Genetic Engineering: Solution to Hunger and Disease in the Developing World

– William Tarbush;(Biotechnology paper written for the course SID:112 ENG101-7635 Winter Semester, 2005.)

Inch by inch, row by row,
Gonna make this garden grow,
Gonna make this deeo and low,
Gonna mulch it fertile ground,
Inch by inch, row by row,
Please bless these seeds I sow. Please keep them safe below.
‘Til the rain comes a-tumbling down.
Plant your rows strait and long,
Season with a prayer and song,
Mother Earth will make you strong,
If you give her loving care.

–Written by David Mallett, Performed by Arlo Guthrie “Garden Song”

These are beautiful words in the song above, but nature needs help. Hunger and disease are plaguing the developing world and science can fill the gaps where nature needs it. Genetic engineering is a science that could revolutionize much of our world. In a very basic way, it is the science of transferring genetic material between organisms of different species. It could drastically change medicine and agriculture, but it is not without controversy. Some say that the changes it could make are worth the risk, but others state that we are not ready for those changes and others yet to come.

It is the purpose of this paper to show that genetic engineering should be further researched and distributed because they will feed the world, provide extra nutrition, and to prevent disease.

The conception of transgenic plants, plants which contain extra genetic material, was pioneered recently in the early 1980s at the Max Plank Institute for Breeding. First, a plant bacteria was stripped of the DNA which causes disease and replaced with antibiotic resistant DNA. Then, the defanged bacterium was then put into crops, making them bacteria resistant. This has safely been used in many biotech foods, however opponents state that disaster will occur if we pursue this science.

In 2002, the United States offered a shipment of corn to alleviate the hunger caused by the worst drought in the history of southern Africa. Yet, it was rejected by the President of Zambia, Levy Mwanawasa, who said that his people did not want genetically engineered crops. Jeremy Rifkin, director of the Foundation for Economic Trends, stated in a 1991 interview that life is too dynamic to know what changes will take place if we continue to pursue genetic engineering into the future. He states that, “the question of whether we should embark on a long journey in which we become the engineers of life is, perhaps, the most important ever to face the human family” (Patton) and could change the biological status quo forever. The FDA disagrees, however, stating that cross-breeding and GE are basically the same.

To this date, there have been no disastrous incidents resulting from crossbred crops. Genetic engineering is not harmful to the environment. The World Bank states that biotech could increase production by twenty-five percent, saving land and precious natural resources. Furthermore, it also requires less chemical pesticides. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization showed research stating that biotechnology “reduced chemical use by 67 percent and in South Africa by 58 percent” (Biotech Knowledge Center). There has been research showing that animals are not harmed or are benefited by genetically modified organisms. However, this was a small scale study and proof may be years down the road.

It is believed that the global population will increase by two billion over the next two decades. Fourteen percent of the global population is malnourished. Food production is inadequate in our world let alone in a future where the population will increase by a third of the present population. Nevertheless, critics of genetic engineering state that we have plenty of food and “if the world’s food supply were equally distributed everyone could have an adequate diet” (Pro Global). Equal distribution will probably never happen due to corrupt regimes in the third world and the excess the developed world enjoys.

The United Nations Hunger Task Force says that halving world hunger is possible over the next decade, and their proposals depend of biotechnology. Indeed, genetic engineering will create crops tolerant to extremes and decrease water usage by eliminating leaves and increasing yields. Biotechnology has saved many forests and lands used by animals by increasing yields of cultivated lands. Also, biotech will lower the workload needed to produce food. Kenyan plant scientist Florence Wambugu, “We could liberate so many people if our crops were resistant to herbicides that we could then spray on the surrounding weeds. Weeding enslaves Africans; it keeps children from school” (Wallach). In addition, it will also cheapen the price of the grain so that developing nations can farm their own food.

Genetic engineering can be used to increase the nutritional qualities of staple foods. For Instance, poor farmers use staples in excess because of the price, but many of them are stripped of vitamins in processing. Scientists “have now developed milled rice which accumulates vitamin A to provide one means of facilitating increased dietary intake of vitamin A from staple foods” (Pro Global) to prevent the eye disease xerothalmia. Equally, vitamin A deficiency causes as many as a quarter of a million cases of blindness a year. Likewise, a mutated pea plant with high iron content has also been created to combat anemia. “Iron deficiency afflicts 400 million women of childbearing age, which leads to higher levels of premature birth, perinatal mortality and growth and mental retardation” (Wallach). These plants and many others could provide higher quality nutrition for the third world.

Biotech crops could be used to give vaccines in developing countries. To illustrate, using crops to vaccinate humans has been shown to be possible with cholera and hepatitis. Funding is growing in some developed countries as shown in this passage:

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NH&MRC) has granted $180,000 to researchers in Adelaide and Melbourne to use biotechnology with traditional plants to develop a vaccine against lethal diseases such as measles and cholera. The project will use bananas, potatoes, peas and other common fruits or vegetables as vaccine agents (Pro Global). However, many of these vaccines are still in the developmental stages. The Norwalk Virus is a virus that can be deadly to infants and to the elderly. It recently came into the spotlight when passengers on cruise ships came down with it for no apparent reason. Likewise, Cornell University has created a potato that immunizes against the Norwalk Virus. Vaccines in injection form are difficult to store in the third world, and medical personnel are required to give them. Vaccines in food would be the perfect solution to production and allocation of these medicines.

In conclusion, biotechnology could greatly help the developing world, as well as our own, by providing higher quality nutrition, easier vaccinations, and increasing food yields. We would only be holding our world back by avoiding this technology out of fear.

Other new sciences have brought fear to the narrow minded for centuries. Genetic engineering will open a whole new world for developing nations, and changes made so far are only the beginning .

Phillips, Susan. Genetically Engineered Foods.” The CQ Researcher Online 5 August 1994 14 Dec. 2005 .
Pro Global Web Site. 17 July 2000. Pro Global. 29 November 2005 .
Biotech Knowledge Center. 2005. 15 November 2005 .
Wallach M.D., Stanley. Biotechnology- A Tool to Help End World Hunger. 15 November 2000