The biggest penny share story of this decade

This decade will be defined by developments in biotechnology, says Tom Buford. Here, he explains the role biotech is playing in resolving the global food crisis.

No matter what is in store in the months ahead, the world will be a very different place in ten years' time and it'll be because of these three stories.

The biggest of the three is biotech. You know my feelings on this sector already: I think this decade will be defined by the current developments in biotech. And today I want to talk about another very interesting side of the biotech story the role it's playing in resolving the global food crisis

The mystery of the dying bees

The first sign of trouble was the sight of bees crawling from their hive, unable to fly. Soon after, the bees started to die. Thousands were killed in the following weeks as Isle of Wight Disease' spread across the region.

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It was not just the Isle of Wight's bees that were affected when this disease broke out, some 100 years ago. The disease spread quickly, wiping out almost the entire bee population of Great Britain. Scientists spent years trying to identify the cause, finally settling on a deadly combination of chronic bee paralysis virus, a type of parasite called a tracheal mite, poor weather that limited foraging, and overstocking by bee keepers.

Isle of Wight Disease' was not an isolated incident. Over a thousand years ago Ireland recorded the Great Mortality of Bees'; in 1903 two thousand colonies died in Cache Valley, Utah; and in 1996 Pennsylvania's beekeepers reported a sudden decline in numbers. Today the problem is with us again.

The bee population is in serious decline in the USA and Europe. While countries in the southern hemisphere have been unaffected, there have also been significant losses in the Middle East and Japan. This, of course, matters to beekeepers and it also matters to honey lovers. Honey prices in the USA are at an all-time high, some 50% higher than they were six years ago. But the implications go far beyond this

Are these scientists at fault?

According to some, bee death is the inevitable consequence of our attempts to tamper with the natural order. In fact we are doing much more than just attempting. Over one billion hectares that is 10% of the world's arable land has been given over to genetically modified (GM) crops. While cautious European governments have been reluctant to permit theplanting of GM crops, other countries are showing no such scruples.

GM crops are seen as one of the neatest solutions for the world's looming food crisis. They are a big part of an intensive effort to raise crop yields and cut out waste. Chemists and biotechnologists are rapidly finding ways to boost the output of what must be one of the world's most wasteful industries. Food crops are routinely destroyed by pests, ravaged by extremes of weather and left to rot in the field. Even if they are successfully harvested, a vast amount is lost en route to the supermarket and, when Western consumers buy their food, they end up throwing much of it away.

There is huge scope for greater efficiency in the food supply chain, but most of the world's big agri-producers are more concerned with boosting production of crops than worrying about what happens thereafter.

In fact, biotechnology is transforming agriculture. All over the world, from the vast factory farms of north and south America to the subsistence farmers of Africa, producers are using new types of seed and new methods of crop treatment. Plants are being genetically modified so that they can thrive on less water, so that they can repel parasites and grow bigger, better and riper food crops.

Biotech is not the main culprit here

And this is why they are concerned about the fate of the bumble bee. For some environmentalists the decline of the bee is an inevitable consequence of modern agricultural methods and our insistence on tampering with the laws of nature. But is it so simple?

The very fact that bee numbers have experienced ups and downs in years gone by is one reason why we should not rush to couple today's incidence with today's farming methods; that bees seem to be flourishing in some continents but not on others is another.

But still, scientists want to get to the bottom of it. Early theorists pointed the finger at GM crops and radiation from mobile phones, but neither has been confirmed by scientific research.

Today scientists cite the loss of natural pasture filled with clover and wild flowers. They argue that artificial diets - honey bees are fed a diet of high fructose corn syrup- are impairing the health of bees and weakening their immune systems. Some point the finger at climate change or ingestion of crop spray chemicals. Others say that selective breeding of bees specifically so that they produce more honey has reduced their genetic diversity and made them weaker.

It is quite likely that the decline in bee numbers is due to a combination of factors, none of which is catastrophic on its own but could be in combination with others. A decline in bee numbers may seem a small price to pay in return for higher food production, but nature is inter-connected: almond trees rely entirely upon pollination by honey bees, for instance. The world is rapidly adopting new farming methods, but they might not have entirely beneficial consequences.

This article is taken from Tom Bulford's free twice-weekly small-cap investment email The Penny Sleuth. Sign up to The Penny Sleuth here.

Information in Penny Sleuth is for general information only and is not intended to be relied upon by individual readers in making (or not making) specific investment decisions. Penny Sleuth is an unregulated product published by Fleet Street Publications Ltd.

Tom worked as a fund manager in the City of London and in Hong Kong for over 20 years. As a director with Schroder Investment Management International he was responsible for £2 billion of foreign clients' money, and launched what became Argentina's largest mutual fund. Now working from his home in Oxfordshire, Tom Bulford helps private investors with his premium tipping newsletter, Red Hot Biotech Alert.