The Public Policy

Food Fracas

One way to cut down on rising food prices.

By 5.9.08

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The price of food has doubled in the last three years, for the first time since the green revolution started in the 1950s. The increasing food riots around the world, and the chaos in Haiti recently, have led to a lot of worrying by world leaders. It was at the top of the agenda for the spring meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

The price increase is not a result of a weakened dollar, the increase is seen worldwide. About half of the increase is due to increased corn-based ethanol mandates, the other half is changes in consumption patterns in India and China. As people there get more wealthy, they are switching to a high protein diet, which in turn leads to increased cereal demands.

The current food crunch is a crisis of wealth distribution and not lack of supply in the market. There is no shortage of food in the world just yet. The countries where we have seen riots, such as Haiti, are countries with wobbly political rights and low economic development. The hike in global food prices is making it very hard for citizens of those countries to afford to eat.

To illustrate the point of how much the price increases hurt, Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank held up a two pounds bag of rice at a recent press conference. It takes a family in Bangladesh half a day of work to afford two pounds of rice, he said.

The effects of the crisis in the US will be subtler, but still significant. We are not likely to see outright hunger, but the increased food prices are very likely to that this will lead to an increase in malnutrition. Limited incomes and food stamps will only stretch so far.

There have recently been many calls to repeal biofuel mandates and subsidies, which would help to ease but not end food shortages. Estimates indicate we will need to double the current food production in the next four decades.

The good news is that we have the technology to do this; the bad news is that politicians are getting in the way. Molecular plant breeding, or so-called genetically modified organisms are the technology that will bring us the second green revolution.

ALTHOUGH HUMANS HAVE selected for desired traits in plants for 10,000 years, the plant breeding technologies we use today are less than 100 years old. These techniques include various cross pollination methods, induced sterilization, and mutations induced with chemicals and radiation.

Molecular plant breeding was added to the toolkit 25 years ago, but the development of plants with this method has been hampered by attacks from environmental activists and excessive regulatory red tape. Even in the U.S., which is considered to have embraced the technology, a plant breeder will have to spend about $150 million in regulation costs just to bring one plant to market.

The government does not regulate the other plant breeding technologies. This does not mean that there are no risks involved in cross-pollination and mutagenesis. Undesirable traits can be included in the new plant, such as toxicity or allergens. Because of these risks, the plant breeders have voluntary testing conventions in place to ensure that plants with an undesirable trait does not reach the food supply, and this seems to have worked fine for the last 100 years.

In the meantime, the plants created with molecular plant breeding are wilting away in public laboratories around the country. These plants hold keys to increased food production, better nutrition, more efficient land use, and food production that is easier on the environment. But few of these public research institutions can afford the $150 million in regulatory cost that it takes to bring one plant to market.

Maybe the current food crisis can create the political resolve to remove the huge regulatory burden on molecular plant breeding. It almost seems criminal not to. These plants could feed the world and increase the standard of living of all humans, not just in developing countries, but in our own neighborhoods as well.

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