Feed the World


Right now there are 800 million starving people around the world. Advocates of biotechnology say it provides important tools to alleviate this terrible problem. Experts say that genetic engineering (GE) can increase the amount of food raised on the same amount of land. This will become more important as the world's population continues to increase because land available for food production will either hold steady or shrink. Genetically engineered crops can be designed to grow under very specific conditions (ex., poor soil or dry conditions) or to contain concentrated nutrients to stop malnutrition. Critics of these arguments say that there is more than enough food produced right now to feed everyone who is hungry. It is not the lack of food, but the lack of distribution that causes hunger. There are complex political and cultural factors that prevent food from reaching those who need it most. Promoting GE crops may not be the answer.

Another potential use of agricultural genetic engineering is prevention of widespread disease. "Golden" rice is a good example. Golden rice was genetically engineered to produce vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency leads to blindness, and is a condition that affects thousands of children in areas of Africa and Asia. The genetically engineered golden rice will provide vitamin A to keep children from going blind. Medicinal crops could also provide a simple way to ensure that vaccines are distributed on a large scale. Imagine distributing bananas that are genetically engineered to contain a vaccine for malaria instead of trying to give shots to thousands of people.

Critics say these examples are oversimplified, overused, or unrealistic. For instance, there are other choices to golden rice that could also provide the necessary vitamin A. Many green leafy crops native to Asian countries are good sources of vitamin A. But crops, like rice, grown for export have replaced the green leafy foods people once ate. Eating the leafy green foods from former diets and changing the agricultural crops could solve the vitamin A problem. Critics believe that the GE crops could negatively impact the natural environments in which they are introduced. GE crops could make countries dependent on the genetically engineered seed. In addition, golden rice is not yet able to grow outside a lab. So while it is a noble goal to try to solve problems like world hunger or widespread disease, there are many political, cultural, environmental, and economic factors that must be taken into consideration when deciding if biotechnology is the answer to the world's problems.


Explore More: Genetic Engineering
Copyright 2004, Iowa Public Television
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