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Biotechnology and the Developing World

World hunger and malnutrition are global problems that are not readily or easily solved. However, the use of biotech plants and foods is increasingly seen as providing part of the solution. Agricultural biotechnology has tremendous potential as a tool for producing more and better foods on existing farmland. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, "Biotechnology … is no longer viewed as merely a desirable element but an essential one in a multiple thrust global strategy for food security."

Did you know…

  • The World Health Organization estimates that malnutrition causes more than half of all childhood deaths in the developing world. Each year, 10 percent of all children die from starvation. Two out of five children in the developing world experience stunted growth and one in three is underweight.
  • According to the Worldwatch Institute, 60 percent of all newborns in India would be in intensive care if they had been born in California.

Biotechnology is already beginning to provide sustainable ­ and life-sustaining ­ assistance to farmers in developing countries. Through the use of biotechnology, researchers are providing higher-yielding strains of staple crops, foods with enhanced nutritional traits, and plants and produce that last longer and are resistant to devastating viruses. The following are new ways that food biotechnology may someday improve our lives.

Nutritionally enhanced foods
Biotech researchers have already developed and are field-testing rice enhanced with beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A, which is important because rice is a primary diet staple in the developing world. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization recently stated: "The potential to create rice with an enhanced micronutrient content illustrates one way in which genetic engineering can contribute to reducing malnutrition. Vitamin A deficiency, which is widespread in the developing world, can lead to morbidity and blindness and contribute to child mortality." Similarly, researchers at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center are developing high protein and vitamin enhanced cassava, the primary source of food calories in tropical regions of the developing world.

Disease-resistant plants
Biotechnology is helping to make hardier strains of staple crops such as sweet potato, cassava, papaya, rice and corn and better protect them against insects and diseases. Developing countries account for nearly 98 percent of the world’s sweet potato crop, a key source of calories, vitamins and minerals in African countries such as Kenya. In an effort to improve yields, researchers at ISAAA’s AfriCenter are developing sweet potatoes that are resistant to the sweet potato feathery mottle virus, which can destroy between 20 to 80 percent of a sweet potato crop.

Longer-lasting produce
Biotech foods could one day reduce losses to spoilage, especially in areas with limited transportation and refrigeration capability. According to a joint report issued by the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, United Kingdom, Brazil, China, India and other developing countries, "… it is possible that farmers in developing countries could benefit considerably from crops with delayed ripening or softening, as this may allow them much greater flexibility in distribution than they have at present. In many cases small-scale farmers suffer heavy losses due to excessive or uncontrolled ripening or softening of fruit or vegetables."

Hardier crops
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that most of the world's available farmland is already under cultivation. At the same time, the USDA estimates suggest that nearly 70 countries in the developing world are likely to face a widening "food gap" in the next 10 years. Never has it been so important to produce more food on the same amount of land. Food biotechnology is helping to address this problem, with research on plants that can grow under tough conditions. Biotech scientists are working to improve farming in regions where food is difficult to grow by improving crops' abilities to withstand natural environmental factors, such as heat, drought, soil toxicity, salinity and flooding.

Sustainable farming
Biotechnology is already providing farmers with the means to decrease soil erosion through farming practices that protect the environment. For example, certain biotech varieties of cotton and soybeans require less tilling, preserving precious topsoil and helping to reduce sediment run-off into rivers and streams. The impact of these benefits, suggests Dr. Florence Wambugu in her recent book, Modifying Africa, cannot be understated. Highlighting Kenya as an example, Wambugu writes: "…our natural resource base is under threat. Soils, water, forests, rangeland ­ all are declining in both quantity and quality…With the forests disappears the biodiversity of flora and fauna that they contain." While no-till and reduced till crops are now being used primarily in the United States, it is hoped that subsistence farmers worldwide will also benefit from new varieties of crops with traits that similarly reduce the need for tillage.