Efforts to combat world hunger have led to increased attention on biotechnology, not only by farmers looking to produce more and better quality food, but now also by the Vatican. Church officials said at a recent U.S.- and Vatican-sponsored conference on the subject that it is a moral imperative to investigate the potential of this technology to meet global food needs.

Despite existing prejudice and concerns about biotechnology in many countries, Vatican officials believe genetic engineering is a modern science tool that should be explored to address hunger and malnutrition in the world.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) expects the world's population to grow to more than eight billion by 2030. The food agency projects that, during the next three decades, global food production must increase by 60 percent to accommodate the estimated population growth.

At a conference held Friday in Rome, scientists, experts in agricultural development, farmers and church officials shared their views on modern genetic technology. Dr. C.S. Prakash, a professor of plant molecular genetics, said biotechnology is a very powerful tool that can be used in the developing world to grow more food in an environmentally-friendly manner.

"Biotechnology can improve farming," he said. "It can improve our food production by making farming more efficient, by reducing the use of chemicals on the farms, including pesticides and how much fertilizers that we apply. And, also, biotechnology can bring in an element of profitability to farming by producing novel products."

But there are plenty of critics and much skepticism in Europe and the developing world. Some see the move by large multi-national corporations to sell genetically modified seeds and products to the developing world as an over-simplified solution to hunger.

Father Sean McDonagh, a Irish missionary who spent many years in the Philippines, says the benefits of genetically modified crops are still uncertain and more studies are needed.

"It is not yet clear what the impact will be on human health, and actually, what the impact will also be on the environment," he said. "People will say it is only a minimal risk, that is so, but the consequences of the risk could be horrendous."

Critics add there will be damaging effects to biodiversity that are difficult to predict and quantify.

But Dr. Prakash says there is absolutely nothing to show that genetically modified crops could negatively impact biodiversity. To the contrary, he says, biotechnology will conserve and enhance biodiversity.

"When you stop using chemicals in the farm you will have more friendlier insects on the farm, far more weeds and far more birds coming into your farm, and the fact that you can produce more with less land means that you are going to have more of wild lands that are not being cut down," explained Dr. Prakash.

Opponents of biotechnology also say multi-nationals are only driven by profits. Father McDonagh explains that these companies are trying to control food production in the world by making growers dependent on their products.

"Food is a common good. Now it has been treated in the biotechnological world as another commodity, like your mobile phone or your watch. It is not that," said Father McDonagh. "You can get on without your watch, even without your mobile phone. You cannot get on without food."

Dr. Prakash says that, while profits always drive innovation in companies, no one is being forced to buy a product that is not considered useful. He adds that farmers who embrace genetically engineered seeds feel it is bringing added value to their crops.

"Discounting this valuable technology just because a few multi-national corporations are bringing that, is trying to deny the benefit of this technology to people based on ideological grounds," he said.

Participants in the Rome conference insisted biotechnology is just a tool, and like any tool, it must be used properly and with care for it to be safe and beneficial. They also agreed that effective distribution networks for the food, as well as appropriate policies are also needed if significant results are to be achieved in decreasing world hunger.