Is biotechnology the answer to feeding the world?

ST. LOUIS — The numbers have become a familiar refrain: 9 billion people by 2050. For aid organizations and policymakers, the figures raise an alarming question: How to feed them all? For agricultural corporations including Monsanto, they offer a huge market opportunity.

Creve Coeur, Mo.-based Monsanto, the world's largest agricultural biotech company, has for years made clear that it could benefit from a rising global population and rising food demand, particularly in developing countries. And recent spikes in food prices worldwide, combined with a protracted economic downturn, have sparked debate over whether biotechnology represents the answer to feeding the world.

On its website, in presentations, in interviews, the company hits the message frequently. Farmers, the Monsanto website says, will have to produce more food in the next few decades than they have in the last 10,000 years combined. With finite resources, crops genetically engineered to withstand pests, to yield more and to one day prove resistant to drought will be critical to meeting global food needs, the message goes.

"Our vision is really about giving farmers a robust set of tools," said Natalie Dinicola of Monsanto's sustainable agriculture partnership division.

Industry critics counter by questioning the claimed yields and pointing to recent research suggesting that organic or nonbiotech conventional farming methods could provide more food and better livelihoods for farmers in the developing world. As about 1 billion people in the world go hungry, some researchers and policymakers argue that conventional techniques such as hybrid crops and fertilizers can produce more food more quickly, particularly by small-scale farms in developing countries. Efforts to expand biotech farming into such areas, they argue, aren't appropriate for the large-scale, capital-intensive operations better suited to the technologies of Monsanto and others.

" 'GM crops are needed to feed the growing population' has been a central industry claim since around 1999," said Glenn Stone, a professor of anthropology and environmental studies at Washington University. "I am not yet convinced that it fits the evidence."

Population projections peering out several decades are far from certain, he said. Meanwhile, he and others point out, malnutrition is rarely a question of global food production but of distribution and poverty.

Some critics also suggest that Monsanto highlights fears of global shortages to break down resistance to its biotech products in developing countries.

"To me, it's kind of a little like giving cigarettes free to kids," said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a researcher with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "The goal is to get in the door."

Regardless of the controversies surrounding biotechnology, questions over global food security, which last surfaced with the food price spikes of 2008, have become more urgent once again.

"With this challenge of nearly needing to double food production, where's this quantum leap going to come from?" said Roger Thurow, a fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and author of "Enough," a book examining famine and politics in Africa. "Hopefully the price spikes of 2007 and 2008 would have woken us up. But, boom, here it comes again. We're at this new level of prices, and we got this looming. We have to produce more food."

This January in Davos, Switzerland, at the World Economic Forum, the governments of developing countries and nongovernmental organizations — led by 17 multinational food and agriculture companies, including Monsanto — formed a task force called "Realizing a New Vision for Agriculture."

They met to address the challenge of food security — of providing food for 2 billion more people in the next four decades with finite land and resources.

"We know that will take not only innovation but a lot of collaboration," said Jim Borel of Dupont, who said the initiative will work with nongovernmental organizations and governments "to get the pump primed and get things moving" for technology-friendly regulations and infrastructure.

Another major effort called Feed the Future, launched by President Barack Obama's administration in 2009, attempts to leverage a $3.5 billion government pledge to lure investment from the private sector. The effort focuses on agricultural technologies of all kinds, including biotechnology.

"What we're trying to do is build the capacity in these countries to make their own decisions about biotechnology," said Rob Bertram of the U.S. Agency for International Development, which runs Feed the Future. "We want to make sure these technologies don't bypass the needs of the poor."

This month, eight of the world's leading foundations, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Ford Foundation, announced they were launching a major initiative "designed to impact food and agricultural policies on a global scale."

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