Monday, February 2, 2009

Science and Rice – A Mixture Saving Lives

Genetic Engineering a Valued Partner in Fighting Hunger, Famine, and Death

During yesterday’s Super Bowl a commercial stated 1 in 3 children are overweight in the United States. Almost immediately I thought of the countless children I met in the streets of Nicaragua or villages in India who had red patches in their hair – a universal mark of protein deficiency. It is said that nearly half of world’s population depends on rice as a staple food. Rice equals life for an alarming percentage of that half. It is at times one of the few barriers between life and starvation or starvation and death. If so many people, including the worlds poorest consume rice then how can we make it go further and do more? Scientists, particularly geneticists, have moved into the forefront to answering these questions.

Applying advances in science to real life use is sometimes controversial. Say the word genetic engineering and cloned sheep may jump to mind, but science when used for the greater good (admittedly a matter of perspective and relativity) can wind up to be a match made in heaven. If countless millions of men, women, and children suffer from malnutrition, chronic illnesses, and die due to lack of access to food, then should not science be used to answer the call?

One breakthrough response has been “golden rice” – rice that has been genetically altered to contain (express in genetic terms) beta-carotene. The beta-carotene provides vitamin A to the eater. According to the World Health Organization, vitamin A deficiency is responsible for 250,000 to 500,000 children going blind a year; half of which die within a year as a result of their blindness. The project’s objective is to provide a day’s worth of vitamin A in rice rich societies through enhancing what they already have available. It is worth visiting the Golden Rice Project to read about the how, why, and what is next of the work.

In 2008 soaring rice prices, due to higher energy costs (think fertilizers and transportation costs) and failed crop yields (both droughts and floods), left many developing countries and international food programs in dangerous and life threatening scenarios. One hopes the tipping point has been reached for renewable energy sources but one auspicious answer to the failing crop yields is “flood-tolerant rice”. In this case, geneticists have been attempting to alter genes to increase resistance of rice succumbing to flooding from the normal three days to up to seventeen. Scientists say flooding is responsible for ruining an “estimated 4 million tons of rich each year; enough to feed 30 million people”. Targeting flood prone sectors and introducing the genetically altered rice could present a viable solution for increasing access to a vital basic staple.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle in both Golden Rice and flood tolerant rice is passing the taste test of the locals and yield productivity measures of the farmers. Both projects took several years going through testing and trials because as with any gene altering or biotechnological project substantial testing and quality assurance is critical in both protecting the consumer and the local ecosystem. Unfortunately at times confidence wanes when programs are driven by profits and not social and corporate responsibility. It seems daily we are reminded of irresponsible acts of profit driven business executives or FDA announcements of salmonella outbreaks in tomatoes and peanut butter. Finally, one can not forget the viral video on Youtube of diseased cattle in the meat packing line. It makes understanding the delay and the lengthy debates regarding biotechnology understandable, but the future of hunger and malnourishment changes with each potential experiment.

Whether it was with red beans in Nicaragua (known as Gallo Pinto), curry and cilantro in India, plain in Rwanda, or as a bed for other foods to be served on in Thailand, the ubiquity, demand, and importance of rice left quite the impression on me. Food plays such a vital role in maintaining health and a dignified level of life that my experiences made realizing the breakthrough potential of these discoveries an a-ah moment; one where it seemed to make clear sense. The advances of science utilized to address such basic global and human needs, particularly food and health remind me of a quote that summarizes much of my outlook on science that has stayed with me throughout my education: “Talent is a loan from God for relief of man’s estate”.

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