George L. Blackburn, M.D.

The world population will be an estimated 9 billion people by 2045. How will we feed them? Of today’s 6 billion, 1 billion are undernourished and another billion are overnourished. In the absence of energy transplantation, those of us in the health and food technology fields need to find a novel solution, one that makes the Green Revolution look like an effort in trivial pursuits.

In my article, “Pasteur’s Quadrant and Malnutrition,” in the January 2001 issue of Nature and the April 2001 issue of the Journal of Food Science, I sought to challenge nutritional biochemists and food technologists to develop new applications aimed at feeding the world’s growing population. I stated that progress would require new technologies in food-delivery systems and changes in social, political, and ecological systems.

The late Donald E. Stokes of Princeton University proposed a two-dimensional model in which innovations integrate basic science with technology—a marriage that can spark the social policies needed to feed humanity. Food technologists can be expected to play a pivotal role toward this end. Indeed, in an editorial in the February 1994 issue of Food Technology, I identified them as key to the treatment and prevention of human obesity. Careers in this field are bright. If we fully exploit foreseeable and unforeseeable technology in bionutrition and functional foods, they’re certain to be even brighter.

One of the foreseeable solutions for feeding the expanding mass of humanity is biotechnology, a science that holds extraordinary promise for improving the health and nutrition of billions of people. The American Medical Association recently endorsed biotechnology’s human and environmental safety. Other organizations, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), also support biotech solutions.

AMA’s position statement gives special recognition to the many benefits offered by genetically modified foods and crops. In fact, while current biotech crops have been shown to cause no health problems and only minor environmental disturbances, they’ve already begun to yield major benefits.

In the Mississippi Delta, for example, biotech cotton has reduced the use of chemical insecticides by millions of gallons a year. Soybeans with engineered immunity to certain herbicides have allowed farmers to reduce soil erosion and replace more toxic herbicides, which pollute water, with relatively benign ones. And in Hawaii, the papaya industry is being saved by papayas with resistance to a devastating virus.

Biotech cotton means higher profits as well as reduced exposure to dangerous chemicals. Biotech reduces fumonisins because there’s less insect-damaged grain. These are just a couple of ways that biotechnology can be used to address nutritional and health needs around the world.

In a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, Michael Jacobson, CSPI’s executive director, wrote, “While biotechnology is not a panacea for every nutritional and agricultural problem, it is a powerful tool to increase food production, protect the environment, improve the healthfulness of foods, and produce valuable pharmaceuticals.” It might also be the linchpin connecting today’s foreseeable solutions with tomorrow’s unforeseeable ones.

Unforeseeable solutions will come from emergent technologies in the areas of bionutrition and functional foods, structured lipids, probiotics and prebiotics, ligand-binding proteins, phytonutrients and phytocompounds, and food technology. One example is new mixtures of structured lipids that can modulate the potentially damaging immune response that results from high levels of proinflammatory prostaglandins. Another is extrusion cooking, which can process mixtures of nutrient-dense plant foods into soup bases, flour mixes, and other dry foods.

Whatever the source of innovation, nutrition can be expected to play a pivotal role in optimizing health and productivity. Biotechnology will protect sweet potatoes from viruses, increase yields of rice, and reduce contamination in corn from mold-produced carcinogens. New biotech peanuts, rice, wheat, and other crops will neutralize the allergy-causing compounds in those foods, allowing millions of affected people to lead more-normal lives. And biotechnology will help produce enough food to meet the expected population growth of 3 billion people in the next 30–40 years.

Those in the developing world will be biotech’s greatest beneficiaries. Scientists will use it to introduce missing vitamins and other nutrients into the diets of poor people. One new strain of rice will contain beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A; another will add iron. As a result, millions of children will not suffer childhood blindness, and million of people will not develop iron deficiency-related diseases.

We can be very proud of efforts by the United States government, industry, academic, and medical communities to develop ways to benefit from biotechnology. The public trusts these institutions. Much work, however, remains to be done. Misinformation is rampant. Biotech critics have launched a sophisticated assault against the emerging technology. Using safety and environmental issues, they’ve spread alarm and confusion. One of our jobs is to educate the public and improve the availability of unbiased information on genetically modified crops and research activities.

James D. Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, once said, “Never put off doing something useful for fear of evil that may never arrive.” At this turning point in the science of nutrition, those words surely apply to us.

by George L. Blackburn is Associate Director, Div. of Nutrition, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Mass.