The Bush administration has added a controversial ingredient to the $770-million aid package it recently proposed to ease the world food crisis: language that would promote the use of genetically modified crops in food-deprived countries.
The value or detriment of genetically modified, or bioengineered, food is an intensely disputed issue in the U.S. and in Europe, where many countries have banned foods made from genetically modified organisms.
Proponents say that genetically modified crops can result in higher yields from plants that are hardier in harsh climates.
"We certainly think that it is established fact that a number of bioengineered crops have shown themselves to increase yields through their drought resistance and pest resistance," said Dan Price, a food aid expert on the National Security Council.
Opponents of such crops allege that they can cause allergies, illnesses and unforeseen medical problems in those who consume them.
They also contend that the administration's plan is aimed at helping American agribusinesses such as Monsanto, which manufactures genetically modified varieties of seed.
"This is a hot topic now with the food crisis," said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Assn. "I think it's pretty obvious at this point that genetically engineered crops -- they may do a number of things, but they don't increase yields. There are no commercialized crops that are designed to deal with the climate crisis."
Bush proposed the food package two weeks ago as aid groups and the U.N. World Food Program pressed Western governments to provide additional funds to bridge the gap caused by rising food prices.
The aid must win congressional approval.
It would direct the U.S. Agency for International Development to spend $150 million of the total aid package on development farming, which would include the use of genetically modified crops.
The U.S. is already the U.N. food program's largest donor, providing nearly half of the help the group receives from governments. The U.S. gave about $1.1 billion to the program in both 2006 and 2007. Overall, the World Food Program provided $2.6 billion in aid in 2006. The U.N. estimates that 852 million people are facing a daily food emergency.
Some aid organizations say it is time to consider genetically modified crops in tough growing conditions.
"I think it's good, that it should be part of the package," said Mark Rosegrant, an environment and technology specialist with the International Food Policy Research Institute.
"It shouldn't be the only thing in the package. It is now showing quite a bit of potential in starting to address some of the long-term stresses, drought and heat. It improves yields in some of these very difficult environments."
But Noah Zerbe, an assistant professor of government and politics at Humboldt State University, said that genetically modified crops might not be appropriate for developing countries.
"You get fantastic yields if you're able to apply fertilizer and water at the right times, and herbicides to go along with that," Zerbe said. "Unfortunately, most African farmers, they can't afford these inputs."
The U.S. tried to introduce genetically modified crops to Africa in 2002, with mixed results. European Union opposition was part of the reason that several African nations balked at an offer of U.S. aid that included corn, some of which was genetically modified.
In the throes of a severe drought, Zambia rejected the U.S. aid altogether. Several other countries accepted the U.S. corn, but only after it was milled to prevent farmers from planting it and growing their own genetically modified corn.
The National Security Council's Price said the administration is working to persuade European nations to lift their objection to the use of such crops in Africa.
Rosegrant said that given current dire food shortages, new biosafety measures and negotiations with countries receiving aid could resolve such problems.
"There's evidence that those fears tend to be overblown," he said. "The crops they're exporting are not the crops that are genetically modified. It's a little too soon to tell, but it looks like there's some increasing acceptance because of the high food prices."