Fighting Food Shortages

Last week Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo asked Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to guarantee rice supplies to her country, one of the developing world's largest importers. To American biologist Robert Zeigler, the request underscores two global problems: rapidly depleting grain stockpiles, and the need for a new Green Revolution to satisfy food demand that is forecast to jump 50 percent by 2025. Zeigler heads the Philippine-based International Rice Research Institute, which helped pioneer techniques that began delivering huge gains in per-hectare yields more than 40 years ago. Yet he warns that yield growth has stalled, even as farmland is under increasing threat from urbanization, water shortages and climate change.

Biotech "isn't a silver bullet," Zeigler cautions, though it can deliver new breakthroughs necessary to avert catastrophic food shortages—provided it is sufficiently funded. He spoke by cell phone with NEWSWEEK's George Wehrfritz from Svalbard, a remote island chain off northern Norway, where Zeigler joined other leading biologists to inaugurate what has been termed a "doomsday seed vault," built above the Artic Circle, to preserve biodiversity. His institute alone deposited some 70,000 strains of rice. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What is the significance of Manila's request that Vietnam guarantee its rice supplies?
Robert Zeigler:
It's very significant when you have two heads of state discussing [how to] assure the supply of a staple food of one country by another. That tells me that concerns about the availability of that staple food have reached the highest levels.

Is there a question today about the availability of rice and other staples? Is a major shortage in the offing?
Supplies have tightened quite a bit. Global stocks of rice have been declining over the past five years. That means we've been consuming more than we've been growing. That, obviously, is not something that can continue for very much longer. Rice stocks are now at levels of the late 1970s. So yes, it could be that shortages are on the horizon.

Why is this happening?
A number of forces are converging. There's been some unfavorable weather. We've had a stagnation of yield growth. We've had a cessation of [farm] area expansion, and some of the best land areas [in the world] are being converted for nonagricultural uses. Urbanization has taken up some of the best agricultural land in Asia, and we have competition for water between agriculture, urban areas and industry. Also, the diversion of some grains into biofuels has [pushed up prices] on the market, and we've had a major wheat crop failure in Australia. Cereals tend to be interdependent, and we are seeing a number of factors conspiring to [create] shortages.

How far away are we from a food crisis?
I don't want to be crying out that famine is on the horizon. But if we had a serious [crop] failure in China or India, for example, that could be quite a shock. Already Bangladesh is looking like [its rice harvest] will fall 3 million tons short [this year], which is quite a shock for them. Some of the shocks will likely be more local than global.

But it's the longer-term erosion of the safety margin that really concerns you, right?
Yes. We have got to recognize that we have to increase our food grain supply by 50 percent by 2025. And the way things are shaping up, we're going to have to meet our increased food demand on the same amount of land using less water and probably having less labor available for agriculture. The long-term trends are disturbing, and we have got to invest now to insure that we can ramp up productivity at about the levels the Green Revolution did. We have at our disposal some very powerful scientific tools that can help us do that. The question is whether we will have the resources to develop those tools adequately.

What tools?
We are enjoying the fruits of three simultaneous revolutions. We've had one in molecular biology and genetics, another in computational power and data storage, and a revolution in communications that allows us to exchange data among scientists and work on very large data sets in real time throughout the world. These revolutions have given us the ability to understand how a crop such as rice interacts with a difficult environment. At our institute we have, for example, developed rice that will tolerate prolonged flooding in typhoons or cyclones, which we expect will increase in severity with the changing climate.

Yet fears of genetically modified crops remain palpable in many places. What needs to happen to convince naysayers that they're safe?
People will see over the coming years that [our] molecular tools and genetic engineering are not inherently dangerous. We have been growing [genetically modified crops] for well over a decade now in North America on vast acreages, and no harm has been done to anything or anybody. India and China have adopted transgenic crops—likewise, no harm to the environment. As people internalize that, a comfort level will be established and then gradually transform into [widespread] acceptance. That will be accelerated when people see traits coming out [in the crops] that are of real benefit, particularly to the poor. More nutritious rice, for example, will make a huge difference in the lives of millions of poor children.

And if you go back and look at new technologies that come on, they're always accompanied by fear.
Pasteurized milk took decades to be accepted. People were concerned that if you exceeded 60 miles per hour in a car or a train you'd be crushed by the pressure of the air. If we take a longer view, familiarity will breed acceptance.

Making the case for GM crops would seemingly get easier as fears of food shortages rise.
I don't want to [make the argument] that biotechnology is a silver bullet that will solve all of our problems. I don't believe it. But it is one part of the solution. As we see food shortages occurring and look at some of the transgenic technologies that could help alleviate the stresses leading to those shortages, people will be likely to accept them.

Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute, has long argued that one knock-on effect of China's rise is a greater risk of food shortages in Africa. Do you buy that?
It's a point very well taken. In fact, the very rapid growth in India and China, and the impact that has on the consumption of grain in those places, are one of the main drivers of today's [tight grain supply]. If there are grain shortages in China or India, these economies are large enough that they can go onto world markets and source their grains. But other countries that are importers—virtually all of sub-Saharan Africa, Indonesia, the Philippines, Bangladesh—will have a hard time sourcing enough grain to feed their people.

You are in Norway to inaugurate the so-called "doomsday seed vault." Tell us about it.
Basically, the vault is an assembly of all the gene banks in the works, sort of as a repository of last resort. Today was the opening. We put about 268,000 different strains of crops and plants inside, 70,000 of which were rice from our gene bank at the institute. We made 25 percent of the first deposits.