Big Idea: Fighting Hunger With Ancient Genetic Engineering Techniques | DISCOVER

Posted: May 30, 2012 at 12:10 am

A technician in Nigeria breeds cassava plants to maximize vitamin A.

Courtesy Harvest Plus

in 1994 Howarth Bouis stood before potential donors at a conference in Maryland and unveiled his plan for combating malnutrition in the developing world. Bouis, an economist at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), envisioned impoverished farmers in Africa and South Asia growing staple crops that are enriched in key nutrients like iron, zinc, and vitamin A. His presentation had the audience hookeduntil he said he would accomplish the feat via old-fashioned plant breeding techniques.

At that point Bouis might as well have been lecturing on plows and sickles. Conference attendees wanted to solve the hunger problem with high-tech science, the kind of advances that produced incredibly effective fertilizers and pesticides during the green revolution of the 1970s. Their attention had just turned to genetically modified crops, engineered with specific genes that would not only enhance nutrition, as Bouis proposed, but also boost yields and instill resistance to pests and weed killers. Bouis came away with a single $1 million granta fraction of the money needed to reach his goals.

People ignored Bouis then, but they dont anymore. While most genetically modified food projects are stuck in political purgatory, Bouiss HarvestPlus program has brought nutrient-rich crops to tens of thousands of African farmers, and they will soon be available to millions more. When you breed conventionally, Bouis says, theres no controversy.

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Bouiss passion for improving agriculture in the developing world began in the 1980s, when he went on aid expeditions throughout the Middle East and Asia. Some 65 percent of African and Southeast Asian children have iron deficiencies that can lead to anemia and fatigue. Vitamin A deficiency produces 500,000 annual cases of blindness among children under age 5 (half of whom do not survive), and lack of zinc kills 800,000 a year. They had so much strength and courage despite their poverty, he says. Thats always inspired me.

That inspiration drove Bouiss work IFPRI, where he began exploring the idea of taking native plants and mating them with similar varieties that have a desired trait. If an African species of sweet potato could attain the nutritional benefits of a North American variety naturally high in vitamin A, for instance, then perhaps malnourished African farmers could grow their own nutritious sweet potatoes. Unfortunately Bouis needed money to find out whether that would work. It was not easy selling a meticulous program dedicated solely to fighting malnutrition when geneticists said they were on their way to solving that and a slate of other problems.

In 1993 European researchers Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer began infecting rice grains with genetically modified bacteria that transmitted individual genes into the plants DNA. Seven years later, they found three genesone from a bacterium and two from a daffodilthat programmed the plant to produce beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. The genes also gave the grains a yellow tint, earning them the name Golden Rice. Further tinkering added genes to increase yields and ward off insects. When Potrykus and Beyer published their results in Science, many scientists and media outlets proclaimed that genetically modified crops would hasten a second green revolution.

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Big Idea: Fighting Hunger With Ancient Genetic Engineering Techniques | DISCOVER

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