Biotechnology could fight malnutrition

800 million people suffer while opponents block use of crops. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 800 million people worldwide are chronically malnourished. The FAO says that two out of five children in the developing world are stunted, one in three is underweight and one in 10 is "wasted" due to undernourishment.

If for no other reason, the current controversy regarding biotechnology and other new technologies must be addressed to allow genetic enhancement of crops to help meet the world's growing shortage for food, one of the nation's leading executives says.

"History has shown us that new technologies are not without risk, but history has also shown us that the benefits of a new technology can be much greater than the risks," says DuPont's William F. "Bill" Kirk. "Assessment of risks in the light of benefits ought to be the very essence of the current debate over biotechnology."

Although DuPont has not been as visible on the genetic engineering front as some other companies, Kirk says it believes biotechnology will be "one of the most powerful tools at our disposal for sustainable growth in the 21st Century."

"It offers flexibility to create products that are safe, affordable to most people in the world and responsive to people's needs as they define them, not as we do," said Kirk, delivering the 25th annual D.W. Brooks Lecture at the University of Georgia. (Kirk's speech was entitled The 21st Century - An Agribusiness Odyssey.)

But, for all of its promise, DuPont also believes the new technology will have limited value if it is not accepted by the public, noted Kirk, who is group vice president of DuPont's Biosolutions Enterprise.

"These beliefs have guided our actions in the past and continue to do so," he said. "Even though we are a science company and our research continues at a rapid, consistent and productive pace, the first and foremost thing we have done is to listen to the many and varied constituencies that have a stake in biotechnology and a vocal position."

In the process of listening, DuPont has learned the following:

- The products of biotechnology must be shown to be safe for humans and safe for the environment - both from a scientific viewpoint and from a public acceptance viewpoint.

- The whole scientific and commercial culture of biotechnology with its potential benefits and potential risks must be made more transparent, more accessible and more understandable to the public and society at large.

- There must be clearly defined boundaries to guide how this powerful and potentially frightening technology is developed and used. "And these boundaries need to be developed in dialogue with the many diverse stakeholders in the biotechnology debate.

"The biotechnology industry as a whole needs to act on these group "learnings" as we develop the tools of this technology and the products that emerge from it," he said. "I believe that is the only way we will turn the corner on worldwide acceptance of biotechnology.

"We have not done a particularly good job of this in the past, but it is, in my opinion, the only way to succeed going forward."

One of the steps DuPont has taken in the acceptance arena is the formation of an independent, global panel to guide its actions, help it create positions on important issues and guide and challenge it in the development, testing and commercialization of new products based on biotechnology.

For all the notoriety it has gained, biotechnology is still in its infancy, says Kirk.

"Most current genetically enhanced plant varieties are modified only for a single trait, such as herbicide tolerance or pest resistance," he noted. "The rapid progress being made in genomics may enhance plant breeding to help secure better and more-consistent yields."

Organizations like the Rockefeller Foundation are already addressing many of the food supply needs in developing economies, funding more than $100 million of plant biotechnology research and training more than 400 scientists from Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Rockefeller Foundation-funded researchers in Mexico have added genes to rice and maize to increase tolerance to aluminum - a soil toxicity problem that impacts food production in vast areas of the tropics.

In India, scientists have added two genes to rice which appear to help the plant survive being submerged for long periods, a common problem in Asia.

A team of scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology has inserted seven new genes into rice. These genes, which come from different plant and microbial sources, encode enzymes and proteins that give rice the ability to make beta-carotene and also allow the kernels to accumulate extra iron in a form the body can better absorb.

"This is important because vitamin A deficiency affects 400 million people worldwide, including 180 million children," Kirk said. "And iron deficiency, which a diet of rice can exacerbate, afflicts more than 3 billion people."

Pharmaceuticals and vitamin supplements today provide nutrition and health benefits beyond those available in food, he said. In the future, the potential exists to provide those benefits to a greater part of the world, at significantly lower cost, through foods.

"Milk is one example," Kirk noted. "Today, more than 4 billion people do not have access to refrigerated milk. We have developed an improved soy milk that provides high-quality protein at lower cost than traditional powdered milk. It is lactose-free, an important benefit to many.

"And, it tastes good, overcoming a problem that has traditionally hampered the broad use of soybeans."

DuPont has set a goal of receiving 25 percent of its revenues in 2010 from areas other than those requiring depletable raw materials.

Kirk said DuPont was instrumental in the founding of the Council for Biotechnology Information, the industry organization with a $50 million budget whose goal is to help gain public acceptance of biotechnology.

"This is not an inconsiderable sum," he said. "It is expensive and these are not the best of times in agriculture. But, we feel it's an important task."

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