Facebook Twitter



It's shaping into the great debate for the 21st century: Can the world produce enough to feed another few billion people?

Agronomists and other scientists say yes, and they want more money to research everything from milk cows that also pull plow to hybrid potatoes.Population activists and some social scientists say no, and they believe the only solution is to limit the mouths to feed.

Both sides agree that the Earth's land and waters give up about as much human nourishment as they can with current technology. The bottom line: without big scientific advances, sharp reductions in population growth or both, millions more people could starve in the early 2000s.

The main disagreement is over how much food the planet can yield.

The environmental research group Worldwatch said in a pessimistic report last month that "food scarcity is emerging as the defining issue of a new era" where future supplies will depend more on family planners than fishermen and farmers.

But that's not the way the world's agricultural and fisheries industries or international agriculture researchers see it.

"It's totally untrue that we have reached the limit," said Ismael Serageldin, World Bank vice president and chairman of the world's largest international research consortium, known as CGIAR.

The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, with research labs around the world, issued its own optimistic report on the future of world food production Sunday.

"Despite some gloom and doom predictions, the world has the resources needed to feed the 8 billion-plus people who will be on Earth in 2025," the report says. But it adds that this will require strong support for agricultural research.

The report says CGIAR scientists in Africa, Latin America, Asia and elsewhere are developing "super rice," wheat and cassava strains that can "break through the yield ceiling" and new fish varieties that can double the returns of small aquaculture farmers.

CGIAR scientists are meeting this week in Washington with farmers, private business leaders, nongovernment organizations, government officials and multinational organizations to map out a strategy for feeding the world into the next century. It's a precursor to a world food summit next month in Rome.

Lester R. Brown of Worldwatch said talk of big breakthroughs in food production is "at best unprofessional and at worst irresponsible," because there is no reason to believe science can match the doubling and tripling of food yields that occurred since the 1950s.

"It sounds as though another green revolution is in the making, and I think there's very little basis for that," Brown said. The green revolution of the 1960s and 1970s brought new grain varieties that dramatically increased worldwide production and fed millions.

Now, Brown said, the world fish catch has reached its limit, and the spreading cry for protein is straining limited agricultural land and draining tight fresh water supplies around the world.

The CGIAR report, claiming scientists' work helped feed a billion more people since 1971, says there are a number of breakthroughs on the horizon, and some will help the world's poorest farmers.

Worldwatch is unimpressed. Cassavas, it says, provide insufficient protein for a viable diet.

CGIAR and Worldwatch also have radically different views of the future of world grain production. CGIAR cites advances in wheat, rice and corn research. Worldwatch points out that grain stocks are at all-time lows and sees a future of scarcity and high prices.

Promising research, according to CGIAR, could lead to wide use of:

-Double-duty cows that provide milk and pull plows.

-"Super rice" producing 25 percent more to feed 450 million people.

-Hybrid potatoes grown from seed harvested in just 100 days, instead of the 150 days it takes for tuber plantings.

-Farm fish with flavor equal to the best free-running freshwater and marine fish.