Future Uses Of Agricultural Biotechnology
With hundreds of thousands of people suffering from poverty-induced malnutrition, scientists world over are touting 'Agricultural Biotechnology' as a cost- effective solution to their problems. Their claim is not without reason. Biotechnology is all-pervasive today. Research is being carried out in fields like nutrition, food vaccines, environmental clean-up, medical treatments, endangered trees, diseases, etc.
Biotechnology promises a better future for all of us and, more so, in the field of agriculture, because it addresses our food needs. The research is underway in Africa's Mosanto Biotechnology to bring instant solutions for problems like hunger, malnutrition, and poverty. Several countries on the African continent are focusing their research energies on agricultural biotechnology and rapid progress is being made in the direction of policy-making.
South Africa is the leader of this pack as it is the eighth largest producer in the world of Genetically Modified (GM) maize and cotton. Maize, also known as mealies or corn, is a food staple for both humans and livestock in the country with a population of 57 million. But annually, drought and diseases like maize streak virus, cause massive crop losses exacerbating challenges of food safety and poverty reduction for the predominantly black African masses. In wake of these facts, continuing research in Agricultural Biotechnology is of utmost importance.
Companies like Monsanto, which is a leading producer and distributor of GM maize seed in SA, are working in the direction of biotech movement. Although the critics of biotechnology are already vilifying the industry for putting so much into its research, there is little doubt that this technology actually benefits farmers by way of huge savings in pesticides.
One of the senior officials at Monsanto said, "Genetically modified seed with the drought tolerance gene enhances productivity through the intensification of agriculture, rather than 'extensification' which means the use of more and more resources like land and irrigation."
We are sure this would be music to the ears of 'resource poor' farmers in South Africa and most of Africa where communities are held at ransom by the high-risk business of rain-fed farming. With increasingly alarming reports about desertification and climate change, proponents from both sides of the biotech divide can at least agree that poor farmers should be looking for more than divine intervention. While the powerful anti-biotech lobby has, inadvertently or not, provided a boost to the organic movement which espouses 'natural' farming practices from field to supermarket, agricultural researchers concede that a lot of the food consumed presently has never undergone such rigorous testing as GM foods, and nobody can claim for sure that everything passed under the 'natural' label is in fact safe.
One case in particular points at modern rice hybrids that are produced and consumed worldwide, having been 'engineered' by a process called Gamma Ray Mutation which involves the use of radiation in the creation of the hybrid. The 'mutant' hybrids have been part of the human diet for decades and have never been tested for harmful effects in the medium or long term.
Nevertheless, Agricultural Biotechnology is being put forward as a cost-effective solution to the problem of malnutrition that plagues much of the African continent where hundreds of thousands of children die from or are adversely affected by nutrient-poor diets. Food enhancement is possible with biotechnology, as crops like soya, rice, maize and potato have successfully been modified to provide increased enrichment in vital nutrients such as protein and vitamins.
Image Courtesy: nysaes.cals.cornell.edu