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World Without Hunger May Be Within Reach

Food biotechnology may provide an answer to overcoming forces of malnutrition and starvation.

NEW YORK (Oct 4) -Development of food biotechnology, if strategically targeted, can help nourish the poor indeveloping nations, according to Channapatna S. Prakash, Ph.D., a leading expert in agricultural biotechnology.

"Agricultural development will be critical in meeting future world food needs, reducing poverty and protecting the environment," says Dr. Prakash, professor of Plant Molecular Genetics and the director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University in Alabama."To further increase agricultural productivity equitably in an environmentally sustainable manner in the face of diminishing land and water resources is a highly challenging task."

Dr. Prakash spoke today at an American Medical Association media briefing on food biotechnology.

"Science has brought profound benefits to humanity, especially in the past century and has doubled the lifespan of people even in the poorest countries. Continued applications from science, especially those that target poor countries in their ability to produce more food in an environmentally sustainable manner, is going to be critical in the future," Dr. Prakash asserts.

Developing countries can produce more food from crops enhanced through biotechnology and achieve the following:

* Diminish crop loss from pests and diseases
* Decrease amounts of fertilizer and pesticides used

* Stem destruction of tropical rainforests and enhance biodiversity
* Increase shelf-life of food by curtailing spoilage

* Improve food quality and nutrition

* Strengthen crops to better tolerate adverse conditions such as drought and poor soil
* Boost local food production
* Bring profitability to farming through novel products; including industrial and pharmaceutical products

Approximately 774 million people go to bed hungry nightly, and nearly 30,000 people-half of them children-die every day due to hunger-related causes. By 2020, the number of undernourished people in sub-Saharan Africa is expected to increase dramatically, according to Dr. Prakash.

Development of high-yielding grain varieties has improved conditions in parts of the developing world by creating an enhanced, affordable food supply and boosting incomes for millions of farmers. It has also reduced the incidence of famine and starvation despite the population growth in the past few decades. Nevertheless, insecurity regarding food supplies and malnutrition persists in much of the developing world, according to Dr. Prakash.

Biotech corn, already widely used in the United States, produces its own protection against the corn borer. Research is under way on sweet potatoes that protect themselves against viruses, and on rice, beans, cassava and other staple foods with enhanced natural tolerance to diseases, pests and physical stresses, says Dr. Prakash.

"We are also helping to eliminate nutritional deficiencies through biotechnology. Biotechnology can expedite the development of new varieties and enhance marginal crops like millet, plantain, grains, legumes, cassava and sweet potatoes that are important staples in the developing world," comments Dr. Prakash." In 1997, the World Bank Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research estimated that biotechnology could help improve world food production by up to 25 percent."

Golden Rice, which is genetically fortified with vitamin A, may soon address vitamin A deficiency, a condition for which 200 to 400 million children are at risk. About a half-million children lose their vision yearly as a result of vitamin A deficiency, according to Dr. Prakash. People living in poverty are especially at risk for vitamin A deficiency because they have access to very few fruits and vegetables and consume mostly rice. Golden Rice will eliminate at least a part of this problem without changing crop patterns, eating habits or implementing expensive logistical interventions.

Biotechnology can partially help eliminate hunger by simply increasing the availability of locally grown, affordable food. Technology can help reduce hunger, poverty, malnourishment and micronutrient deficiencies, while potentially empowering people."Biotechnology by itself will not eliminate hunger or poverty," Dr. Prakash cautions."It is only a tool that, along with other options, can be a powerful element of change and can help catalyze developing nations to advance."

"The challenge of the future is helping policymakers move forward. Information, hope and optimism will provide a base for responsible change. The first step will be the biggest challenge. The elements that are needed to put policies in place in food biotechnology are money, technical expertise, biosafety and intellectual property laws, and mechanisms to facilitate technology transfer and generation," concludes Dr. Prakash.