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Sowing the seeds of survival

Scientists at De Montfort University are engaged in a race against time. They are pioneering techniques to improve rice yields in an attempt to save millions from starvation.
It is all too tempting for academics to overplay the importance of their research to the outside world. But it is hard to counter claims from scientists at De Montfort University that their pioneering work has truly global significance. Its aim is to save millions of people from starvation.

Scientists at the university's North Borlaug Institute for Plant Science Research are dedicated to boosting crop yields, helping to feed the world and minimise environmental damage caused by intensive agribusiness.

Professor Malcolm Elliott, founding director of the Institute, warns of the urgent need to act. "We are confronting the statistics of disaster. Fifteen million people die of starvation each year - one every 2.1 seconds, while the world's population increases by around 100 million people a year." The tool researchers are using to help address the growing problem of feeding the world is the genetic manipulation of crops.

The institute provides a framework for international co-operation. It has three other centres in China, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, providing centres of excellence in crop biotechnology. Professor Elliott is in overall charge of the basic, strategic and applied research on crop improvement by gene manipulation. Its mission is to develop high quality strains of crops that can give high yields and minimise environmental damage inflicted through the over-use of pesticides, insecticides and fungicides that are slowly poisoning the planet.

Pioneering research into improving rice yields through gene manipulation at De Montfort has already attracted more than pounds 500,000 of funding from the Department for International Development (formerly the Overseas Development Administration). The institute looks set to play a key role in shaping a response to the impending world food crisis by the exploitation of rice biotechnology.

At the moment world rice production stands at 525 million tonnes a year and feeds some three billion people who live mainly in Asia. The population in the region is expected to increase by some 1.7 billion by the year 2020. Rice yields will have to increase by 70 per cent to feed those who depend on rice as their main source of nutrition. Gene manipulation can be used to introduce resistance to pests and diseases which attack both growing crops and stored grain, enhancing yields by more than 30 per cent.

Professor Elliott's team at De Montfort is working with the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines whose "re-designed" New Plant Type rice - selected from existing plant breeding stock, using conventional techniques - promises to be 25 per cent more productive than current standard varieties. The technology developed at Leicester holds out the prospect of still greater yields.

At the moment some 40 per cent of the grains in New Plant Type rice - already christened "miracle rice" by science popularisers - do not fill completely with food reserves. Gene manipulation technology developed by the Norman Borlaug Institute can be harnessed to release latent potential. This will cause grains to swell, providing more food for more people and making a vital contribution to the enhancement of world rice yields, by saving millions from starvation. The gene manipulation strategy promises an additional benefit. It will reduce the crop's need for nitrogenous fertiliser that is both costly and environmentally damaging.

No one could dispute that these aims are laudable. But boosting crop yields by gene manipulation has provoked attacks from people who fear humans are playing God. Tampering with genetic material sounds scary - there are concerns that the full implications cannot be gauged. The Prince of Wales, a passionate advocate of organic farming, has voiced his deep apprehension over the "brave new world" of genetically manipulated crops, criticising the "confidence bordering on arrogance" with which they are promoted.

But the world has a desperate need for crops that combine low input and low environmental impact with high yield and high quality. Those who believe that genetic manipulation must be used to help plant breeders produce them are launching a counter-offensive in the propaganda war. The genetic manipulation of crops should be seen, they argue, as the second wave of the green revolution pioneered by Dr Norman Borlaug.

Dr Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work on plant breeding which led to a boom in food production in the sixties - and can claim to have saved more lives than any other person who has lived. Last month he travelled to De Montfort University to pick up an honorary degree. He used the occasion to highlight the "debilitating debate between agriculturists and environmentalists about what constitutes so-called `sustainable' agriculture in the Third World."

It had, he warned, "confused - if not paralysed - policy makers in the international community who, afraid of antagonising powerful lobbying groups, have turned away from supporting science-based agricultural modernisation projects so urgently needed in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Latin America."

Professor Elliott sees "pure" organic farming as "an ornament of rich countries agricultural systems" - it cannot be a workable strategy for solving global food shortages. "We must counter the irrational "green" movement assaults on gene manipulation crops so that we can feed the world's growing populations without poisoning them".

Professor Elliott cites another chilling statistic to underline the scale of the problem. "Every minute across the world 247 children are born and 97 people die - leaving us with an extra 177 mouths to feed."

He has a warning for those who think we may never have to worry about food shortages, cosseted as we are in a culture where people eat too much, the EC has food mountains, and farmers are paid to set aside land. We should not allow ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of "food security". Climate changes could cause further imbalances between populations and food production. "In future unless action is taken, starvation could come closer to home within the lifetime of our children." Even those whose instinctive reaction to the words "gene manipulation" is one of recoil should perhaps be grateful that leading edge research developed in Leicester could result in boosting the planet's food stocks. For those whose stomachs are empty, demonising gene technology must seem a luxury reserved for people in the affluent developed world