Biotechnology: Possible solution to food crisis

“If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and the crisis of global biodiversity they have been predicting for nearly 40 years.” – Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug.


“There is a lot that happens around the world we cannot control,” American Congressman Jan Schakowsky once said. “We cannot stop earthquakes, we cannot prevent droughts, and we cannot prevent all conflict, but when we know where the hungry, the homeless and the sick exist, then we can help.”

Hunger is the physical sensation of desiring food. When politicians, relief workers and social scientists talk about people suffering from hunger, they usually refer to those who are unable to eat sufficient food to meet their basic nutritional needs for sustained periods of time.

Is there a likely solution in sight for hunger? There is now one possible solution: biotechnology. For the information of the uninformed, biotechnology encompasses an array of tools and applications that allow scientists to manipulate the genetic materials of plants, microbes, and animals. These methods provide ways to modify the characteristics that are passed from one generation to the next.

The tools used in biotechnology include gene cloning, tissue culture, microbial culture, DNA-marker technology, and genetic engineering. The latter is the most controversial as it is the method used in developing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Transgenic crops

A GM/biotech or transgenic crop is a plant that has a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology, according to a fact sheet circulated by the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA).

“GM technology can address problems that cannot be solved through conventional crop improvement methods,” the fact sheet states. “It enables plant breeders to bring together in one plant useful genes from a wide range of sources, not just from within the crop species or closely related plants.

“This powerful tool allows plant breeders to attain a desired trait combination faster and address urgent concerns like the development of crops that are resistant to biotic (diseases and pests) or abiotic stresses (drought and waterlogging), and with increased yield and improved food and nutrient quality,” the fact sheet adds.

In 1994, Calgene’s delayed-ripening tomato became the first GM food crop to be produced and consumed in an industrialized country. In 1995, GM cotton and GM corn were subsequently commercialized. Soon to be introduced in the country are the following: GM eggplant and the vitamin A-rich golden rice.

But despite the benefits that biotechnology brings, there are still organizations like Greenpeace, an anti-GMO organization, which continue to take a preventive stance. “It’s now possible to do stuff that only writers could imagine before and build up completely new life forms. The argument that we need genetically-modified food to feed the world is complete bull,” Greenpeace deplored.

Environmental protection

Most anti-GMOs are urging to stop anything related to biotechnology. And there are those which favor the banning of biotech crops altogether. But a recent study found that should GM crops be banned completely, it would mean a warmer world.

The study, published in the Journal of Environmental Protection, said that banning GM crops would trigger the conversion of pastures and forests to cropland to compensate for lower productivity of conventional crops, “which would release substantial amounts of stored carbon to atmosphere.”

“If countries planting GM crops matched the rate of GM crop plantings in the United States, global greenhouse gas emissions would fall by an equivalent of 0.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide, and would allow 0.8 million hectares of cropland to return to forests and pastures,” the study said.

Meanwhile, Secretary Emmanuel F. Pinol of the Department of Agriculture (DA) admitted to some media personalities that biotechnology won’t be a “quick fix” to the problem of food insecurity. “Personally, I’m not really convinced that GM plants are the quick-fix to our shortage of food,” he was quoted as saying.

Dr. Vivencio Mamaril, the officer-in-charge of the DA Biotech Program Office, seems to agree. “Biotechnology is just one of the possible solutions to the problem of the looming food crisis,” he told participants of the seminar-workshop on biotechnology held in Davao City.

Dr. Channapatna Prakash, a professor of plant molecular genetics, has the same view. “(Biotechnology) is not the only way to increase food production but right now represents a major scientific breakthrough to develop better crop varieties in addressing some of the food production problems,” he said.

Food safety

But the question is: are transgenic crops safe to eat? “Foods produced using genetic modification are as safe as foods produced using conventional breeding techniques,” declares the US Food and Drug Administration. “Genetically modified foods are as safe as other foods available on the market.”

A 2008 review published by the Royal Society of Medicine noted that transgenic foods have been eaten by millions of people worldwide for over 15 years, with no reports of ill effects. Likewise, a 2004 report from the US National Academies of Sciences stated: “To date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.”

The 2010 report of the European Commission Directorate-General for Research and Innovation on GMOs noted: “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than conventional plant breeding technologies.”

But all is not rosy, however. “I believe that this kind of genetic modification takes mankind into realms that belong to God, and to God alone,” deplored Prince Charles in 1998.

Dr. Peter Wills, a theoretical biologist at Auckland University, agrees: “By transferring genes across species barriers which have existed for eons, we risk breaching natural thresholds against unexpected biological processes.”

To be or not to be, said William Shakespeare. Should transgenic crops be allowed or not? One sage puts it in this perspective: “A man who has enough food has several problems. A man without food has only one problem.” Or as Horace said: “Only a stomach that rarely feels hungry scorns common things.”