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Our Big Fat World

Editorial, LA Times
As the West’s wealth spreads to developing countries, so does its food — and its weight problem.
THE WORLD IS ROUND – and so are a growing number of its inhabitants.

Amid all the attention Americans’ expanding waistlines are getting in the United States, another trend has gone less noticed: According to the World Health Organization, the rest of the world is packing on pounds almost as fast. More than half of adults in Australia, Saudi Arabia and Mexico are overweight. In China, one in five adults is heavy. Even sub-Saharan Africa, where most of the world’s hungry live, is seeing an increase in obesity, especially in urban areas. Altogether there are more than a billion overweight people around the globe, compared to 800 million who are malnourished.

In many ways, of course, this is progress. More people around the world are benefiting from globalization’s bounty and aren’t as hungry as their parents were. Since 1990, the global rate of malnutrition has declined an average of 1.7% a year. Especially in countries such as China and India, incomes are rising, food prices are falling and more people can afford more “Westernized” (and fattening) diets.

But this expanding cornucopia comes at a price. People are eating fewer whole grains and more refined ones. They’re ingesting more processed sweeteners and fats. They’re cooking less and eating out more – at places such as McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken, both of which now sell more meals abroad than domestically. Meanwhile, a growing number are working in less labor-intensive jobs.
(8 Sept 2006)

Redesigning Crops to Harvest Fuel

Andrew Pollack, NY Times
More miles to the bushel.

That is the new mission of crop scientists. In an era of $3-a-gallon gasoline and growing concern about global warming from fossil fuels, seed and biotechnology companies see a big new opportunity in developing corn and other crops tailored for use in ethanol and other biofuels.

Syngenta, for instance, hopes in 2008 to begin selling a genetically engineered corn designed to help convert itself into ethanol. Each kernel of this self-processing corn contains an enzyme that must otherwise be added separately at the ethanol factory.

Just last week, DuPont and Bunge announced that their existing joint venture to improve soybeans for food would also start designing beans for biodiesel fuel and other industrial uses.

And Ceres, a plant genetics company in California, is at work on turning switch grass, a Prairie States native, into an energy crop.

“You could turn Oklahoma into an OPEC member by converting all its farmland to switch grass,” said Richard W. Hamilton, the Ceres chief executive.

Developing energy crops could mean new applications of genetic engineering, which for years has been aimed at making plants resistant to insects and herbicides, but would now include altering their fundamental structure. One goal, for example, is to reduce the amount of lignin, a substance that gives plants the stiffness to stand upright but interferes with turning a plant’s cellulose into ethanol.

Such prospects are starting to alarm some environmentalists, who worry that altered plants will cross-pollinate in the wild, resulting in forests that practically droop for want of lignin. And some oppose the notion of altering corn to feed the nation’s addiction to automobiles.
(8 Sept 2006)

Kew boss: ‘World must wake up to the dangers of biofuels’

Independent (UK) via Climate Ark
The world should wake up to the dangers of the mass production of biofuels, which are increasingly seen as a major solution to global warming, according to Professor Sir Peter Crane, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Extensive production of biofuel crops, such as oil palms, could destroy remaining areas of rainforest and bring about a new cycle of worldwide intensive agriculture involving vast applications of artificial fertilisers and pesticides, and requiring enormous water resources, said Professor Crane, who as the head of Kew Gardens is the world’s leading plant scientist.

“There are big opportunities with biofuels, but there are big problems too,” he said. “It’s not a free lunch.”

Professor Crane, 52, is retiring from Kew after seven very successful years to take up a chair at the University of Chicago, and gave his biofuels warning as part of a valedictory interview with The Independent.
(9 Sept 2006)