The price and availability of food have forced there way onto the agenda of the leaders of the G8 countries (the U.S., Canada, Japan, Germany, United Kingdom, Italy, France and Russia) meeting in Hokkaido, northern Japan on July 7-9. They will review input from a June 15 meeting in Okinawa, Japan of the G8 ministers and the European Commissioner responsible for science and technology and ministers and senior officials from Brazil, China, India, Mexico, Philippines, the Republic of Korea and South Africa. According to the notes from the Chairman of the meeting, enhancing agricultural productivity through the use of biotechnology was among the issues discussed.

The headline issue for the G8 meeting was supposed to be global climate change and the political response from developed countries. The science and technology ministers did focus on research and development needed to achieve fundamental breakthroughs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and realize a “low-carbon society.” As would be expected, they talked about the hope for next generation technology for producing cellulosic ethanol and synthesis gas from waste.

Food security issues have garnered the spotlight because they are immediate issues that affect the lives of millions of people. The science and technology ministers noted that sustainable supplies of water, food and energy and conserving biodiversity were priority research areas. They seek “to enhance agricultural productivity, improve nutritional value of staple crops, control plant pests and diseases, and restore and maintain soil fertility, while decreasing adverse environmental impacts of agriculture.” They believe, “Food security would also be improved by increased access to new agricultural technologies including biotechnology and post-harvest technologies.”

This interest in increased food production in developing countries is occurring at a time of increased focus on resource use. During the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s crop inputs like fertilizer and irrigation were relatively low cost and devoting more land to crop production was considered good. With high priced petroleum raising the costs of fertilizer and water pumping, large scale water projects being frowned upon and concerns about the loss of biodiversity and global warming, using existing resources more efficiently is a must to meet food production needs. This is where technology generally and biotechnology specifically can play a role. For example, India’s cotton yield had plateaued in the 1990s at about 250-275 pounds per acre, a low yield compared to the rest of the world. Now about 80 percent of India’s cotton is hybrid and 65 percent is biotech for control of insects. The average yield has increased to over 500 pounds per acre.

Biotechnology in crop production is a proven technology. This past spring about 190 million acres of biotech corn, soybeans, cotton and canola were planted in the northern hemisphere. Worldwide planting of biotech crops since they were commercialized in 1996 has been 1.9 billion acres. In the southern hemisphere planting season beginning in September another 100 million acres of biotech crops will be planted. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, 11 million of the 12 million farmers planting biotech crops in 2007 were limited resource farmers in developing countries, including 3.8 million small-scale farmers in India growing biotech cotton and 7.1 million small-scale cotton farmers in China. The technology has proven to be scale neutral in that it can be used equally effectively on large-scale commercial farms and small-scale farms.

While biotechnology enhanced seeds are available right now in some developing countries, the science and technology ministers meeting in Okinawa last month recognized the need for developing countries to participate in the development of all types of technology to meet their specific needs. This starts at the educational and research capacity building levels and includes collaboration at research and training institutions in G8 countries. Sharing research and development costs is an economically efficient way to maximize returns for developed and developing countries.

Biotechnology research and development is widespread. The leaders have been in the U.S., Canada and the EU, but China is now considered to be the number two country in research and development of biotechnology and has the largest public sector investment. In addition to biotech cotton, China has commercial biotech sweet peppers, papayas and tomatoes. China devotes about 20 percent of its biotech funding to rice and has biotech rice waiting to be released. India’s biotechnology research and development programs have grown in recent years with over $100 million in annual funding. Field trials in India include biotech rice, potatoes, eggplant, corn and tomatoes.

Developing countries have been collaborating with each other. China is increasing trade with Brazil and Argentina which are major producers of biotech soybeans and corn. In 2007 the African Development Bank had a board meeting in Shanghai, China were Chinese officials relayed their experiences on economic development in agriculture. South Africa was among the earliest adopter of biotech crops and now grows biotech corn, cotton and soybeans. The governments of South Africa, India and Brazil have a program of cooperation on research on biotech crops.

President Bush put in a plug for biotech crops in a G8 briefing with reporters, “I’m also going to make sure that the world understands the importance of advanced agricultural technologies, including biotechnology, to help nations grow food so they don’t have to come to the world for help.” Canada is also a major producer of biotech crops, and Japan is a major importer of biotech corn and soybeans. European leaders have been less supportive, but now may see the need for change.