Scientists: Biotech foods can save Third-World children

Published May 1, 2000

At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, held in late February in Washington, DC, scientists from around the globe considered how to provide enough food for the world’s people. By some estimates, the year 2010 will find 680 million people in poverty-stricken nations without access to nutritional food.

Several AAAS participants offered biotechnology as the answer. Dr. Per Pinstrup-Anderson, for example, noted that bio-engineered foods can increase the quantity of food available, by increasing crop yields, and can also increase its nutritional value, by fortifying such staples as rice with vitamin A or other important nutrients.

Dr. Susan Couch, a professor at Cornell University, is leading a team of researchers who will introduce a disease-resistant papaya to farmers in Thailand, Brazil, and Venezuela, where the ring spot virus is destroying papaya crops. The residents of those countries depend on papaya as a major source of vitamin A. Crouch questions the ethics of not using biotechnology to improve food supplies, saying the “availability of micro-nutrients in foods in global markets is essentially the best delivery system we have for improving the status of nutrition for many thousands of people.”

Mark Weksler, also of Cornell University, agreed. “GM foods offer tremendous opportunities to prevent infectious disease, certain cancers, and malnutrition,” he noted. “Edible vaccines and GM foods will cause a healthcare revolution in countries not as well off as [the U.S.].”

Said professor Gordon Conway, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, “There is no doubt that when we get a vaccine for HIV/AIDS it is going to be genetically engineered. My claim is that genetically engineered rice will bring similar benefit.”

Not everyone agrees, however. At another late February conference, held in Edinburgh, Scotland, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) called for a five-year moratorium on raising, importing, and patenting genetically modified crops. It was noted at the conference that British Prime Minister Tony Blair had recently observed there was “potential for harm” as well as benefit from such crops.

While some 100 bio-engineered vaccines and pharmaceutical products are already on the market, causing no notable harm, the OECD contends “assessment must be made of the socio-economic impacts on farmers both in the U.K. and internationally and over the further industrialization of agriculture.” The group’s chairman called for a new international body to address the issues surrounding biotechnology.

A summary of the conference will be submitted to the Group of Eight industrial nations meeting in Okinawa, Japan in July.