A Solution to Hunger?

Article excerpt

World hunger and food insecurity is a recurring problem in most parts of the developing world. Among the many potential biotechnologies that are available, and the different ways in which they can be applied, genetic modification (GM) of crops demands particular attention. Genetically modified crops possessing genes from different species, could possibly relieve global food shortages. Although initial excitement surrounded the use of gm crops--that they will provide bigger and better harvests for farmers--there are still questions about the benefits of such crops. In addition, the general public may not welcome the creation of "super plants" as a viable option in solving global hunger.

The environmental impact of gm crops is important with regard to creating food security in developing countries. Genetically modified crops can potentially fail to germinate; kill organisms other than pests that are beneficial to plants and reduce soil fertility; and potentially transfer insecticidal properties or virus resistance to wild relatives of the crop species.

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A segment of the scientific community often proposes that export earnings from higher agricultural yields can contribute to reducing food insecurity and hunger in developing countries. However, there are many issues and challenges that beg the practicality of this proposal. A few crop varieties, specially created through biotechnology, can improve yields, but biotechnology alone cannot solve the problem of hunger in the developing world.

Nevertheless, the potential advantages that biotechnology can confer across a wide range of agricultural applications are in areas such as livestock management, storage of agricultural products and sustaining current crop yields, while reducing the use of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. The real challenge is whether we are smart enough to harness the benefits of biotechnological solutions. But what are these solutions?

Biotechnology offers a very promising alternative to synthetic foods and an improvement on conventional plant-breeding technologies. Combined with other advanced agricultural technologies, it offers an exciting and environmentally responsible way to meet consumer demand for sustainable agriculture. When the benefits of gm crops reach small and marginal farmers, more Green Revolutions may become a reality.

COMBATING HUNGER AND MALNUTRITION

Malnutrition is the related term in medicine for hunger. The most recent estimate of the Food and Agriculture Organization says that 854 million people worldwide are undernourished. This is 12.6 per cent of 6.6 billion people in the world. Many of the 820 million that are undernourished, children being the most visible victims, live in developing countries. Undernutrition magnifies the impact of every disease, including measles and malaria.

One example tells us how biotechnology can contribute to combating global hunger and malnutrition.

GOLDEN RICE

Approximately 140 million children in low-income groups in 118 countries, especially in Africa and South-East Asia, are deficient in Vitamin A. This situation has compounded into a public health challenge. The World Health Organization reports that an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 Vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year, half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight. Golden Rice, created by researchers in Germany and Switzerland, contains three new genes--two from the daffodil and one from a bacterium--that helps it to produce provitamin A. This rice is available as a possible option for mass distribution, in part due to the waiving of patent rights by biotechnology companies. This is just one among the hundreds of new biotech products, which point to the contributions of biotechnology to society.

INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY AND FOOD SECURITY

There are concerns about a technological landscape controlled almost exclusively by the private sector and defined by patent protection. …