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DEVELOPMENT: Can Technology Solve Hunger?

Miriam Kagan

WASHINGTON, Oct 15 2003 (IPS) - On the eve of World Food Day, the development community is divided over the best course of action to fight malnutrition and hunger, the leading causes of death and sickness worldwide.

Every day, nearly one million people across Africa depend on food aid and nearly 110 million people will need it over the next year, according to the United Nations.

Iron deficiency alone affects more than 3.5 billion people in the developing world and is responsible for 100,000 maternal deaths during childbirth each year. Globally, 4.4 million children have visible eye damage and 500,000 go blind because of Vitamin A (beta-keratin) deficiency, says the HarvestPlus research initiative.

On Tuesday, some activists celebrated a 25-million-dollar grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to HarvestPlus, a global research project to breed and disseminate crops for better nutrition.

HarvestPlus is spearheaded by the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

”HarvestPlus is a new paradigm of agriculture as an instrument for public health. In the past, we have looked at agricultures as a product and at having enough food to feed the world. Now we are starting an approach to improve the micronutrient content of staple foods,” CIAT Director General Joachim Voss said at the grant launch.


HarvestPlus’s work on bio fortification will focus on six staple crops that are consumed by the majority of the world’s poor: rice, wheat, maize, cassava, sweet potato, and common beans.

”Bio fortification is different from biotechnology in that it focuses on using traditional breeding technologies to select varieties with increased nutritional content,” Barbara Schneeman, professor of nutrition at the University of California, Davis, told IPS.

”The advantage of bio fortification is it’s a more sustainable approach to making nutritious food than giving people vitamins and supplements,” she added.

The new grant, in addition to three million dollars from the World Bank and two million dollars from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), will allow HarvestPlus to greatly expand its activities.

”The challenge in this area is it’s one thing to select and breed a plant, and another to actually demonstrate that it actually works in the populations we care about. With the 25 million dollars, (HarvestPlus) will be able to test the concept effectively and determine if this is going to work,” said Schneeman.

The project also plans to invest some money into accelerating research into biotechnologically improved crops, such as golden rice.

Noting the hesitancy of some in the developed and developing world to grow genetically modified crops, Voss said transgenic crops ”need to be put into social context: societies themselves have to decide whether they are comfortable with genetic foods or not”.

But some critics in the development community say the money spent on technology would be more useful elsewhere.

”Hunger is a complex phenomenon,” says Anuradha Mittal, director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First).

”The focus on technology is diverting attention from the causes behind hunger,” she added in an interview.

Mittal noted that India, where over 380 million people are malnourished, is also the third largest grain producer in the world. “People (in India) are hungry because they cannot afford to buy nutritious food – so how will they afford the bio fortified crops?” she asked.

Mittal suggests that bio fortified foods are a step toward mainstreaming transgenic foods and that they are ”marketed like the Viagra of the food system. They are the Trojan horse that are catered and sold to affluent people in rich society.”

This year, the United Nations World Food Programme faces its highest demand for food aid in the past 40 years. The agency says it is more than 600 million dollars short of the 4.3 billion dollars that it needs to feed the world’s hungry via its projects next year.

”Clearly, no one organisation can solve world hunger,” said James T. Morris, WFP executive director, in a statement.

At the launch, HarvestPlus Director Howarth Bouis admitted that bio fortified crops might not be readily accepted in local markets. ”The problem is we will have to change consumer preferences,” said Bouis.

For example, the most popular staple crop in Africa, and the most widely consumed, is the white sweet potato. Unlike its North American cousin the yellow sweet potato, the white version is very low in beta-keratin.

Substituting yellow for white sweet potato varieties in Africa would greatly increase beta-keratin consumption by the general population, added Bouis. HarvestPlus is funding a ”Potato Centre” in Africa to inform people, farmers in particular, about the difference.

But ”hunger cannot be fought by technological means alone,” according to Mittal. “There must be social change, such as access to markets, fair wages, water and land rights.”

 
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DEVELOPMENT: Can Technology Solve Hunger?

Miriam Kagan

WASHINGTON, Oct 15 2003 (IPS) - On the eve of World Food Day, the development community is divided over the best course of action to fight malnutrition and hunger, the leading causes of death and sickness worldwide.
(more…)

 
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