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Failures in war on hunger may be offset by biotech

Continued development of agricultural biotechnology offers hope for feeding a growing global population and finding solutions to malnutrition and poverty, Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman said at the United Nations Food Conference in Rome.

“Working together, we can break the crushing cycle of poverty and win the war on hunger,” she told delegates from the 182 nations participating in the biennial conference.

Veneman's comments constituted a note of optimism in the conference where two officials said that the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's programs to reduce hunger in the world have failed. Its own statistics indicate that at the present rate of 6 million people per year rescued from malnourishment, it will take more than 60 years to reach the World Food Summit goal of a 22 million per year reduction.

Patricio Aylwin, president of Chile, in the conference's inaugural address, bluntly labeled the FAO efforts “a tragic failure,” noting that “only poverty has been truly globalized in our age.” FAO Director General Jacques Diouf said “the tragedy of hunger in a world of abundance and waste continues to be a troubling reality,” citing statistics that 815 million people in the world do not have access to sufficient food.

Despite the need, Aylwin pointed out, the world's richest industrialized nations have reduced their aid to developing nations from an average of 0.33 percent of Gross Domestic Product in 1992 to 0.24 percent in 1999 — far below the 0.7 percent the richer nations committed to providing in 1970.

Veneman said the United States is “committed to the goal of ending world poverty and hunger and will walk alongside any country prepared to travel the same path.” New technologies, including biotechnology, “will help meet the challenge of feeding a growing world population from a limited resource base,” she said, citing several examples, including the use of drought-resistant crop varieties in Africa, genetically enhanced cotton in South Africa, and Vitamin A-enhanced rice that could significantly reduce blindness in many countries.

“Biotechnology will also help produce vaccines against many diseases, including cholera, that could be administered through dietary staples such as rice and bananas.”

As with the war on terrorism, she noted, success in the war to eliminate world poverty and hunger “will require an international coalition, united for collective action.”

From Rome, Veneman went to Qatar as part of a U.S. delegation to begin negotiations for the next round of the World Trade Organization negotiations. “International trade is critical to U.S. farmers and ranchers,” she said. “We're optimistic that these meetings will set the stage for further reductions of tariffs (now averaging 60 percent) on our agricultural products and a stronger science-based dispute settlement process.”

The Bush administration, Veneman said, has made agriculture “a top priority” for the new round of international trade talks. “For too long, agriculture has been left outside the trading rules. Over the past 50 years, tariffs on U.S. agricultural products have barely budged downward, while tariffs on manufactured goods have fallen some 90 percent.”

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