The Promise of Biotechnology

Sebastian Pereira in a wonderful post on ieet.org writes about the horrible impacts of malnutrition.  My father was a biochemist and nutritionist, and this is a subject that was very dear to his heart.  He went on several nutritional surveys for the National Institute of Health to various developing countries including:  Ecuador, Burma, and Thailand.  He wanted malnutrition eradicated.  As does Pereira:

From the moment of conception, the future of the individual hinges on the dietary choices of the mother, then the first five years are also crucial, the amount of micro nutrients provided to the new born determine brain development in the time to come.

Thus, we may conclude that malnutrition at an early age creates permanent disadvantages for the adult; this in turn leads to structural inequality and social tension.

Now malnutrition is a daily fact in most of the world.  Millions live with the bare minimum of calories necessary to maintain their lives, but not much else.

The crucial micro nutrients:  iron, zinc, vitamin A, manganese; to name a few, are not considered in food aid, or the millennial goals of the U.N. resulting in a permanent segment of the population suffering from long-term pathologies.

So what can be done to ameliorate the situation?  Pereira has a suggestion:

Plants can, and should be, modified to incorporate more nutrients for humans.

Red meat is the main source of iron for the human body, because iron found in vegetables is more difficult to absorb, but meat production is costly and difficult to implement in poor regions.

Using biotechnology to replace the iron in plants to a more absorbable type could end anemia; this is just one example of many.  DNA splicing is the key to the next food revolution, by controlling the nutrients each vegetable, grain, seed, fruit, etc. has, and ensuring these are distributed properly, a balanced and sustainable food source could be created for the entire globe.

In the future this technology has the potential to end structural inequality caused by malnutrition, and prevent many diseases caused by a weakened immunological system.

Another example of a possible improvement through genetic engineering is Golden Rice.  According to a recent article in National Geographic (Oct 2014, p. 44):

Only a few of the rice varieties at the International Rice Research Institute are genetically modified [GM] crops, in the sense that they contain a gene transferred from a different species, and none of those are publicly available yet.  One is Golden Rice, which contains genes from corn that allow it to produce beta-carotene; its purpose is to combat the global scourge of vitamin A deficiency.  Last summer an IRRI test plot was trampled by anti-GM activists.  IRRI creates GM varieties only as a last resort, says director Robert Zeigler, when it can’t find the desired trait in rice itself.

If the world’s population is going to feed itself, GM crop research needs to proceed apace.

 

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