Famine is a matter of life and death–if we don’t feed hungry people, they will starve. You’ve probably seen the statistics, advertised by relief groups, claiming 20 children die each minute because they don’t get enough food.

That’s an unsettling figure. I just came across another that’s almost as dreary. It involves people who suffer from malnutrition but don’t die–they go on to lead what must be enormously difficult lives.

Here’s what I read, in an online trade-policy report:

South Korea is preparing for an anticipated eventual reunification with North Korea. However, one factor previously overlooked was how to care [for] the North’s expected large numbers of retarded persons. One estimate holds that up to 25 percent of the populace could be mentally retarded by 2030 due to malnutrition.

Wow. Can you imagine?

The opponents of biotechnology sometimes invoke the classic book Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley, as a fictional warning about the future. The irony is that North Korea is a brave new world of the actual present–and that biotechnology may help reduce the problem of malnourishment.

In Huxley’s story, set in the 26th century, humanity has created a caste system based on intelligence, with the whip-smart “Alpha-Plus” class at the top of the social hierarchy to the semi-moronic “Epsilon Delta” class at the bottom.

The differentiation occurs at the earliest stages of life. Social engineers determine how many Epsilon Deltas they will need, and so they deliberately withhold nutrients to ensure that they will have enough people to perform menial jobs without complaint.

It’s a brutal portrait–and so is North Korea, which is apparently becoming a nation of Epsilon Deltas under the dictatorial rule of Kim Jong-il. Anybody who has visited South Korea knows that it doesn’t have to be this way. Seoul is a prosperous city full of industrious people; Pyongyang might have shared its wealth if its leaders had embraced freedom rather than totalitarianism.

Now a group of scientists warns that malnutrition could become a bigger problem in the future–not just in North Korea, but everywhere. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) says that climate change will have a major impact on farmers, and that harvests will shrink if new crop varieties don’t keep up with shifting weather patterns.

I’m no global-warming alarmist: I can’t get a good forecast for next week, let alone decades from now. Yet I’m willing to recognize that temperatures have been getting warmer in recent years. (The scientific disagreement is about the cause.) But, whatever the cause, everybody in agriculture must keep an eye on the outcome. If current trends continue, according to one report, South Asia’s wheat harvest could fall by half over the next 50 years. Similar catastrophes may await other regions. (To put this in perspective, the population of South Asia is about 1.5 billion – roughly 65 times the population of North Korea!)

There are potential opportunities as well: The same report suggests that warmed-up parts of Alaska and Siberia could become wheat fields.

For the areas that might fare poorly, biotechnology offers at least a partial solution. Genetic modification allows scientists to create new types of crops and do it with incredible speed compared to the slow methods of conventional breeding. Crops with traits that will allow them to flourish in hotter or wetter or drier environments are already in the ‘GM pipeline’.

A generation ago, Norman Borlaug helped spark the Green Revolution. By transforming the way farmers worked the land, he saved billions of people from starvation and malnourishment. He has won all kinds of awards for his efforts, from the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 to the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor just last week.

We are now on the brink of a Gene Revolution, which promises to extend the benefits of the Green Revolution into a new century that must confront the old enemy of malnutrition as well as the poorly understood challenge of climate change. We will want every possible tool at our disposal, including the best that modern science has to offer–and that, of course, includes agricultural biotechnology.

Famines that inflict starvation and malnourishment that destroys quality of life will always be with us. It may be impossible for mortals to build heaven on earth, but we know that hell on earth–or something frightfully close to it–is an unfortunate possibility.

Just ask one of North Korea’s Epsilon Deltas. As Shakespeare once wrote: “O brave new world/That has such people in it!”

Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade and Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org