Helping to feed a hungry world
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 7, 2002
Rice is food for a starving world. One-third of the world's population subsists on rice, deriving half their daily calories from it. Any bump in nutritional value or productivity that can be programmed into the annual rice crop would be a boon to the world's poor.
Thanks to two teams of scientists, one in China and one in Japan, those breakthroughs could be just around the corner. Each has successfully cracked the genome of a different variety of rice, promising a future where rice crops are fortified with added nutrition and growing qualities. Moreover, knowing the genetics of rice has residual benefits for the study of other cereals too, such as corn, wheat and barley.
Of course, the term for what science intends to do with this knowledge, genetic engineering, has received a flood of bad publicity in recent years. Environmental and antiglobalization groups denounce genetically modified foods as "Frankenfoods." They say genetic engineering will be catastrophic, reducing bio-diversity, forcing poor farmers to be beholden to international agri-giants like Monsanto, and loosening genetic combinations into the world's food supply with unknown results.
All these cautions are merited. Nonetheless, science is inexorably moving toward enhancing more crops through genetic modification, and if done carefully, we can realize the promise of more nutritious and productive food sources. All scientific advancement comes with risks, but plant breeding and genetic manipulation are nothing new. The practice dates back to the 1500s when farmers were creating hybrids between, for instance, their most successful crops and a particularly insect-resistant variety. Today our hybridizations are more exacting. With the near-completion of the rice genome for two popular varieties, science is one step closer to feeding a hungry world.
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