by Stephen J. Hedges
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer, who travels to a world food security conference in Rome next week, laid out the Bush administration's strategy today for meeting the current worldwide crisis of rising food costs and shortages.
The Bush plan, though, may not play well in Rome.
Speaking to reporters, Schafer said he will press the Bush administration's campaign to use bio-engineered, or genetically modified, crops as a way to help countries that now face food emergencies.
Schafer said that new crop technology can increase crop yields, especially in places where drought and harsh conditions are prevalent.
Schafer also defended the development of biofuels, arguing that they have not diverted significant amounts of the food supply to energy production.
"We think that policy-wise in the United States of America, and certainly in the rest of the world, as we see the price of oil and petroleum escalate dramatically beyond everyone's imagination, one of the ways to deal with that is biofuels," Schafer said, adding that, "In the U.S. and other countries as well, all ethanol production specifically has come from increased yields in corn corps, not pulling out of any traditional markets."
Some aid groups have argued that, worldwide, the increased production of biofuels has contributed to increasing crop demand and food prices.
Higher food prices have made it difficult for those living on the edge of poverty to afford food. The UN estimates that more than 850 million people worldwide face daily food emergencies.
The Bush administration has tailored its food aid to include the use of genetically modified organisms, or GMO, crops, which are made by a number of U.S. companies. The White House argues that development aid that emphasizes GMO crops will help countries feed their own populations. It contends that those crops are more resistant to drought and pests, and will work well in countries where farming is difficult.
The organic farming community opposes the use of such crops, which they argue require sophisticated and expensive fertilizers and other pesticides. But some aid groups say the use of higher yield crops makes sense, especially in drought-prone East Africa.
Schafer described the U.S. strategy going into the Rome food summit as three-pronged: "Provide food and other support to people who are hungry now, direct development assistance to those countries best able to rapidly increase the production of key food staples that can help feed the hungry, and encourage action to address multilateral and country-specific policies that prevent access to food and the technologies that produce food."
The use of GMO crops, though, will probably meet with opposition from European countries at the conference. Many won't allow GMO seed, or the import of foods made from GMO crops. They argue that the health effects of such crops are not clear.
That ban even caused several African nations in 2002 to consider forgoing U.S. aid that included GMO crops because they feared important European export markets would be lost. Eventually the U.S. grain aid was crushed into flour to prevent its use as seed.
Schafer and U.S. negotiators hope that the dire food emergency will change opinions on GMO crops, both abroad and at home.
"Certainly the bioengineered crops are but one of many solutions," Schafer said, "for increasing yields across the country if we're going to meet the demand of increased consumption."