World Bank-sponsored study on global food security gets green light

By Ian Geoghegan

BUDAPEST, Hungary, August 4, 2003 -- CropChoice news -- , Reuters, 08/02/03: Experts from business, politics, food, farming and development agreed the basis on Saturday for an ambitious review of how science can help some 800 million chronically undernourished people in the developing world.

After months of regional meetings across the globe, a World Bank-sponsored group of experts has recommended a searching look at how to harness agricultural technologies, including genetic modification, to meet global food needs over the next 50 years.

"Over $35 billion is spent annually on agricultural research. We need to know if this money is well spent and where best to target our efforts," said the recommendation paper after governments, agribusiness, development agencies, pressure groups and non-governmental organizations met in Budapest.

"Having Greenpeace, the World Bank and a company like Syngenta sitting together and agreeing this is important for the developing world is pretty amazing," said Michael Stopford, an executive at Syngenta, the world's leading agribusiness.

The review, which will cost $15 million and could be finished by the end of 2006, will canvas broad opinion, from local farmers to the public and private sectors, to look at how biotechnology can help fight hunger and poverty as the global population expands and land and water become scarcer.

Oxfam America President Raymond Offenheiser said the review would help make future agricultural research more relevant to farmers' needs in the developing world.

"We agreed an assessment...would be timely, sensible and beneficial to advance new ways of thinking about agricultural science and technology around the world," he said.

"The hope is we can tease out some of the important barriers that large numbers of farmers face -- specific issues like pests, animal diseases and blights that research has overlooked -- take that analysis to the scientific community and come up with a research agenda that is close to the ground," he said.

Integrated approach

Bob Watson, the World Bank chief scientist who chaired the review and who helped prepare the groundwork for the Kyoto climate protocol, said the assessment would be unique in bringing together farmers' local knowledge and the work of university, government and private sector laboratories.

"We'll have a much better idea of what is the role of science and technology moving into the future, bringing together local and institutional knowledge which can be used by governments, NGOs, international and funding agencies," he said.

The review will explicitly not be bogged down by broader disputes over the merits of GM technology, the organizers said.

"We've been very disciplined in not arguing the pros and cons of GMOs and gene technology," said Watson.

"GM is not the number one issue and we've tried to take out the strident debate on GM technology," said Syngenta's Stopford.

"The sort of things -- like drought resistance, plant breeding, rice that doesn't need so much irrigation -- that could be extremely interesting for the developing world, are totally reachable without coming near the subject of GM."

The recommendation now goes to World Bank President James Wolfensohn, who is likely to pass it on to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to drum up the funding.