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GMOs Seen as Playing Major Role in Battling World Hunger

Many scientists argue that genetically engineered crops have increased crop yield and reduced use of pesticides and herbicides that can damage the environment. Just as significant, they say, there is the potential for genetically engineered crops to alleviate hunger and improve health in the so-called developing world.

“Here’s the issue: a 7 billion world population is predicted to go to around 10 billion (by 2050),” said Tom Jack, a professor of biology at Dartmouth College. How will the world feed itself? “We could increase land use or we could use land we’re already using to grow more crops” by increasing their yield, Jack said. This is an area where genetically modified crops can be beneficial, he said.

Because of climate change, it wouldn’t be prudent to clear large swaths of carbon-absorbing forests to make way for farm land, say Jack and others who see a place for genetically modified crops, commonly known as GMOs. Crops that can be genetically engineered for drought-resistance or water-tolerance in the case of increased precipitation could play significant roles in helping humans adapt to the vagaries of altered climate patterns.

Skeptics argue, however, that science has made exaggerated claims for the efficacy of GMOs.

By emphasizing genetic engineering, rather than looking at underlying issues of poverty and political instability that contribute to famine, hunger and the prevalence of certain diseases, they say, scientists, government officials and agribusiness leaders are overlooking tried and true methods that work, albeit more slowly.

Just because you have a technology, should you always use it?

Susanne Friedberg, a professor of geography at Dartmouth, pointed to the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, spearheaded by agronomist Norman Borlaug, who received the Nobel Peace Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work.

Modernizing farming techniques, improving irrigation and distributing hybridized seeds were some of the initiatives introduced by Borlaug in the developing world. At the time, the Green Revolution was heralded as a partial solution to starvation in regions where famine and malnutrition were endemic.

“It vastly increased the food supply but it didn’t solve the hunger problem,” Friedberg said. It’s critical to focus on political and economic solutions to food insecurity, and not assume that biotechnology is always an answer, she said. But there are some applications of genetic engineering that might be useful.

For instance, cassava, a staple in Africa and South America, has to be prepared in a special way to get rid of its naturally occurring toxins, making it a labor-intensive crop. Efforts underway to develop a genetically modified, less toxic, more nutritious cassava seem worth pursuing, she said.

In the event that people could divorce their assumptions about genetically engineered crops from their perceptions of biotech corporations, what are the possible benefits?

In the early to mid-1990s, the Hawaiian papaya crop, which is second to pineapple as the state’s biggest fruit export, was virtually decimated by the papaya ringspot virus, said Rob McClung, a professor of biology at Dartmouth College.

Efforts had already been underway to grow a genetically modified papaya that would be resistant to the virus, according to a paper written by one of the scientists who developed a genetically modified papaya, Dennis Gonsalves of the Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center, an arm of the USDA in Hilo, Hawaii.

But the spread of the virus was so rapid, and the possible loss of a major cash crop so grave, that scientists sped up the development of genetically modified papaya. After 2 1/2 years of field trials, the genetically modified rainbow papaya was introduced in 1998 when seeds were distributed free to growers.

Rainbow papaya was planted in the fields that had been abandoned because of the virus, and showed a sturdy resistance. The papaya crop rebounded. Papaya is the only genetically modified fruit crop in the U.S., and is notable because the breakthrough came from scientists working independently rather than through biotech companies.

There have been some instances of genetic drift, from the rainbow papaya to the non-GMO papaya, and there have been complaints from organic papaya growers about the difficulty of maintaining a clean, organic chain with so much rainbow papaya around them, reported an article this June in the Hawaii Tribune Herald .

But the relative speed with which scientists were able to address the rust virus is one of the arguments for genetic engineering, said McClung. When an outbreak such as the one in Hawaii happens, scientists, farmers and businesses don’t always have the luxury of time, which is a fundamental element of conventional cross-breeding.

“We’re in an arms race with pathogens, they’re always going to be a step ahead,” he said.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.

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