The Role of Biotechnology in Alleviating Problems of Malnourishment and World Hunger
Schuyler S. Korban, Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois, Urbana, IL 61801

Recently, I was invited to give a presentation on the general topic of the impact of genetic engineering in developing countries. It so happened that the original speaker who was asked to give this presentation couldn’t make it at the last minute due to an important meeting that required his presence at his office, so the organizers began a frantic search for an alternative speaker. When the alternative speaker couldn’t make it either due to travel plans, he directed them to me, and so the invitation landed on my doorstep. Of course, being the generous person that I am, with my time, I took it upon myself to prepare a talk on a subject matter that I thought I knew something about, but in fact did not fully appreciate the enormity of the challenge. To tell you the truth, I now realize that I was not completely aware of the scope of the problems of malnourishment and hunger in the world that we live until I put on my bootstraps, and began to do my homework. My first instinct was to look for data on world malnourishment and hunger. As scientists, we all recognize the importance of figures and data to support our claim that the problem we plan to address was of a very serious nature, and that it had a significant impact on some aspect of our life and the world we live in. Whether it was a crop that we grew, an animal that we herd, an organism that we work with, or the environment that we deal with, a pie chart or a bar column would serve to illustrate the magnitude of the problem under consideration. Well, let me share with you these data that I came across on world hunger and malnourishment, not just to inform you, but also to astound you with the gravity of this problem. So, here are the facts.

Based on 1998-2000 figures published by FAO, the number of malnourished individuals worldwide is estimated at 840 million. Among those, 799 million live in developing countries. The distribution of this malnourished segment of the world’s population is as follows: 196 million in sub-Saharan Africa, 233 million in India, 119 million in China, 40 million in Near-East and North-Africa, 55 million in Latin America and the Caribbean, and 196 million in other parts of Asia and the Pacific.

These are truly sobering figures for any one of us to comprehend. To think there are so many malnourished and hungry people in this world is both sad and mind boggling. Here we are living in the 21st century whereby worldwide electronic communication among individuals occurs in a matter of a few seconds and intercontinental travel can take place in a matter of hours, yet there are people who do not have access to one of the most essential needs of life, food. With the projected increase in world population from its current 6 billion to 9 billion within the next 50 years, it is easy to predict that the segment of hungry and malnourished populations in developing countries will be among those that will continue to increase and will continue to face the tragic consequences.

As scientists working in the field of biotechnology, we realize that this technology can have a significant impact on increasing crop production in developing countries, specifically by addressing disease, pest, nematode, draught, and other environmental problems that limit crop productivity in low-fertile soils and under high-stress environments that are prevalent in some of these countries. Moreover, we are aware that we can not only increase crop productivity to alleviate hunger, but we can also overcome problems of malnutrition by fortifying staple crops with nutrients that will avert such common and serious deficiencies in Vitamin A, iron, and iodine.

These breakthroughs in genetic engineering can certainly address issues of hunger and malnutrition, yet here we are hearing of sensationalist criticism of genetic engineering by activists who make claims that they are speaking out to alert the public to the dangers of this ‘unnatural’ technology, and its potential danger to human health and the environment. But, how can re reconcile this obvious contradiction between these two positions. Biotechnology has the capacity to produce crops that can grow better under stressful (biotic and/or abiotic) conditions and feed more people, thus alleviating hunger in developing countries. Biotechnology has the capacity to produce crops that can readily deliver higher levels of essential nutrients to alleviate deficiencies that contribute to malnutrition also in these developing countries. It is morally reprehensible for us to have the means and know how to deal with hunger in the world, and simply do nothing to obviate and overcome this problem. It is from an ethical view point that we must address this problem using a technology that has proven to be reliable and safe. Often, it is mentioned that unless this technology is proven to be safe in rich countries, we have a moral obligation not to push this technology not to push this technology to the developing countries. Though this argument is valid, we all know that genetically modified crops are both grown and have been consumed in these rich countries, particularly in the United States, for over eight years now. Implementing this technology in rich countries will have certainly preceded that of developing countries, and so why are we still waiting to hold off on moving this technology to the people that really and truly needed the most. While, we sit here and debate the inherent risks of this technology, that have thus far been outweighed by its benefits, approximately 24,000 children would have died of hunger and disease within a single day somewhere in the world.

Hunger and malnutrition are moral problems for all humanity, and it is incumbent on us as scientists working in this field of research to raise this ethical issue anytime someone living in a comfortable home, consuming plenty of food, and maintaining all their essential minerals and vitamins in their diet speaks of the “risks” of biotechnology, when this same technology can save people in developing countries from hunger, malnutrition, and ultimately death.