Could agricultural biotechnology end famine?

Genetically modified foods have advantages over traditional crops but could they end world hunger? See more green science pictures.

According to the United Nations' World Food Programme, 1.02 billion people don't get enough food every day to be healthy. The UN identifies hunger as the worst health risk worldwide, greater than disease and war [source: World Food Programme]. Could science eliminate this problem?

It's a complicated question to answer. Theoretically, agricultural biotechnology might be able to produce enough nutritious food to meet world hunger needs. But in practice, it might not work.

Agricultural biotechnology is a collection of disciplines and tools meant to change crops on a genetic level. Scientists insert genes from one organism into the cells of a target crop. If everything works as it should, the target crop will develop the particular feature for which the gene is responsible.

Genes determine an organism's traits. Some organisms have traits that would be advantageous to others. For example, a type of bacteria might have a natural resistance to cold temperatures. If scientists can identify the gene that gives the bacterium this ability, they might be able to introduce the gene into another organism such as a type of corn. The corn plant might then also develop a resistance to cold. That means farmers could grow such a crop in a wider range of climates than the original strain.

Agricultural biotechnology has the potential to give crops other advantages as well. Not only can scientists develop plants that can grow in a wide range of environments, but also increase a crop's yield and nutritional value. It's as if the scientists are building super crops that have the best traits in nature. The same process happens naturally, though it's much slower, normally limited within the members of the same species and not as precise.

While the procedures in agricultural biotechnology are precise, the process takes a long time. Not every experiment is successful. And some governments -- including the federal government in the United States -- place tight restrictions and regulations on crops developed through agricultural biotechnology. Scientists must demonstrate that their processes are reliable and safe before genetically modified food can hit the market.

Assuming that scientists develop genetically modified crops that could produce enough food to feed the world, would that solve the problems of world hunger and famine? It's a bit more complicated than that. Let's take a look at some of the obstacles humans face in the quest to end world hunger.