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What would 'Malthusian years' bring?

Could droughts and exploding food prices lead to a wider acceptance of genetically modified foods?

A mock corn-on-the-cob field set up by Greenpeace activists is seen in front of Berlin's parliament building "Reichstag" to protest against genetically modified corn Oct. 10, 2003. A new report predicts that countries will have to overcome their opposition to biotech agriculture in the coming years. (Tobias Schwarz/Reuters)

SAN FRANCISCO — It seems like a science fiction novel: Near-starvation of much of the world's population results in the development of patented seeds and widespread livestock cloning.

But that scenario is not pure speculation. Rather it is a possible future envisioned by analysts for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, in a new report titled "The Bioeconomy of 2030.”

The report, which extrapolates current trends into the year 2030, deals with every aspect of biotechnology from medicines to plant-based chemicals, and projects their impacts on the world economy. It raises the fictional starvation scenario to prod the public and policymakers into considering biotech agriculture in a new light.

“Two consecutive years of extreme drought and high temperatures in the major grain growing regions of the world between 2016 and 2017 ... caused an explosion in food prices,” says the report published last month. “The 'Malthusian years', as they were quickly called by journalists, fueled further investment in agricultural biotechnology.”

Thomas Malthus, a British economist and demographer, famously predicted that population growth would outpace food production, resulting in famine. But over the past two centuries, a series of technological advances — the Industrial Revolution, for example — have greatly expanded the world's ability to produce food and his theory has been largely discredited.

The report's sections on agriculture stand out because they evoke provocative concepts to revive the policy debate over what opponents have sometimes call “Frankenfoods.”

There has been public opposition to the genetic modification of foods, particularly in Europe, since herbicide-resistant soybeans were introduced in the mid-1990s. Consumers have questioned the health and environmental risks of the products.

The genetically modified crops currently on the market have been designed to resist insect damage and viral infections and to tolerate certain herbicides, according to the World Health Organization. They are widely grown in North America, South America and China, but only a handful have been approved in the European Union.

The report says that overcoming this unease will require some policy response — possibly driven by an unwanted disaster.

"The goal is to get people thinking about the way the world is changing (population, consumption patterns, climate change, etc.) and encourage them to take a hard look at how society is going to cope,” OECD analyst and report co-author David Sawaya said in an e-mail exchange from Brussels.

In the sections focusing on agricultural issues, the report anticipates that growing middle classes in China and India will increase demand for meats and grains. It predicts a global trade pattern in which manufactured goods flow from the East to the West, while edibles flow back from bread-basket regions such as North and South America.

The report envisions that population growth, coupled with trends like water scarcity, will increase the pressure to obtain greater yields from arable lands. The OECD planners also think that an increasing demand for biofuels and biochemicals will lead to the development of non-edible plants designed to be grown on arid or other marginal lands.