How Food Biotechnology Is Improving Food Security

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SEATTLE — According to the U.N., the world’s population is expected to grow to 9.7 billion in 2050 and further increase to 11.2 billion by 2100. For a lot of developing countries, this rapid population growth makes it more difficult to eradicate poverty and ensure food security. As a result of these concerns, more research is being dedicated to achieving global food security through a common practice known as biotechnology.

By definition, biotechnology is any technological approach that makes use of biological systems, organisms or the like to make new products or modify current ones for a singular purpose. Biotechnology combines a vast repertoire of knowledge obtained from biochemistry, microbiology and engineering sciences to produce things like beer, corn, fabrics used for clothes, active pharmaceuticals and much more.

Food Biotechnology Improves Crop Yields and Growing Times

Advancements in food biotechnology such as genetic engineering and gene editing have allowed for the sequencing of various crop species like pearl millet. Pearl millet is commonly cultivated in sub-Saharan Africa, India and other South Asian countries and is commonly regarded as a staple food and a source of straw and fuel, but is difficult to produce because it can only grow in dry conditions where irrigations, fertilizer and pesticides are hard to come by. Through the sequencing of pearl millet, a number of important genes were identified. Biotechnology methods allow for the transfer of these important agronomic-efficient traits to other crops to increase the viability of the transgenic plant, thereby increasing the yield and promoting commercialization in developing countries.

Food biotechnology methods also shorten the time needed to develop and release a food item because molecular markers allow users and producers to select for a plant with favorable genes that can lead to resistance against biotic and abiotic stressors like microbial infections or harsh climate conditions. One such example of inducing earlier production is the Indian mustard plant, a plant commonly exported from developing countries to the U.S. in the form of vegetable oil and used by locals as a medicinal herb. Scientists identified the microRNA MIR172, which negatively regulates the expression of protein-coding genes that are involved in the flowering time. Increasing the expression leads to earlier flowering, resulting in a shorter life cycle and better yields because the plant no longer experiences prolonged exposure to harsh environmental conditions.

Biofortification Helps People in Developing Countries Meet Their Nutritional Needs

Food biotechnology can also improve food security by increasing the nutritional value of food. A common problem in sub-Saharan Africa is vitamin A deficiency, which is a crucial issue for children and pregnant women. Children affected by this deficiency are more likely to suffer from visual impairment and contract severe illnesses. Pregnant women suffering from vitamin A deficiency are at risk of developing anemia, increasing the mortality risk for both mother and child. Therefore, it is recommended that infants be breastfed to receive vitamin A from their mother and for pregnant women to take 800 μg of vitamin A derivatives.

To increase the options available to combat vitamin A deficiency as well as other vitamin-related problems, a biotechnological method known as biofortification is used. Biofortification is defined as a process by which the strength of the nutrients in a given food is enhanced. Biofortification helps to add in nutrients from early stages of production to create a mutated seed that can easily be replicated and distributed, allowing for even the poorest countries to get adequate nutrients at a reasonable price. Through this method, several countries in Africa are reaching the nutritional target for vitamin A, zinc, iron and many other vitamins through biofortified varieties of maize.

Biotechnology is just one way to meet people’s daily without putting future generations at risk of starvation. Continued advancements in this field can increase productivity, leading to improved livelihoods at lower costs of production per crop. It also means a safer, more plentiful alternative to preventing and curing multiple nutrient-related conditions or diseases. Ultimately, with continued research in this field, developing countries will have a chance to increase their overall self-sufficiency in matters of health and economic development.

– Stephanie Singh

Photo: Flickr

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