Rice that prevents blindness. Sorghum that fights poor nutrition. Staple crops that prevent hidden hunger. These aren’t imaginary super-hero foods. They are all examples of plant science innovations in the works today, and they’re greatly anticipated in the developing world where two billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiencies. Women and children are especially at risk for disease, premature death, and impaired cognitive abilities. At least half of the 10.9 million child deaths each year could be prevented with improved nutrition.
Plant science plays an important role in growing more food to prevent hunger, but it also can create plant varieties with higher nutritional values. For example, the HarvestPlus Challenge Program is working with more than 200 agricultural and nutrition scientists around the world to biofortify seven key staple crops that will have the greatest impact in alleviating micronutrient malnutrition in Asia.
Biotechnology and crop protection can also help provide consistent food quality by reducing the natural toxins in food that are capable of causing disease or death.
Crop protection products help ensure a bountiful harvest of healthy foods. Access to fresh fruits and vegetables has greatly increased in many parts of the world, contributing to better diets and increased longevity. By boosting yields and limiting pre and post-harvest losses, crop protection products have helped improve this availability. For example, a US study estimated that without fungicide use by farmers, yields of most fruit and vegetables would fall by 50-90 percent due to plant diseases.
And plant breeders are working to make these fruits and vegetables even healthier. Tomatoes with increased folic acid (a B vitamin essential in healthy cell formation), bananas that can produce a vaccine for hepatitis B, and fruits and vegetables with higher than normal levels of antioxidants and vitamins such as C and E are just a few examples of biotech products in development.
“Golden Rice” is another wonder food made possible by biotechnology. It contains higher amounts of beta-carotene and iron, with potential benefits for up to 500,000 children going blind each year due to Vitamin A deficiency. Golden Rice is being prepared in the Philippines and likely followed by Bangledesh, Indonesia and Vietnam.
Biotech traits can also improve food quality and safety. For example, Bt corn is enhanced with a naturally occurring protein from a common soil microbe that protects plants from insect pests such as corn borers. In addition to providing higher yields, this trait makes both food and feed safer by lowering levels of harmful mycotoxins (fungal toxins capable of causing disease or death in humans and other animals) caused by insect damage.