The review article Transgenic strategies for the nutritional enhancement of plants (to be published in vol 12, issue 12 of Trends in Plant Science) discusses each of the methods used to improve nutrition for human populations that depend on one grain as their primary food source (the conclusions of the paper are after the cut). Simply introducing a varied diet, fortified foods, or supplements would solve malnutrition, but these are not options for poor populations in areas with unstable governments. They need a self sustaining way to improve the food that is available to them (i.e. that doesn’t need additional monetary input).
The ‘simplest’ or most obvious way to solve malnutrition, then, would be to improve the crops that the people eat. For those people who eat only maize or rice, a change in the nutritional profile of the grain would have a huge effect. Traditional breeding has been less than successful, and can take decades before a noticeable difference is achieved. Some improvements are not even possible with traditional breeding, if the desired trait does not exist in the gene pool of the species.
Enter genetic engineering. Humans now have the capability to improve the nutritional profile of a plant by adding genes that code for the desired trait. One example is the famed golden rice. Rice contains no beta-carotene, the precursor of vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of blindness in children, and leaves the children susceptible to disease such as malaria and measles (UNICEF).
While the regulatory hurdles of getting golden rice into the bowls of those who need it are enough to fill a whole series of blog posts, the important part is that the levels of beta-carotene in this rice has been improved to high enough levels that the recommended daily value can be fulfilled by consuming a typical day’s servings of rice (goldenrice.org).
Imagine that: millions of children who are no longer suffering from the lack of this important vitamin.
The only work to be done is to plant and harvest the rice. Across the world, malnourished children have little chance to better their situation. The lack of nutrients is a barrier to proper brain and body development. We can not expect so-called third-world nations to improve until they have enough people with strong minds and bodies to improve them. In the quest to solve world hunger, the development and deployment of crops with improved nutrients should be our primary concern.
Malnutrition is a significant challenge, particularly in the developing world, where measures that are commonplace in developed countries (varied diet, fortification schemes and dietary supplements) are largely absent. Transgenic biofortification strategies could help to alleviate malnutrition although further work is required to identify and manipulate relevant metabolic pathways and to improve the degree of nutritional improvement that can be achieved. Other nutrients could also be targeted, such as B vitamins, and minerals, such as magnesium and calcium.
Future goals include the combination of multiple nutritional improvements into elite crop varieties without disrupting endogenous metabolic pathways required for plant growth (e.g. amino acid synthesis); this should be achieved in such a way as to ensure transgene and expression stability from generation to generation. This would best be achieved through the direct integration of multiple genes into a single, permissive transgenic locus. There are also regulatory and public perception issues to overcome, such as the current negative perception of GM food in some parts of the world. These should be addressed purely through science-based analysis and divorced from socio-political and regional economic interests, for example, through the oversight of independent, NGO-sponsored panels. Most importantly, nutritionally enhanced crops should be available to those most in need without intellectual property constraints and licensing restrictions, which are often in place for commercial use in the West. Genetic engineering on its own will not eliminate malnutrition, but it can provide a significant component of integrated approaches, which include conventional plant breeding, improved agricultural practices, and efforts to eliminate poverty and improve the welfare of the poorest people in the world, to address what has become one of our most pressing public health issues.
Thanks to my major professor for sending me a link to this article.
Zhu, C., Naqvi, S., Gomez-Galera, S., Pelacho, A., Capell, T., & Christou, P. (2007). Transgenic strategies for the nutritional enhancement of plants Trends in Plant Science, 12 (12), 548-555 DOI: 10.1016/j.tplants.2007.09.007