RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
High food prices are driving governments and farmers around the world to search for tools to grow more food. Among those tools: genetic engineering. Many third-world countries have banned genetically modified crops. Honduras is one country that's encouraging it. Dan Charles has this latest in our series of reports looking at the global food shortage as it's playing out in this Central American Nation.
DAN CHARLES: Rodolfo Rubio rips the husk off an ear of corn and shows off the gleaming rows of white kernels.
Mr. RODOLFO RUBIO (Farmer): (Spanish Spoken)
CHARLES: There are no worms in this corn, which is quite remarkable because those worms are everywhere here in Central Honduras, and Rubio hasn't sprayed anything on this field to kill them.
Mr. RUBIO: (Through Translator) No, no, the only thing we need here is the seed, the fertilizer and the herbicide.
CHARLES: The secret is in the corn itself. Years ago, scientists at the company Monsanto took a gene from a kind of worm-killing bacteria and inserted it into an ancestor of these corn plants. So if worms start munching on the corn, they die. Rubio doesn't have to spray insecticides the way he used to. He lifts up the corn leaves and points to another kind of insect hiding underneath.
Mr. RUBIO: (Through translator) This is a beneficial insect that eats the worms. They are safer in this land, because there aren't any insecticide residues here.
CHARLES: Rubio started growing Monsanto's genetically modified corn four years ago. He pays about $1,000 extra for enough corn seed for 30 acres. But he says this technology saves him so much time and money, he can't imagine not using it.
Mr. RUBIO: (Through translator) If someone tells me that the government wants to limit my access to technology, that's like telling me that I don't have the right to a better life or more profits, and he wants to see me sink into poverty.
CHARLES: But in the rest of Central America, growing this corn is against the law. Corn is more than a crop here. It's a history and culture. Central America is where farmers first grew corn thousands of years ago. And in some places, you can still find an almost infinite variety of corn plants. Jacqueline Chenier, who is director of a Honduran organization that promotes small scale organic agriculture, says bringing in unnatural genes threatens the integrity of this natural treasure.
Ms. JACQUELINE CHENIER (Director, Honduran Organization): When you come with a genetically modified variety, genes cross with those other varieties, and what you have is contamination, because you have a strange gene in those varieties. So they are not what they were before.
CHARLES: Last year, Chenier thought that these arguments might be getting somewhere. The country's new minister of agriculture said the country might stop growing or importing genetically modified crops, often called GMOs. Then came the food crisis. Corn doubled in price. And just a few weeks ago, that same minister of agriculture said he now wants farmers to plant more corn, including genetically modified corn. Robert Paarlberg, a professor at Wellesley College, says concern over food shortages may be shifting government policies in other countries, too.
Professor ROBERT PAARLBERG (Wellesley College): Egypt has approved GMO corn, China has just announced a large increase in its research budget for GMO foods.
CHARLES: But it's not a big shift. Genetic engineering still isn't welcome across much of Latin America, Asia and especially Africa.
Prof. PAARLBERG: It's been criminalized by the regulatory systems of developing countries.
CHARLES: Paarlberg thinks that's terrible, because he says this technology can help farmers, even poor farmers. Monsanto certainly thinks so. It has big plans in Honduras. Rita Perdomo, a marketing manager for the company, says Honduran farmers increase their planting of genetically modified corn this year by 50 percent. It's still only about 15 percent of the country's corn crop, though.
Ms. RITA PERDOMO (Marketing Manager, Monsanto): (Through Translator) Hopefully, by 2012, 40 to 50 percent of those half-a-million acres will be planted with varieties that include biotech traits.
CHARLES: She thinks, as a result, Honduras's production of corn per acre will double or even triple, and the country will no longer have to depend on imported corn for tortillas and animal feed. Others scoff at this prediction. Most farmers in Honduras are poor, too poor to spend much money on corn seed or anything else that would boost their production, like fertilizer or irrigation. Even the skeptics, though, are watching events in Honduras carefully, to see whether first-world biotechnology can in fact make a different for third-world farmers.
For NPR News, I'm Dan Charles.
MONTAGNE: And you can see a chart of which countries plant genetically modified crops at npr.org. And tomorrow, many aid agencies believe the food crisis represents a new opportunity for the world's subsistence farmers.