Addressing Global Food Production

Jose W. Fernandez
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Economic, Energy and Business Affairs
The Huffington Post
October 8, 2010

Two weeks ago, we had encouraging news about world hunger. The number of chronically undernourished people in the world fell by 100 million from the year before, due mostly to increases in grain production. However, we cannot celebrate, as much work remains to end the scourge of hunger that still leaves close to one billion people going to bed every night without enough to eat and one child dying from malnutrition every six seconds.

Increased effort will be required for years to come to provide an adequate and consistent food supply to rising populations worldwide. Increased production on existing land is the key component of this strategy.

Half a century ago, revolutionary advances in grain breeding tripled production in developing countries and played a major role in saving the lives of an estimated one billion people in Mexico, India, Pakistan and the Philippines. This came to be known as the Green Revolution. It was made possible by genetic advances achieved through slow and laborious cross-breeding research by Dr. Norman Borlaug, a native of Iowa.

After receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for his work, Dr. Borlaug created the World Food Prize to honor leaders in the continuing battle against hunger. He believed that it would require a constant effort with all of the tools available to our best minds. As I look forward to the ceremony honoring this year's recipients of the World Food Prize in Des Moines on Oct. 13-14, I am reminded of the enormous potential that agriculture presents.

New agricultural technologies are an integral part of U.S. trade. Now more than ever, the United States supplies the 95 percent of the world's consumers who live outside our borders. Agricultural products are a critical component of this trade, contributing nearly $100 billion dollars to exports this year.

Ensuring that our trading partners do not erect barriers to innovation is an economic priority for the United States. Roadblocks and opaque regulations not only have a negative impact on U.S. producers, they also limit access to more affordable food supplies for people in those markets.

The volume of biotechnology crops -- particularly corn, soybeans, and cotton -- has grown rapidly each year and now is an important component of our exports. As the world's largest producer of improved food and animal feed products, the United States is a powerhouse to feed the world.

One of the ways we can improve exports and expand the benefits of biotechnology is to encourage countries to develop regulatory systems based on science, not politics. Unjustified and impractical legal obstacles are stopping genetically-enhanced crops from saving millions from starvation and malnutrition.

Through the National Export Initiative, the Obama administration is focused on trade advocacy, export promotion and removing barriers to the sale of U.S. goods and services abroad. We are pursuing these goals by enforcing trade regulations and creating policies for growth so that there will be a strong worldwide market for our goods and services. In the area of agriculture, we can produce a win-win solution for U.S. businesses and overseas economic development through technological innovation.

Investment in agriculture produces positive returns -- $1.43 for every dollar invested in research. Some countries have expressed concerns, while others have embraced the technology and have benefited from its use. Biotechnology can help developing countries to reduce crop losses due to insects and disease and increase the nutritional content of crops. It saves on costly collateral inputs that the farmer must make, and it increases yields, thereby raising small farm incomes. There are other benefits as well, such as increased soil carbon sequestration through no-till techniques, and crops like Bt cotton that dramatically lower pesticide use. Clearly many farmers around the world want what this technology has to offer.

The question is not what the technology can provide, but how to break down the barriers that block its implementation.

Unfortunately, some are exploiting fears and creating problems for the wider acceptance of agricultural biotechnology. These distractions keep us from looking at the science and the potential of the technology to address the doubling of production that will be needed during the next four decades. These crops can save millions from starvation and malnutrition. The technology is here, the science is available, if only it can be freed to reach its potential in many developing countries

This administration is actively working with countries to improve their regulatory capacity to scientifically assess the health and environmental impact of biotechnology. The United States will continue to expand its technical assistance and training programs for developing countries and transitioning economies to put in place regulatory systems that facilitate the utilization of biotechnology to expand trade and optimize food resources.

Science-based regulations will enable these countries to protect the public and the environment, as they enable farmers to meet growing food demands.