The Poor Need Biotechnology: Could reduce hunger in third world
By Jennifer A.
Biotechnology is helping to resolve that quandary by making it possible to grow more and healthier food in conditions and places where it could not be grown before. Biotechnology crops are safe and nutritious and offer perhaps the only hope for producing enough food for a growing world population.
According to a recent UN report, 800 million people worldwide are already chronically undernourished and there is every reason to believe that problem will grow worse. As farmers in developing nations clear-cut more land and consume more natural resources to grow the food their mounting populations need to survive, the world faces an environmental tragedy in addition to a human one.
Innovations in biotechnology could transform that picture, making it possible to feed a growing population while reducing the environmental strain of agriculture. Some of the most important innovations are plants that draw nutrients from the soil more efficiently. As a result, they are able to grow in the poor conditions--such as drought, changing weather patterns and depleted soil. Many can grow year-round regardless of the season, potentially relieving food shortages in tropical areas. Food biotechnology, for example, is already boosting production of legumes, a major dietary staple in the Philippines, Sri Lanka and India. Projections say biotechnology could boost food productivity in the developing world by 25 percent, feeding more people while consuming fewer natural resources.
Biotechnology could also reduce crop losses to pests and disease, an especially welcome innovation in developing regions like Africa, which lost 60 percent of the 1998 cassava crop--the region's largest source of calories--to the mosaic virus. The European corn borer destroys nearly a third of the world's corn crop every year. But biotechnology crops can be produced with genetic characteristics that enable them to resist pests and disease, improving crop yields while reducing the need for chemical sprays. Biotechnology corn, which is already widely used in the United States, produces its own insecticide. Research is under way on virus-resistant strains of sweet potatoes and other crops. And biotechnology can also retard spoilage by allowing foods to ripen more slowly, a potentially life-saving innovation in developing nations that lack refrigeration.
Biotechnology also could alleviate the epidemic of malnutrition by making crops that are already dietary staples more nutritious. "Golden rice," for example, has been produced through biotechnology to deliver higher doses of beta-carotene, the protein the body needs to make Vitamin A. Researchers are even on the verge of developing a banana that would deliver the vaccine against Hepatitis B, replacing costly, often inaccessible inoculations with a locally grown, inexpensive piece of fruit.
Each of those life-saving innovations could soon transform life in the developing world, where hunger and malnutrition are spreading fast and taking a tragic--and needless--toll.
Jennifer A. Thomson heads the department of microbiology at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.
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