For those of us who have always had access to plenty of nutritious foods, it is hard to imagine what life would be like without a variety of foods to choose from. Conversely for those who live in developing countries, many have a limited diet that is not high in nutritional value. It is already a challenge to provide enough nutritious food for the current population of approximately 7 billion, and each day more people develop nutritional deficiencies. Moreover, this challenge will not get any easier because over the next fifty years the number of people on our planet will continue to increase. In fact, by 2050 it is projected that the world’s population will reach 9.6 billion (Skurie, 2013). As the world’s population grows, nations will continue to face the problem of how to feed their citizens. Solutions to this serious problem can be found in engineering. To provide healthy food for the world’s ever growing population, genetic engineers have made, and continue to make, advancements in nutrition to fortify food crops with necessary vitamins, minerals, and protein, as well as advancements to increase crop yields.
Within the past fifty years, the field of genetic engineering has developed to the point where it plays an important role in nutrition. Friedrich Miescher’s identification of DNA in the late 1860’s led to the discovery of the double helix by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953 (Pray, 2008). Without these two discoveries, genetic engineering would not be possible. This field of engineering began in the 1970’s and “is a process in which recombinant DNA technology is used to introduce desirable traits into organisms” (U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2012). In order to genetically modify an organism, engineers must go through a series of steps. First DNA is extracted from an organism. Next the desired gene is removed and a copy is made which is then slightly modified to introduce the desired trait. This new gene is inserted back into the organism. Finally, through the process of breeding, genetic engineers are then able to create additional modified organisms (University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2005). Even though genetic engineering is an expensive and timely process, it allows engineers to improve the lives of many people.
The process of genetic engineering can be used to help malnourished people in developing countries get necessary vitamins and minerals that are lacking in their diets. One of the most easily attainable foods in these countries is rice, which is a good provider of calories and protein but lacks many important nutrients. One of these nutrients is vitamin A, and about 400 million people are affected by Vitamin A deficiency (Toenniessen, 2000). Vitamin A is required for human growth, and without it, immune systems are attacked and blindness can occur (McKie, 2013). In order to solve the lack of vitamin A in diets, Peter Beyer created Golden Rice in the late 1990’s by inserting genes of beta-carotene into the DNA of normal rice (McKie, 2013). The beta-carotene is then converted into vitamin A by the human body. Although Golden Rice was developed in the 1990’s, it was not until 2009 that trials were conducted. The trials were successful and “showed that a bowl of cooked golden rice, between 100g and 150g, could provide 60% of the recommended intake of vitamin A” (McKie, 2013). Due to the work of genetic engineers, those in developing countries who are affected by Vitamin A deficiency now have access to a healthier rice-based diet. Genetic modification of rice also has been used to help people whose diets lack iron. This mineral is important because it helps carry oxygen from the lungs to other parts of the body. An estimated 2 billion people worldwide are affected by iron deficiency which can result in both memory and physical impairments (Nadu, 2001). Genetic engineers have helped to limit iron deficiency by fortifying rice with iron “through the introduction of proteins from kidney beans” (Nadu, 2001). By doing so, genetic engineers have been able to prevent some cases of iron deficiency outright and are also able to help those with iron deficiency to overcome this disease.
Another problem faced by those in developing countries is protein-calorie malnutrition. Good sources of protein include meat and dairy products. Since many diets lack these foods, it is hard to consume enough protein which is especially important for growing children. To combat this problem engineers in New Delhi, India developed the Designer Potato. Potatoes are ranked fourth in terms of total global food production and are the most important non-cereal food crop (Nadu, 2001). Since so many people rely on this crop as a food source, genetic engineers have modified the potato with the Amal protein which has made a significant contribution to child and adult nutrition (Nadu, 2001). The Designer Potato is just one more example of the positive role genetic engineering has played to improve the world’s food supply.
Genetic engineering also has been used to increase the world’s food supply. Pests as well as the use of herbicides damage many crops. Therefore, genetic engineers have developed pest-resistant and herbicide-tolerant crops. Crops, including maize, “have been genetically modified so they are toxic to certain insects” (King-Farlow, 2012). This modification has increased resistance to pests resulting in higher crop yields. These genetically modified crops, called BT crops, are grown all over the United States and have also been authorized to be grown in some developing countries including India and China (King-Farlow, 2012). This allows farmers in developing countries to grow a heartier crop. Herbicides are used by farmers to control weeds but also negatively affect crop yields. To solve this problem genetic engineers have modified crops to tolerate common weed killers (King-Farlow, 2012). This has been very useful, and herbicide-tolerant crops have become a common weed control tool in the U.S. (Knezevic, 2007). Now farmers in developing countries, such as Africa, are currently using herbicide-tolerant crops to ensure a higher crop yield (King-Farlow, 2012). Increased crop yield is important since more food means that more people are fed. Thus through the development of pest-resistant and herbicide-tolerant crops, genetic engineers have been able to help farmers in developing countries to feed their local populations.
In the near future genetic engineers certainly will continue to work to improve the nutritional content of other crops. Herbs are one type of crop that would be important to genetically modify. Herbs are used to make tea, a popular drink in both Asian and African countries. Since tea is the second most popular beverage, after water, many people would benefit from drinking nutritionally enhanced tea (Fairtrade International, 2011). People who live in Asian countries enjoy Green Tea which is made from Camellia sinensis leaves. An African tea, Rooibos Tea, also uses plant leaves but from the Rooibos plant. Specifically modifying these two plants would allow those in developing countries to consume the necessary vitamins and minerals in another form.
As genetic engineers continue to research ways to help feed the growing population, they will need to overcome current limitations so that important contributions can be made over the next fifty years. One problem is that the process of genetically modifying food requires expensive technology (Shah, 2002). Due to this, those in developing countries are not always able to afford the equipment and must rely on developed countries to create genetically modified crop seeds. Therefore genetic engineers must make advancements that simplify the genetic modification process so that it may be done less expensively. Another limitation associated with genetic engineering is that genetically modified crops produce seeds that do not germinate, so each year farmers must buy a new supply of seeds which, overtime, becomes very expensive (Mogilna, 2012). In order to help farmers in developing countries, genetic engineers should work to develop a new process that allows modified crops to produce germinating seeds. This is important so that the farmers can afford to continue to grow the genetically modified crops. Hopefully the next fifty years will bring advancements to overcome current limitations of genetic engineering.
The field of genetic engineering has been successful in helping to provide access to better nutrition to those in developing countries through the development of genetically modified crops. As the world’s population grows, it is important for engineers to contribute to the attainment of global food security. Undoubtedly genetic engineers will continue to make progress to both improve and increase the world’s food supply. Fifty years ago genetic modification was a goal to achieve. Now that genetic engineers have been successful, they need to continue to research ways to allow this amazing technology to become more widespread, allowing fortified foods to be grown locally as needed.