They were half a globe apart, last week's two big conferences on hunger and biotechnology, but the overriding issues of each will be with us for years:

  • The need for the world's have nations to alleviate hunger in the have-not nations, where an estimated 800 million people daily — of which 300 million are children — go hungry.
  • The role that biotechnology will play in helping to reduce those numbers by at least 50 percent by 2015.

In Rome, at the United Nations World Food Summit, there were the usual charges and counter-charges by one interest group or another, from Greenpeace and other activist groups alleging that hunger reduction efforts are failing and that future conferences should be eliminated, all offset by the unanimous vote of 182 attending countries to renew their commitment for slashing hunger.

“The time has come,” said Spain's prime minister, “for a new association between governments, civil society, and the private sector, aimed at the reduction of hunger in the world.”

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Anne Veneman said President George Bush “is deeply committed to these issues, and we used this gathering to reaffirm U.S. leadership in this regard.” The United States has three priorities, she said: “Reducing hunger by increasing agricultural productivity, ending famine, and improving nutrition. In addition, we think it's very important that we look at international trade as an opportunity to enhance the overall system throughout the world.”

Despite intense opposition to biotechnology and genetically modified foods in the European Union nations and elsewhere, the U.N. conference delegates gave a strong endorsement for biotech as a tool for helping ease hunger.

Veneman announced that the USDA will convene a ministerial-level science and technology conference next year to bore in on ways to help developing nations benefit from new agricultural and food production technologies. She said, too, that the U.S. Agency for International Development will conduct a $100 million, 10-year Collaborative Agriculture Biotechnology Initiative to spur research on crop varieties suited to developing nations.

In Toronto at the annual BIO (Biotechnology Industry Organization) Conference, an estimated 15,000 industry professionals heard from both supporters and opponents.

“We are very good at creating technology,” a Canadian genetics professor said, “but we're simply unable to anticipate their repercussions.” He said the industry is moving too fast, without knowing enough about possible long-term risks of genetically engineered foods and drugs.

But BIO vice president Brent Erickson said, “Today, sustainable development may actually be within our grasp, because industrial biotechnology, alongside agricultural applications, is providing innovative methods for achieving it.”

The organization's president, Carl Feldbaum, said agricultural biotechnology “must be more seriously considered as a significant part of any program to address the nutritional needs of the developing world.” He cited the words of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan: “Biotechnology may offer the best hope (of feeding the world), but only if we can resolve controversies and allay the fears surrounding it.”