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Britain's national academy of science is calling for a multi-billion-dollar research program on global food security. The Royal Society says genetically modified plants should be an essential tool for feeding the world by 2050, but activists object that GM foods destroy the livelihood of small-scale farmers.
Britain's Royal Society has released a report looking at how science and technology can be used to fight a food shortage it says is expected to hit the globe by 2050.
A Royal Society research team member, Jules Pretty, says the team took into account a number of changes that are expected in coming decades, such as climate change, massive rises in world population, and new consumption patterns.
"When you put that all together it suggest that we are going to need something like 50 percent more, perhaps 100 percent more, food from our existing land and that is a very significant challenge and we believe we need to be thinking seriously about that right away," said Pretty.
The Royal Society says farmers will have to grow improved crop varieties to meet growing food demands. It calls for genetic improvement of crops through conventional plant breeding and through direct genetic modification of crops.
Pretty says the Royal Society is not giving blanket support for GM foods, but says GM crops should be looked at on a case-by-case basis.
He says because GM crops can be designed to be resistant to insects and disease they may also be better for the environment. He highlights the example of potato blight, a common pest that can destroy crops.
"At the moment typically farmers will apply 12 [applications] of fungicide each season to potatoes, which means driving your tractor up and down 12 times and using an awful lot of fungicide," said Pretty. "Now if that GM potato is effective and works then the environmental impact will be substantially less because the chemicals are not being used and there will be less fossil fuel use."
But Britain and many other European countries have resisted the introduction of GM food crops.
Kirtana Chandrasekaran is from the environmental group Friends of the Earth. She says a four-year scientific study initiated by the World Bank says there is little role for genetic modification in feeding the poor on a large scale.
She says genetic modification is hugely expensive and patent heavy, which means the industry is dominated by large multi-national corporations.
"You have seen massive evidence of huge social impacts in South America, farmers, up to 90,000 farmers, being displaced from their land in places like Paraguay because of the advent of massive GM intensive mono cultures, urban poverty increasing, food security has decreased all across the southern corner of Latin America dramatically over the last decade," said Chandrasekaran.
She says Africa has by and large resisted GM crops because it does not benefit poor farmers.
She says for developing countries to improve their crop output, investment needs to be made in promoting traditional farming techniques.
"You have traditional knowledge which has existed for hundreds of years, which is absolutely being starved of any kind of policy support or funding because governments seem so obsessed with genetic modification," said Chandrasekaran.
The United Nations has predicted the world's population will reach nine billion by 2050.
The Royal Society is calling for the British government to contribute around $3 billion to fund the research into science that improves crops and sustainable crop management.
Anti-GM forces in Britain have successfully destroyed many field trials of GM crops. Their campaign has led some scientists to give up GM research and others to call for the British government to carry out trials at secure or secret sites.