Biotechnology and the Foods We Eat

“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” Winston Churchill’s words in 1942 were of war, not science. Today there are those who choose these words to describe the tremendous impact of the Human Genome Project and its results in our lives.

Anticipated use of these results is in healthcare and medicine, development of energy sources, environmental issues, and agriculture. In the area of agriculture many believe that through genetic research and technology, disease, insect and drought resistant crops will emerge. Already on the market are modified crops including rice, cotton, corn, tomatoes, papayas and sweet potatoes.

Genetically modified or transgenic crops contain a gene or genes that have been artificially inserted into the plant rather than having been introduced through pollination. The genes may be from a related plant or a totally different species, but it does involve known gene transfers.

Some of the benefits of this modification process include enhanced nutrient content, extended shelf life, increased stress tolerance to heat, drought, insects and viruses and decreased dependence on pesticides. These benefits sound great, but there are constraints and public concern over the use of modified crops. There is concern about safety assurances, biotechnology regulations and environmental issues. How do we address these concerns? Education. Only through continued education and understanding can concerns be addressed.

On September 3rd, the government of Zambia rejected 15,000 tons of genetically modified maize from the United States. It is estimated that in Zambia alone there are 2.4 million people facing starvation. In the South African region that number escalates to 13 million people. What is both interesting and sad to note is that Zambia has received and used genetically modified food assistance for 8 years, but President Mwanawasa now states “the country had been denied the right to make an informed decision.” Millions of people may die because their government will not accept our food. This is a tragic example of the need for continued social and technological education, research and assurance in the field of genetic technology.