Japan and Europe need to embrace genetically modified wheat to combat food shortages in poor countries, rather than pander to consumer fears, the head of a global wheat research institute said on Wednesday. Resistance from the public and consumer groups in rich countries to genetically modified (GM) wheat has forced major producing countries, such as Australia, the United States and Canada, to steer away from growing GM crops. But GM crops can boost yields and help poor countries feed their people at a time of food shortages and rising world prices, said Thomas Lumpkin, head of the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre. "Governments should try to help the public appreciate how much the high price of food affects the poor in developing countries," Lumpkin said in an interview on Wednesday. "By denying them this technology, you are keeping them hungry, they are dying." Wheat and maize account for 40 percent of the world's food and 25 percent of calories consumed in developing countries, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation.
Wheat prices have risen strongly over the past two years, more than doubling from 2006 to March 2008's peak of $454 (about R3 533) a ton, before falling back. Food prices rose 50 percent worldwide over the same period. The maize and wheat improvement centre, or CIMMYT, is a global wheat research centre with offices in 100 developing countries, and aims to improve livelihoods and boost food security in developing nations. No commercial transgenic wheat currently exists in world markets due to strong opposition by consumer and environmental groups in many countries. But several biotech crop developers, notably Monsanto Co and Syngenta have done extensive work in developing different types of biotech wheat. Monsanto, however, has shelved its herbicide-resistant wheat project and Syngenta has slowed the pace of its work on a disease-resistant wheat because of the widespread opposition. The European Union has not approved any genetically modified crops for a decade and the 27 member countries often clash on the issue. Japan supports genetic research, but the public is strongly opposed to genetically modified wheat and rice.
"That is really holding up Canada, the United States and Australia," Lumpkin said on the sidelines of an agriculture and climate change conference. "Japan is a very important market." Countries that imposed bans on genetically modified crops, including Australia's largest wheat growing state of Western Australia, he said, were being short sighted and "pandering to the fears of voters." Genetic science was needed to help boost wheat yields, which currently have annual gains of less than 2 percent, far lower than yield gains of about 10 percent annually up to the early 1960s, Lumpkin said. And with the increased problems of climate change and the need to produce more food without hurting the environment, scientific breakthroughs are needed to bring about a 50 to 100 percent improvement in crop yields, he added.
At the same time, world grain reserves have shrunk, with 53 days worth of supply grain worldwide in 2008, compared with 115 days of supply seven years ago. This could lead to a humanitarian crisis if China, India or the US suffered a severe drought, he said. "If we get a major drought in those countries, then prices will be up to five times what they are today," he said. "People will die, a lot of people will die." In June, Australian researchers, who were developing a drought-tolerant wheat, achieved early success in field trials and hope to have the world's first transgenic wheat in farmers' hands in five to 10 years. Source: Independent online.