundred and eighty-six countries unanimously approved the Rome Declaration and the World Food Summit Plan of Action to reduce by one half the plight of 840 million people suffering from chronic hunger and malnutrition by the year 2015. A modest goal if not for the fact that the world population is expected to reach 8 billion by that time, and this hunger reduction goal is expected to arrive by increasing food production. The world will need substantial increases in agricultural productivity. Many Summit delegates urged that one solution would be a second Green Revolution.


Advances in agricultural biotechnology hold promises for improving the nutrition of foods, reducing the need for pesticides and water, and contributing to the solution of feeding 8 billion in within 20 years. Biotechnology can be defined as the use of living organisms to make or modify products, to improve plants or animals, or to develop microorganisms for specific uses. However, today, from Brugges, Barcelona and Berlin there is an open revolt over the prospect of a future in which nature has somehow been altered by people wielding test tubes. In fact, much of the media coverage during the Food Summit centered on several well-fed European women who bared their bodies at the press conference of US Secretary of Agriculture, Dan Glickman, to protest genetically engineered soybeans. The soybean in question has been modified to tolerate an herbicide revolutionizing one of the world's most important crops.

Why all the outcry? Archeologists have documented more than 12,000 years of agriculture during which time farmers have genetically altered crops. One of the first practices was adding yeast to bread or by selecting the best seeds from one harvest and using them the next season, a process that led to enormous changes in the crops we grow and the food we eat.

It has been more than five hundred years since people realized that rennet from the stomach of calves turned milk into cheese. At that time nobody knew why but we know today that an enzyme called chymosin does the job. Now an enzyme made through genetic engineering has replaced the rennet.

In rich and poor countries alike all over the world, the primary objective of plant breeding at agricultural research stations is to improve farm productivity, usually by developing crops with higher yields. In crossing varieties with various traits, scientists also monitor and attempt to maintain consumer characteristics such as taste, cooking qualities and appearance. This is because such characteristics have a bearing on market price and subsequently on profitability which motivate farmers to adopt improved varieties. It is only in the last thirty years, that we have become able to do so through biotechnology at high levels of predictability, precision and safety.


Our food supply depends on the rich diversity of life. The agricultural value of wild plant species is potentially limitless and in the past undiscovered species have proven valuable for cross-breeding with domesticated relatives to develop increased crop disease resistance and crop yields, naturally occurring pesticides, enhanced nutritional quality, and other natural resources. As the world's ecosystems continue to be destroyed, we cannot count the number of wild species with potential agricultural benefits that are lost.

Incidence of Undernutrition in Developing Countries

Note: *The World Food Summit Plan of Action envisages an ongoing effort to eradicate hunger in all countries, with an immediate view to reducing the number of undernourished people to half its present level not later than 2015 and a mid-term review to ascertain whether it is possible to achieve this target by 2010.

SOURCE: Reforming FAO, 1997

Here are some examples of agricultural contributions:

· In the 1970s, genetic material from several wild corn species originating in Mexico were used to stop a corn blight which had previously wiped out 15% of the corn crop in the United States.

· Genes resistant to coffee rust were found in several wild. varieties of coffee growing in Ethiopia. These genes were bred into the South and Central American coffee crops just in time to prevent their destruction by coffee rust, a disease which previously devastated the coffee crops in Sri Lanka. Since Brazilian and most other South and Central American coffee plantations are descended from a single species originating in east Africa, they were especially vulnerable to this disease, which appeared in Brazil in 1970, spread quickly to Central America, and threatened. to disrupt coffee-based economies. Unfortunately, over 80 percent of the African forest habitat which nurtures these wild varieties of coffee tree has been destroyed and the balance is severely threatened.

· The wild maize species, Zea diploperennis, is the only maize possessing perennial growth and is resistant to almost all known corn diseases. Genes from this wild plant could boost corn production worldwide by the billions of dollars through year-round production. It was estimated to be only a week away from extinction when discovered by a Mexican college student.

· African soapberries might save millions of dollars by helping to control the spread of the accidentally-introduced zebra mussel an exotic species which is threatening the survival of native mussel species and clogging water-intake pipes in many American lakes.


The first bio-engineered food to reach the world's markets, the "flavr savr tomato" went on sale in the United States in 1994. Biotechnologists gave the tomato an extra gene, which prevents it softening soon after it is ripe. The main benefit was to improve taste. Traditional tomatoes have to be picked while they are still green to prevent them from rotting before they reach the market. Like tomatoes, 40% of the world's crops are destroyed as they grow or before they leave the field. The new variety can be left to ripen on the vine which improves its homegrown taste.

The flavr savr tomato was the first food to benefit from the United States government 1992 ruling which stated that food derived from gene-altered plants is not required to undergo any special tests. Today there are dozens of varieties of genetically modified seeds-corn, soybean, potatoes and cotton to name a few-that have been planted in the United States and many more will follow.


The phenomenon now known as the Green Revolution that began in the 1960s has helped keep food supply ahead of rising demand over the past 30 years. By doubling and tripling yields, it bought time for developing countries to start dealing with rapid population growth. Between 1950 and 1990 grain yields of the three main staple food crops-rice, wheat and corn - increased by nearly two and a half times, from 1.06 metric tons per hectare to 2.52 tons. A second revolution also should raise the productivity of other important food crops such as sorghum, millet, and cassava-foods produced and consumed mainly by the world's poor.

Throughout the world in 1997, more than 30 million acres of commercial farmland were planted with genetically modified seeds - 10 times as many as the year before. But not one acre was in the 15 countries which make up the European Union. The European Union is holding out for food labeling, and even in the United States some civil society groups are backing the quest for labeling if only to put the US in line with international trade in these products. One reason that the Consumer's Union is keen on labeling is to address the issue of food allergies. When genes are moved from one species to another allergies may follow as well. Not a small worry when potentially life-threatening food allergies affect some 2 percent of adults and up to 8 percent of children.

According to the Consumers Union, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine in March 1996 confirmed that life-threatening allergens had been unknowingly transferred from Brazil nuts into a soybean when genes were introduced to improve the soybean's protein content. The product was withdrawn.

On January 1, 1998, the US Government approved genetically modified soybeans, cotton, corn, summer squash, potatoes, canola oil, radicchio, papayas and tomatoes. Now the amount of genetically modified soybeans, cotton and corn is significant. The gene-altered corn crops in the United States are now estimated to be 32 percent of the total, for soybeans 38 percent and for Canadian canola oil 58 percent. It is important to note that although a crop has approval, it is not necessarily being sold.

Currently, it takes one hectare or two and one half acres of land to feed four people. However, as a result of population growth, drought and the rise of middle class preferences for better and more food in many countries, that same amount of land is going to have to feed 6 people in about 20 years, without destroying an already fragile ecosystem. While we can examine the motivations for the Europeans to protest bio-altered soybeans, we cannot discount the promise that safe biotechnology can play. Another alternative is swift and stringent reductions in family size. The protests against such policies would likely be more dramatic than the bare-breasted demonstrators in Rome.

World Population: Looking Ahead to 2150

Geographic Distribution:

· 80% of people live in the less developed world, 20% in more developed countries

- By 2150, the balance will be 90% to 10%

Age Structure:

· Median age in 1995 was 25.4 years

- Medium fertility projections indicate a median age of 42.9 by 2150

· Current percentage of population aged 60 years or above: 10

- This percentage will increase to 31 by 2150

· The oldest category of the elderly, aged 80+, will increase most rapidly from 61 million in 1995 to 1.05 billion by 2150

SOURCE: Excerpted from World Population Prospects, United Nations Population Division, 1998