Biotechnology: Possible solution to food crisis

(First of Two Parts)

“Biotechnology represents one of the most exciting advances in the biological sciences in this century. It will become a driving economic force, helping to provide practical solutions to global problems of food supply, health care, energy, waste treatment, and industrial regeneration.” – Reuben Olembo, United Nations Environment Program


In Ben Bova’s thought-provoking novel, Multiple Man (1976), several exact copies of the American president are found dead and one is certain whether a clone or the real McCoy sits in the Oval Office.

The tale may be fiction but recent scientific and engineering breakthrough now make it possible to copy an exact replica of the original – at least among livestock. Such was the case of Dolly, the sheep.

“The process calls for single cells to be separated from a growing calf embryo,” wrote J. Madeleine Nash in an article which was published by Time. Each cell is then injected into an unfertilized egg and implanted into the womb of a surrogate cow.

“Because the nucleus of the unfertilized egg is removed beforehand, it contains no genetic material that might interfere with the development of the embryo,” Nash wrote.

Cloning is just one of the many techniques of biotechnology. Generally, biotechnology is defined as “any technique that uses living organisms to make or modify a product, to improve plants or animals, or to develop microorganisms for specific uses.”

Biotechnology has existed since ancient times. Spirulina, one of the oldest forms of life on earth, is believed to be what the ancient Israelites of the Old Testament called “manna from heaven.”

Modern era

The modern era of biotechnology, however, had its origin in 1953 when American biochemist James Watson and British biophysicist Francis Crick presented their double-helix model of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid).

DNA, the genetic material of all cellular organisms and most viruses, carries the information needed to direct so-called “protein synthesis” and “replication.” Protein synthesis is defined as “the production of proteins needed by the cells or virus for its activities and development.” Replication, on the other hand, is “the process by which DNA copies itself for each descendant cell or virus, passing on the information needed for protein synthesis.”

In the 1960s, Swiss microbiologist Werner Arber discovered special enzymes, called restriction, in bacteria. These enzymes cut the DNA strands of any organism at precise points.

In 1973, American geneticist Stanley Cohen and American biochemist Herbert Boyer removed a specific gene (a piece of genetic material that determines the inheritance of a particular characteristic, or group of characteristics) from one bacterium and inserted it into another using restriction enzymes.

This event marked the beginning of recombinant DNA technology, commonly called genetic engineering. Generally, it is “the alternation of an organism’s genetic, or hereditary, material to eliminate undesirable characteristics or to produce desirable new ones.”

In recent years, genetic engineering has been used to increase plant and animal food production, to diagnose disease, improve medical treatment, produce vaccines and other useful drugs and to help dispose of industrial wastes.

“Modern techniques in biotechnology have vastly increased the speed at which nature could be manipulated to serve society’s needs,” said Dr. Felimon Uriarte Jr. when he was still the head of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST). “Biotechnology, in conjunction with other emerging technologies, will undoubtedly be a major source of innovation and growth in the next millennium.”

Food crisis

In a symposium convened by the University of the Philippines in Mindanao in Davao City some years back, biotechnology has been broached as one possible solution to the forthcoming food crisis.

In the past, Green Revolution helped solve the problem of hunger. The technology relied heavily on hybrid seeds, chemicals (fertilizers and pesticides) and irrigation. But like most technologies, it had its ending.

In the Philippines, for instance, crop production had already hit the ceiling. “In fact, the rate of increase is decreasing,” said Dr. Randy Hautea, director of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA). “The gain is no longer achieved by the same technology (referring to the Green Revolution).”

To make the problem worse, the population continues to grow. “Population growth is going crazy,” pointed out Dr. Frank A. Shotkoski, the director of Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project. “From 2 billion in 1935, it doubled to 4 billion in 1975. By 2000, the world was home to 6 billion. In 2030, there will be about 8 billion people inhabiting this planet.”

In addition, there are the issues of climate change: rising temperatures and changing precipitation patterns. “Climate change is a major challenge for agriculture and food security,” said Dr. Hautea.

One probable solution: biotechnology. “All possible tools that can help promote sustainable agriculture for food security must be marshalled,” suggested Ismail Serageldin when he was still the vice-president of World Bank, “and biotechnology, safely developed, could be a tremendous help.”

“I now say that the world has the technology – either available or well advance in the research pipeline – to feed on a sustainable basis a population of 10 billion people,” Nobel Peace Prize laureate Norman Borlaug pointed out.

Referring to biotechnology, the American agronomist quipped, “While the affluent nations can certainly afford to adopt ultra-low-risk positions, and pay more for food produced by the so-called ‘organic’ methods, the one billion chronically undernourished people of the low-income, food-deficit nations cannot.”

“As citizens of this country, I think it is our duty to help spread the truth about things that have the potential to make cheap and safe food available to our people and to inform them of things that endanger their health and welfare,” said former Senator Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel Jr. said during the opening of the 12th National Biotech Week at the Bureau of Soils and Water Management last year.

“I think it is time that we make full use of the advances of biotechnology – where applicable – and use it to help free our people from hunger – and from ignorance – so that they in turn may not only be receivers, but sharers of the wealth of the nation with those in dire need of it,” the former senator from Mindanao pointed out.

Presidential Proclamation 1414, signed in 2007, stipulates “the policy of government to promote safe and responsible use of modern biotechnology and its products as one of the several means to achieve and sustain food security, equitable access to health and services, sustainable and safe environment, and industry development.”  (To be concluded)