Biotechnology and the Foods We Eat

One of the points of distinction of Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama is the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research. The Center is under the direction of Dr. CS Prakash. In a recent presentation by Dr. Prakash entitled Genes, Crops and Food: Can Biotechnology Innovations Help Food Security?, he discussed the "why" of using biotechnology to produce modern crop varieties, benefits and constraints of biotechnology, the public's anxiety over genetic modified (GM) crops and the use of GM crops as pharmaceutical entities.

Man has manipulated the genetic make-up of plants for thousands of years through selective breeding. The processes of hybridization, mutation through chemicals and radiation, and tissue culturing to produce better plants began in the 1920's, but the use of biotechnology to produce transgenic plants was only introduced in the 1980's.

It was gratifying to learn that in the past 20 years, the percentage of undernourished populations has decreased from 38% to 19%, but the bleak fact still remains that more than 800 million people are still underfed. Developing countries, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa, present the greatest challenges.

While recognizing that food production in millions of tons per year has increased, it is also becoming apparent that conventional plant improvement methods are reaching their limits and that we should look at new methods for developing stronger, more nutritional crop varieties.

Why use biotechnology? What are transgenic plants? What are the benefits and constraints to biotechnology? Why are we anxious about this technology and what are some of the environmental concerns? In addition to plants, can biotechnology tools be used to enhance other food sources? These are questions that we will investigate in future articles.