Biotechnology is Working Wonders With the World's Food Supply

By Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan
October 15, 2000, The Call (Woonsocket, RI)

Recently, TIME magazine ran a cover story on a new strain of beta-carotene enhanced rice, the cover boldly proclaiming: "This rice could save a million lives" [TIME, July 31, 2000].

The product in question, "golden rice" - so-called because the high beta-carotene content gives the rice a yellow hue - is indeed a tremendous development. Beta-carotene is an important pro-vitamin, which the human body converts to vitamin A. As many as 100 million children worldwide suffer from vitamin A deficiency, many of those cases in parts of the developing world where diets consist mainly of rice. Vitamin A deficiency is the developing world's leading cause of childhood blindness. By infusing the primary food staple with this much-needed nutrient, the development of golden rice may help prevent millions of cases of this devastating affliction.

Golden rice is not the only food produced through biotechnology that holds great promise for developing countries. More than 400 million women of childbearing age are iron-deficient; rice enhanced with iron may help prevent retardation, premature birth and perinatal mortality by combating iron deficiency. Scientists are searching for ways to boost beta-carotene levels in canola oil, and fruits and vegetables enhanced with vitamins C and E may soon be on the market.

In addition to producing more healthful, nutritious foods, biotechnology can help create crops that can be used to help vaccinate vulnerable populations against deadly diseases such as hepatitis, viral diarrhea, and others. Scientists are on the verge of producing a banana that delivers the vaccine for Hepatitis B; and researchers at Cornell University have developed a potato that successfully immunizes against the Norwalk Virus - an illness particularly dangerous to infants and the elderly. These vaccines could one day help to overcome the shortage of medical personnel and refrigeration, as well as poor infrastructure and high transportation costs, that makes inoculations difficult in the developing world.

Biotechnology is also helping to diminish crop losses by developing strains of corn, cotton, potatoes and other crops that produce their own protection against pests and disease. Future biotech crops may be able to grow in poor or high-salinity soil, or in harsh growing conditions, as well, helping to make previously marginal lands productive.

The advantages of biotechnology have not been lost on those countries that stand to gain the most from access to this technology. Throughout the developing world, partnerships between public and private research institutes, biotech companies and other interested parties have sprung up like wildfire as a result of the tremendous advantages this technology can bring. At the same time, world leaders from Nigeria's minister of Agriculture to Kenya's President Daniel arap Moi have called on western nations to help them develop this incredibly promising technology.

While hardly a panacea for the tough questions that must be addressed to truly cure world hunger, agricultural biotechnology can significantly enhance the quality of life for millions of people around the world. As we celebrate World Food Day on October 16th, it is encouraging to know that there is one tool, at least, that holds much promise in the fight against world hunger.


Dr. Elizabeth Whelan is the president of the American Council on Science and Health. ACSH has recently published "Biotechnology and Food," available free of charge online at

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