Biotechnology Can Go a Long Way in Battling Hunger and Disease

By Stanley Wallach
October 16, 2000 The Philadelphia Inquirer

Today is World Food Day, a good time to reflect on the place of food in our lives - and how changes in nutrition may help change lives all over the world.

Most readers of these words have probably never seen someone starve to death or suffer the consequences of malnutrition. It's a testament to American productivity that most of us have been spared firsthand knowledge of hunger.

But the developing world is another place entirely. There, hunger and its devastations are too often part of the scenery. Public health experts, however, are beginning to see a glimmer of hope for the developing world from breakthroughs in biotechnology.

U.N. estimates suggest that more than 100 million children worldwide are deficient in Vitamin A, a condition that may lead to as many as 250,000 cases of childhood blindness. Golden rice, which was created through biotechnology to produce Beta-carotene, a provitamin that is converted to Vitamin A, was developed specifically to address this devastating health crisis. For populations that rely on rice as their primary or sole food source, this nutritional enhancement can deliver an enormous improvement in public health.

Beta-carotene is not the only additional nutrient that rice may one day contain. Biotechnology researchers are attempting to produce rice with higher levels of iron. Iron deficiency afflicts 400 million women of childbearing age. That deficiency leads to higher levels of premature birth, perinatal mortality and growth and mental retardation. Scientists are also trying to improve the nutritional profiles of many of the world's foods, from canola oil with higher Beta-carotene levels, to fruits and vegetables that contain more vitamins C and E.

Biotechnology crops also hold the potential to transform productivity in the developing world. Crops typically ravaged by disease, pests, weeds and drought can cause subsistence economies to fail. New crops are being created that may combat these millennia-old threats. According to the World Bank, biotechnology could boost food productivity in the developing world by 25 percent, feeding more people while consuming fewer resources.

A poignant example of the potential impact of agricultural biotechnology is given by Kenyan plant scientist Florence Wambugu: "We could liberate so many people if our crops were resistant to herbicides that we could then spray on the surrounding weeds. Weeding enslaves Africans; it keeps children from school." Wambugu is among a number of public health leaders seeking support from the West - in the form of biotechnology.

Perhaps the most significant potential benefit of biotechnology for the developing world will come in the form of foods that can help vaccinate against diseases. Scientists have already demonstrated that a food can be used to deliver vaccines for specific diseases. The Norwalk Virus is a little known disease that afflicts infants and the elderly with sometimes deadly gastroenteritis. Cornell University researchers recently developed a potato that immunizes against the Norwalk Virus. The scientific world is also anticipating the production of a banana that can deliver a Hepatitis B vaccine.

The implications of planting crops that can immunize entire populations against a broad array of diseases are almost beyond imagination. Even in the developed world, not every child receives needed immunizations. In regions of the world where the cost of even basic medical attention is prohibitive, immunizations are virtually nonexistent, and knowledge of public health concepts limited, the development of these new foods could combat desperate malnutrition and poor health.

To an American culture mesmerized by the technology revolution, the benefits of golden rice may not seem as immediate or compelling as new computer technologies, the Internet or breakthroughs in medical research. But to the world's malnourished populations, biotechnological advances are literally a life-and-death proposition, holding out the promise for millions to live longer, healthier and more productive lives.

Biotechnology is not the silver bullet that will end world hunger. The causes of hunger in the developing world are varied and systemic, and there are few immediate and sustainable solutions. But in the next decade, biotechnology will help arrive at solutions and thereby provide realistic options for many of the world's malnourished.

Stanley Wallach is the executive director of the American College of Nutrition

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