Biotechnology Can Help Feed the World

By Dr. C.S. Prakash
October 16, 2000 Birmingham Post Herald

Monday, October 16 is World Food Day – a day to remember that not all people around the world enjoy the same safe, bountiful food supply that we do in the United States. Despite major strides in combating hunger over the last 30 years, more than 800 million people across the globe are chronically malnourished, the majority of them in the developing world. Worldwide, one in three children is underweight, and one in five is stunted due to undernourishment. Nearly 40,000 people – half of them children – die every day due to hunger related causes. By 2020, the number of undernourished could well surpass 1 billion.

In many developing countries, where subsistence farmers eke out meager livings, and the ability to provide enough food for survival is often less than assured, the vital importance of staple crops such as rice, sweetpotato and cassava cannot be overstated. In many places, the loss of a crucial crop to pests, diseases or weather can mean the difference between life or death, straining the resources and threatening the well-being of entire communities.

In many countries, from Africa to Indonesia to South America, the cassava plant is an important source of starch, carbohydrates, protein, calcium, and vitamins A and C , and plays a key role in the diet and income of some 500 million people worldwide . Sweetpotatoes are another staple that provides vital source of calories and essential vitamins and minerals to millions in the developing world .

Yet in 1998, the people of Africa lost 60 percent of the cassava crop–one of their most important sources of calories–to mosaic virus. Sweetpotato yields in many African nations have been laid dangerously low – in some cases losing up to 80 percent of expected yields – due to the sweetpotato weevil and also the feathery mottle virus (SPFMV) . And The European corn borer likewise destroys approximately seven percent, or 40 million tons, of the world's corn crop every year – equivalent to the annual food supply, in calories, for 60 million people.

Biotechnology is working to solve these problems by producing plants that resist pests and disease, a major cause of crop damage in the developing world. Biotech corn, which is already widely used in the United States, produces its own protection against the corn borer. Research is under way on sweetpotatoes that produce their own protection against SPFMV, as well as beans, cassava and other staple foods with enhanced natural tolerance to diseases, pests, and physical stresses . In 1997, the World Bank Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research estimated that biotechnology could help improve world food production by up to 25 percent.

Biotechnology is also helping to develop more nutritious strains of staple crops. Researchers have been working to develop varieties of cassava that more efficiently absorb trace metals and micronutrients from the soil, have enhanced starch quality and contain more beta-carotene and other beneficial vitamins and minerals . A strain of "golden rice" that packs more and iron and beta carotene, a precursor of Vitamin A, could be on the world market within a few years – helping the more than 100 million children worldwide who suffer from vitamin A deficiency, the developing world's leading cause of blindness, as well as some 400 million women of childbearing age who are iron-deficient, placing their babies at risk of physical and mental retardation, premature births and natal mortality.

Biotechnology could well help to prevent these maladies and others by producing more healthful, nutritious crops. Research is already underway on fruits and vegetables that could one day deliver life-saving vaccines – such as a banana that could soon deliver the vaccine for Hepatitis B, and a potato that provides immunization against the Norwalk virus – making it possible to inoculate against deadly diseases with locally grown crops that are easy to handle, distribute and administer.

At the same time, biotechnology can help farmers produce more, and more nutritious crops, while sustaining the land's ability to support continued farming. By developing crops that more efficiently absorb nutrients from the soil, biotechnology can help farmers produce more on land already under cultivation, and may reduce the need for costly inputs such as fertilizer and non-renewable resources, such as oil and natural gas. A Mexican scientist Luis Herrera Estrella has shown that by using biotechnology tropical crops can be modified to tolerate aluminum and acid soils to significantly increase the productivity of corn, rice and papaya. Biotech crops that require less tilling may help to decrease soil erosion. And the development of plants that can grow in tough conditions, such as drought, or dry or poor soil, may make it easier to farm marginal lands, helping to keep fragile soils such as wetlands and rainforests out of food production.

Biotechnology holds tremendous promise for the developing world. In the words of Dr. John Wafula, the head of biotechnology research at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari): "The need for biotechnology in Africa is very clearÉThe use of high-yielding, disease-resistant and pest-resistant crops would have a direct bearing on improved food security, poverty alleviation and environmental conservation in Africa. " Likewise, as Nigeria's minister of agricultural and rural development Hassan Adamu recently wrote in an opinion editorial to the Washington Post: "To deny desperate, hungry people the means to control their futures by presuming to know what is best for them is not only paternalistic but morally wrongÉwe want to have the opportunity to save the lives of millions of people and change to course of history in many nations." Failing that, Adamu warns, "The harsh reality is that, without the help of agricultural biotechnology, many will not live."

World hunger is a complex issue, one for which there is no one answer. Yet while biotechnology may not be the only solution , it can be a valuable tool in the struggle to feed a hungry world.



Encyclopedia Britannica online edition, 2000.
CGIAR International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) website, 2000.
ISAAA. 1997. ISAAA Annual Report 1996: Advancing Altruism in Africa. ISAAA: Ithaca, New York.
William H. Danforth, chairman, Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, January 9, 2000.
ISAAA. 1997. ISAAA Annual Report 1996: Advancing Altruism in Africa. ISAAA: Ithaca, New York.
Gianessi and Carpenter (1999), National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy. ISAAA. 1997. ISAAA Annual Report 1996: Advancing Altruism in Africa. ISAAA: Ithaca, New York; CIAT Web site, 2000.
Hank Becker, "Making Harvests More Nutritious," Agricultural Research magazine, May 1999; CIAT website, 2000.
Gordon Conway, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, October 19, 1999.
Quoted in The Nation (Nairobi), October 21, 1999.


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