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Italian farmer Giuseppe Oglio shows how millet grows with weeds at one of his plantation in Belcreda Gambolo, 30 km (20 miles) southwest of Milan in northern Italy November 6, 2009. (ALESSANDRO GAROFALO/ALESSANDRO GAROFALO/REUTERS)
Italian farmer Giuseppe Oglio shows how millet grows with weeds at one of his plantation in Belcreda Gambolo, 30 km (20 miles) southwest of Milan in northern Italy November 6, 2009. (ALESSANDRO GAROFALO/ALESSANDRO GAROFALO/REUTERS)

Agriculture

The fight over the future of food Add to ...

"GMOs are just another set of tools in the toolbox, but we need to be able to use those tools," Mr. Lumpkin said. "If we could deploy those varieties so that the farmer in the developing world has the same powerful seed as the farmer in Iowa, why should they be handicapped?"

Monsanto launched the world's first genetically modified crop in 1996 and GM crops are now grown in countries ranging from Australia to South Africa, the Philippines and Brazil.

Up to 85 per cent of the massive U.S. corn crop is genetically engineered, as well as up 91 per cent of soybeans and 88 per cent of cotton, according to U.S. data.

As ingrained as GM crops may seem, a backlash against the technology appears to be growing.

Opposition to genetic modification of seeds has long been strongest in Europe. The European Union severely restricts use of GM seeds on its territory, as well as imports of products containing GM-derived food. Individual countries including Germany ban even GM seeds that are authorized, such as an insect-resistant maize type, MON 810, developed by Monsanto.

Now consumer resistance to what British tabloids long ago dubbed "Frankenfood" is taking root in the United States too.

With North America's industrial farming system, consumers who buy packaged goods from grocery stores are likely eating GM products without even knowing it, according to environmental group the Center for Food Safety. The group, which was involved in a successful court battle to stop introduction of Monsanto's genetically engineered alfalfa seed, also contends that up to 70 per cent of soda, soup, crackers and other processed goods sold under major household brands are GM derived.

"There really is no human health analysis of GM crops," said William Freese, science policy analyst for the centre. "It's a real result of the policy that our government has put in place, which is basically a presumption of innocence."

A banner issue for U.S. anti-GM crusaders is genetically engineered growth hormones for dairy cows, known as rBGH. Introduced in the United States in 1994, rBGH is a drug to extend milk production after a cow gives birth. It was developed by Monsanto but recently sold to Eli Lilly and Co.

Health Care Without Harm, a global coalition of hospitals and other health groups, believes the drug is dangerous because it increases the likelihood of infection in the cow's udder, which leads to greater antibiotic use in the animals. That contributes to antibiotic-resistance in humans, they argue.

Other critics say it may be linked to cancer in humans, despite U.S. Food and Drug Administration approvals.

Proponents have won over a string of big names to reject the drug, including the big yogurt makers Yoplait and Dannon, and have also lobbied coffee chain Starbucks to oppose rBGH.

A Starbucks spokesman said the firm's entire core dairy supply comes from suppliers that do not use the hormone.

"Our core products, coffee and tea, are not genetically modified," the spokesman said in a statement. "We have no plans to purchase coffee or tea that is derived from GM sources, now or in the future."

The industry notes that GM research is supported by a number of august groups, including the Royal Society of Britain and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

For those seeking to end global hunger, rather than just satisfy rich consumers' craving for cappuccino, Africa presents the greatest challenges.

Monsanto, together with corporate rivals, is working with poor countries and charitable groups such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, set up by Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates and his wife.

At the annual World Food Prize forum last month, Mr. Gates warned that the fight to end hunger was being hurt by environmentalists who insist that genetically modified crops should not be used in Africa. He said it was vital to help small farmers there boost production by all means, including GM crops, fertilizer and chemicals.

"This global effort to help small farmers is endangered by an ideological wedge that threatens to split the movement in two," Mr. Gates said at the forum for the prize, which was created by Borlaug, who died in September at the age of 95.

"Some people insist on an ideal vision of the environment," Mr. Gates said. "They have tried to restrict the spread of biotechnology into sub-Saharan Africa without regard to how much hunger and poverty might be reduced by it."

Rajul Pandya-Lorch, who has worked for the IFPRI thinktank on food for 22 years, summed it up like this: "I'm a Kenyan. I resent very much people telling us in Africa 'OK, this biotechnology is not good for you.' Well, we have different problems than you do, and if it helps us to solve a problem, we should try it."

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