Reliance on crop-based fuel a threat to food supplies--or not

The world will have to start producing more grain if it is to keep up with growing food demands, Scottish Agricultural College professor Bill McKelvey told Reuters on Tuesday.

Several factors will put pressure on the food supply in the future, but increased use of biofuel will be the most significant, according to McKelvey. He cited a rise in the use of corn for ethanol production in the United States as an example.

That shift has hurt world grain stocks, which have dropped from 100 to 40 days' worth of supply in the last six years, according to the report.

As governments encourage the use of crop-based fuels such as ethanol and biofuel, and more individuals convert their cars to run on alternative fuels, higher demand for the crops that go into alternative-fuel production could compete with demand for those crops as food.

McKelvey says grain production will have to increase fourfold in the next 50 years (the same rate seen in the last 50 years) to keep up with growing food and fuel demands.

But in a separate report, Brazil President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said there is more than enough arable land in the world to satisfy both needs. He said his country, as well as the rest of South America and Africa, could easily produce enough crops to feed and fuel the world's population.

Others are looking to the lab to find ways to boost crop numbers. A company called Targeted Growth used what it knew about cancer cells to manipulate plant cells so they'd grow for longer periods of time.

In experiments, the company says it has increased yields of canola, corn and other crops by 20 percent. But there has been some strong resistance to genetic modification as a practice.

For projects such as Targeted Growth's to become a viable solution to global crop supplies, there would need to be a significant change in public perception.