Do you know that every five seconds, a child dies because of hunger-related causes (breadfortheworld, 2008)? Are you aware that according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) there are 854 million undernourished individuals worldwide and this is equivalent to 12.6 percent of the total globe’s population (FAO, 2004, p.109)?
I ask these questions which state outrageous facts because maybe you are one of those people who are unaware of the hunger and malnutrition dilemma. Instilling consciousness among the people around the world is the first step in combating this intensive problem and the next is finding methodologies to solve the problem.
Various processes that embark on sustaining the health and nutrition needs of the poor populace have emerged. Among these is the development of biotechnology that includes genetic engineering as a component of food and agriculture. The capacity of biotechnology to alleviate the problem of food shortages especially in relation to the poor population is undeniable.
Detractors of biotechnology need to accept this fact in order to solve the growing problem of malnutrition and hunger that is widely experienced by the poor.
Hunger and malnutrition is closely associated with poverty. Majority of the undernourished population are from the developing countries. The poor people are the ones principally suffering from malnutrition and hunger because of their lack of monetary resources to acquire their basic needs including food.
So despite that the global agriculture being 17 percent calories more productive on an individual person basis as compared 30 years ago, hunger and malnutrition is still experienced by the poor due to their incapacity to purchase adequate food. Thus, the dilemma of intensive poverty in the developing countries of the world is interlinked to the growing problem of hunger and malnutrition (“World Hunger Facts 2008”).
The interlinking of poverty, hunger, and malnutrition implies that if poverty is reduced hunger and malnutrition would also be minimized if not eliminated. An integral sector for the lessening of poverty and provision of sustainable development around the world is agriculture. This sector is not only composed of crops but livestock, aquaculture, and agroforestry also.
The development in agriculture thus also means more livelihoods, economic activity, and increased services that benefit the environment. Agriculture development will not only aid in eliminating poverty but also in resolving the hunger and malnutrition problem of the world (World Bank, 2007, p. 1-4). Agricultural development aims to provide more food that will be sold at a price that the poor population can afford.
This condition can be attained by incorporating biotechnology in food and agriculture because in this system the breeding programs will be faster and more yield in production achieved. The reason for the aforementioned benefits is the planting materials and animal stocks that are disease free (FAO, 2004, 3-4).
In general term, biotechnology can be defined as the process that utilizes living organisms and substances in modifying a product for practical means. All kinds of organisms including viruses, bacteria, plants, and animals can be applied with biotechnology. Thus, agriculture is not the sole sector that can benefit from this system but medicine and industry as well.
The techniques of biotechnology employ the manipulation of the genetic component of the organism to be utilized in production or processing of agricultural produce. Biotechnology is comprised of techniques and methodologies that include molecular technologies like gene transfer, gene manipulation, DNA typing, and DNA cloning of plants and animals. Genetic engineering or recombinant DNA techniques is the alteration of the genetic composition of an life form through the utilization of transgenesis or the transfer of the DNA of an life form or cell to another in absence of sexual reproduction.
The product of this process is the genetically modified organism (GMO) which can also be called genetically engineered organism (GEO) or “transgenic organism” (FAO, 2004, p.8).
Examples of the areas of biotechnology application include the fermentation and brewing which has been done for decades already. This system is also important in medicine because it can be applied to the microorganisms that serve as stocks for drugs such as penicillin and streptomycin.
Biotechnology is also applied to the production of hard cheese and synthetic insulin. In agricultural production and processing, biotechnology has also already been utilized specifically in plant breeding wherein the plant stocks are genetically modified to resist diseases, pests, and other non-living stress factors like cold and drought.
The crops are not only resistant to diseases but can also be resistant to pest infestation. Biotechnology not only eliminates the diseases and pests that are detrimental to the crop production but also discontinues the utilization of toxic chemicals like fertilizer and pesticides that are known to be hazardous to human and environmental health.
Through the modification on the genes of the plant stocks the production yield is raised and the nutrient constituent of major produce such as rice and cassava are increased (FAO, 2004, p. 8-9).
Biotechnology is not only applicable to crops but to livestock, fisheries, and forestry as well. The methodologies of biotechnology can also be applied to livestock and fish to select the best traits and fasten their breeding cycle.
The best traits of the animals like resistance to diseases, faster growth, excellent meat quality, and high egg production can be selected through the use of biotechnology methodology such as genetic engineering. The production of animal feeds can also be altered with the employment of biotechnology to lessen the production of environmental waste and enhance the nutrition of animals.
Antibiotic feed additives, enzymes, single-cell proteins, and probiotics are among the products of the employment of biotechnology in animal nutrition. These products enhance the nutrient availability of the feedstuffs to the animals thus increasing the production yield. Another utilization of biotechnology in livestock production is in diagnostics of diseases and vaccine production.
Some diseases of animals and plants especially those caused by viruses are hard to diagnose due to the variations in the manifestation of the clinical symptoms. Through the diagnostic tests that are products of biotechnology the hardship in viral disease diagnostics is erased. This advanced diagnostic tests techniques are highly specific for individual disease agent thus correct disease diagnosis is easily achieved. An example of an important animal disease wherein biotechnology played a role in the eradication is rinderpest, a serious viral disease that primarily affects cattle.
Through the employment of biotechnology vaccines against the disease were produced protecting the rinderpest uninfected population of cattle from having the disease. Aside from that, this system was also responsible for the production of diagnostic tool in the form of Enzyme Linked ImmunoSorbent Assay (ELISA) and molecular tests that enables the appropriate identification of rinderpest diseased animals (FAO, 2004, p. 9-21).
Genetic engineering maybe a new technology but the principles behind it are not new since even more than 10 000 years ago farmers have already manipulated the genetic composition of their animals and plants. Selection method which involves the propagation of animals and plants that best suit specific environmental conditions was used for centuries in farming and it is also the principle behind genetic engineering.
The non- bioengineering associated farmers already ensured reproduction of animals and plants that have superior qualities through various breeding cycles. Bioengineering’s objectives is the same with these early and modern farmers – to be able to generate superior crops and animals.
The difference between genetic engineering and conventional breeding is that in conventional breeding which relies on phenotype-based selection it takes many generations and vast amount of time before the desired traits of animals and crops are produced. In genetic engineering on the other hand, manipulation of the genes of the parents will produce 1st generation offsprings that possesses the desired trait combinations (FAO, 2004, p. 9).
The guiding objective is thus the same between the conventional farming and farming that incorporates genetic engineering. What differs between the two is the means used to attain the objective and the amount of time consumed to achieve that objective.
Like any other up-and-coming technology innovations, biotechnology is also plunked by issues by which its advocates and the critics continue to debate about. One of these issues is the health safety of the consumers of biotechnology products.
Detractors of this technology emphasize the inadequacy of research studies conducted about the long-term and short-term effects of this technique (IPC, 2004). These people continuously ignore that like any other new technology, studies of the long- term and short-term impacts of the employment of biotechnology takes time to be accomplished. The present status of global hunger and malnutrition of the poor is already alarming.
Do we have to wait for the problem to worsen before employing solutions like the incorporation of biotechnology to agriculture? The potential hazards posed by the application of biotechnology to agriculture can be searched for solutions but the lives that hunger and malnutrition dilemma took away will never be regained.