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Proponents of biotechnology argue that over the long term, biotech products hold the key to easing world hunger. Estimates are that more than 800 million people in the world do not have enough to eat. This number has remained nearly constant since the mid-1990s.

Biotech products that offer significantly better nutrition and even higher yields are under development and should be available in the next few years. These products may offer tremendous benefits to poor people around the world, if they can get access to them. How they gain access to biotech may be the most crucial question if biotech products are to ease world hunger. An extension of the current model of raising the products in exporting countries probably will not allow the technology to reach its full potential.

The 800 million-plus starving people lack the money to buy the food they need. Increasing the production and nutrition of the crops in exporting countries will not alleviate this very fundamental problem.

For poor people to realize the benefits of biotechnology, they must have ready, affordable access to it. This may best be accomplished by farmers in poor countries producing the enhanced crops, which creates a real dilemma for the industry. How can companies recover the research and development costs of bringing these products to market by selling the seeds to poor farmers in developing countries?

Biotechnology has the potential to provide tremendous benefits to the world’s food supply. Under development are drought-tolerant crops, rice varieties that could boost yields by 20 percent or more and crops that reduce nutrient deficiencies. Widespread adoption of these advanced crops could greatly improve the quality of life for the world’s poor and reduce world hunger.

But if biotech products are to meet the expectations of many in the industry, affordable access in poor countries may be the most critical factor. This suggests the benefits for U.S. farmers may be much smaller than currently expected. AM

For more information about biotechnology and other agriculture-related issues, contact Rich Pottorff, chief economist, Doane Agricultural Services Co., St. Louis, at 314/372-3517 or e-mail

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