``Please sir, may I have some more,'' goes the famous line from the
Dickens classic ``Oliver Twist.'' It is the very question the world's
poor are now asking in the face of unprecedented rises in food prices.
Prices of food staples like rice, wheat, corn and bananas have all sky
rocketed. What is causing this rise depends on who you talk to. Some
people blame biofuels or the huge price jump in oil.
Others blame financial speculators and international tariffs. And
still others blame changes in climate due to manmade green house gases.
It is likely a combination of all of the above. In the face of this
crisis the U.N. is also calling for a doubling of world food supplies
by 2030. But how?
There seem to be as many proposed answers to the present food crisis
as there are causes. One action plan rarely publicized is the use of
biotechnology to help reduce fungal destruction of food crops.
Most people are unaware that approximately one third of all food
produced becomes rotten before it can be consumed. As science develops
genetically modified (GM) crops that resist fungus, we will be able to
increase food supplies without converting more of the environment to
Maize is highly susceptible to the fusarium fungus. Fusarium can
produce a mycotoxin called fumonisin B. This compound is carcinogenic
and has been linked to birth defects in animals and humans.
Parts of the world often lose 30-40 percent of their corn crop to
mycotoxin contamination. In the mid 1990s scientists commercialized
the first genetically modified maize.
This GM crop had the insecticidal gene transferred from the bacterium
Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt (a safe, natural insecticide used in
organic agriculture for over fifty years).
A healthy side effect of the genetically engineered insect resistance
is greatly reduced fungal contamination of Bt maize. Just last year an
Italian study found Bt maize had over 100 times less fumonisin B when
grown side-by-side with nearly identical conventional maize that
lacked the Bt gene.
Along with its proven protection against insect damage, huge
reductions in fumonisin B contamination represent a significant
advance toward healthier food.
Bananas are the fourth largest food crop in the world. In the 1950s
the world permanently lost its most popular type of banana to a
fungus. Panama disease wiped out the Gros Michel banana.
A different fungus threatens today's Cavendish bananas. Banana
producers use a great deal of fungicide to stay one step ahead of
Black Sigatoka disease. This fungus is rapidly becoming resistant to
all of the fungicides presently used in banana production.
It has been stated that unless we find a solution, Black Sigatoka
fungus will destroy all of today's most popular variety of banana.
Because bananas are sterile and do not produce seeds, conventional
methods of developing fungal resistance have failed completely. But
there is hope.
According to the European GMO Compass, ``many banana producers hope to
save Cavendish bananas with the help of genetic engineering.''
A few varieties of Brazilian bananas have demonstrated fungal
resistance genes. Biotechnologists have placed some of these genes
into the Cavendish plants. So far the confined greenhouse trials look
The development of fungal resistant transgenic bananas will greatly
reduce the use of fungicide benefiting the consumer, the farm workers
and the environment.
If we want to save the Cavendish banana, it is vital that this
technology not be further delayed by critics of genetically modified
One hundred and fifty years ago the fungus Phytophthora infestans
caused the Irish potato famine. The complete destruction of the Irish
potato crop caused the death of one million people through starvation.
Today the same fungus destroys about 20 percent of the world's annual
potato crop. Farmers use copper compounds in organic potato production
or synthetic fungicides in conventional production.
As with other fungal pests, this fungus is becoming immune to
fungicides. An alternative approach involved using genetic engineering
to move fungal resistance genes from wild species of potatoes to the
most popular commercial potato varieties.
Even though these genetically modified potatoes only have genes from
other wild potatoes, critics of GM crops ripped up the research plots
in the U.K. last year. Hopefully this year's trials will not suffer
the same fate.
Twice in the last century a fungus called stem rust caused massive
loss of wheat crops. Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Prize, in part, for
his work developing rust resistant wheat varieties that helped the
world double its food supply between the 1950s and 70s.
Decades of reduced investment in agricultural research, a prolonged
drought in Australia, and the recent incentive to plant other crops
for bio-fuels have all contributed to the dramatic reduction in wheat
Last year saw global wheat stocks at their lowest level since 1947. It
is little wonder the price of wheat has doubled in the past year.
To further stress wheat markets, a new emerging fungus, Ug99
(discovered in Uganda in 1999) threatens world stocks. It is highly
resistant to commercial fungicides and is spread on the wind.
Many researchers fear this strain of fungus has the potential to
decimate world wheat stocks causing further increases in food prices.
Fortunately, research into new rust resistant varieties are well
underway with genes coming from barley, rice and even corn to deal
with this global threat to wheat. Once again most of the resistance
genes are transferred from closely related members of the grass family.
Without support, fungal resistant wheat research may suffer the same
attacks by critics that have slowed the development of other GM crops.
The world population will continue to rise in the coming decades and
we must find ways to feed everyone in a more sustainable manner. We
must utilize every tool in the agricultural toolbox.
From organic methods to genetically engineered crops we will need them
all. Biotechnology is not a panacea but as Angel Gurria, secretary
general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development
(OECD), stated just prior to the 2008 World Food Summit, ``I am saying
genetically modified crops are part of the solution."
In 2000 the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization stated:
``Biotechnology would provide powerful tools for the sustainable
development of agriculture and food production."
Well researched and regulated genetically modified crops will become a
significant part of our food security. It does not make sense to block
or destroy research that can potentially save millions from starvation
and reduce fungicide use.
It is time for critics of this technology to accept the role GM crops
can and will play in global agriculture.
Robert Wager is a faculty member at Vancouver Island University in
British Columbia, Canada. He received a master's degree in
biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of British
Columbia in Vancouver. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org