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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)


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

Yet, even in Africa, there is suspicion of GM technology. Many countries there, such as Uganda, Zambia and Tanzania, do not allow GM seeds.

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, a Kenya-based group set up in 2006 with support from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Gates Foundation, targets its programs specifically at small-scale farmers.

Three-quarters of the world's poorest billion people live in rural areas, dependent on farming for their livelihoods.

AGRA's Program for Africa's Seed Systems uses conventional breeding to develop new varieties of maize, cassava, beans, rice, sorghum, and other crops resistant to diseases and pests. The goal is to develop and release more than 1,000 improved crop varieties over the next 10 years.

"We've adopted a small grant mechanism that gets money out to plant breeders on the ground, so that they can, over a period of years, and selections and lots of consultations with local farmers, and access to the world's gene banks, come up with something that's truly novel, much higher yielding and resistant to local diseases and with the taste and texture that local people want," said Joseph DeVries, director of PASS.

"To leap to the GM model at this stage, just seems like it's ignoring a lot of the things that make sense locally, that people can do locally without it," he said.

Kostas Stamoulis, director of the FAO's Agricultural Development Economics Division, said only a few food crops are in wide use in genetically modified forms, and most are not well adapted to the varied and often extreme environmental conditions in sub-Saharan Africa.

Africa has eight or more staple crops that are grown in a wide variety of climates and conditions, making it far more of a challenge than in Asia, where single staple crops, such as rice, are grown in relatively homogeneous conditions over wide areas. Mr. Stamoulis emphasized the need for all kinds of technology, including traditional plant breeding.

He said there should be a balance between "people that, in my view, make the extraordinarily dangerous proposition that you can feed the world with organics, which is absolutely crazy, and those who are fanatic about GMOs without looking at the full balance of options."

The FAO said last month the world needs to invest $83-billion a year in agriculture in developing countries to feed a predicted population of 9.1 billion people in 2050.

To achieve that, both public and private investment on a grand scale is needed, but the trend on the public side has been discouraging. Official development assistance to agriculture plunged 58 per cent in real terms from 1980 to 2005, dropping from 17 per cent of total aid to 3.8 per cent over that period. It now stands at about 5 per cent, the FAO said.

Yet, the payoff from agricultural investment, particularly by governments, can be seen in Brazil, a case study in how the Green Revolution transformed a developing country.

Within a few decades it developed from a producer of a handful of cash crops into one of the world's largest producers of food stuffs, with an agriculture business worth nearly 300 billion reais ($172-billion) in annual sales.

Brazil began its Green Revolution in the mid-1970s, with the creation of the government farm research firm Embrapa, which resulted in increased diversification and productivity of crops as well as the expansion of cropland.

Each year Embrapa measures the return to society from research in agriculture. Latest figures show that each dollar spent on agriculture research generates a return of $13.50.

Last year's food crisis, when fears of food shortages gripped grain markets - sending wheat and rice prices soaring to record highs and sparking hoarding and riots - was a wake-up call, one that experts hope will translate into sustained investment.

The unrest was a powerful reminder of the risks of food insecurity and helped spur the world's richest nations to promise to spend $20-billion over three years to help small, subsistence farmers improve their productivity.

U.S. President Barack Obama has launched a $3.5-billion hunger and food security initiative focused on agriculture.

Back on the farm in Italy, Oglio said an operation like his can be run on a shoe-string budget, without the sort of subsidies that prop up agriculture, even in the wealthy European Union.

The 87-acre (35-hectare) farm that his parents used to run in a conventional way was on the edge of bankruptcy 20 years ago, burdened by high operating costs and competition in the changing economy of Europe.

With his back-to-nature methods, Mr. Oglio turned the farm around and now makes profits.

But that is a very European story. His customers, he admits, are willing to pay more for his healthful products because many of them are environmentalists.

The world's poorest people - one billion of them - may not have the luxury of making that choice.

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