July 23, 2015

Biotechnology and Global Nutrition: Progress and Headwinds

Next Generation Delegation 2015 Commentary Series

By Martin Erzinger, MBA Candidate at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and 2015 Next Generation Delegate.

In the world of crop genetics, the tide is shifting. Previously, seed companies focused predominantly on improving crop yield—introducing varietals resistant to herbicides, insects, and drought. Today, however, improving yield alone is no longer sufficient to solve the complex challenges of the global food system. With unprecedented obesity rates in the developed world and widespread malnutrition in the developing world, improving the nutrition profile of staple crops is of paramount concern. Switching the focus to nutrition will require not only addressing the market needs at each link in the agricultural value chain, but also bridging the gap in trust between the general public and the biotechnology industry.

In the developed world, genetics companies are stepping up to meet the strong push from governments and consumers for more nutritious food. In late 2013, the FDA determined that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) are unsafe for human consumption. Soybean oil, a major source of PHOs and trans fat, has lost more than 20 percent of its market share since 2006. In order to improve the health profile of the US’s second largest crop, DuPont Pioneer and Monsanto introduced the innovative Plenish and Vistive Gold soybeans, respectively. The new soybean varietals contain no trans fat and are high in oleic acid, the main healthy fat in olive oil.

While technological breakthroughs like high oleic soybeans represent significant progress, surmounting genetic constraints is only the first barrier in improving the global food system through biotechnology. In the case of high oleic soybeans, the health benefits to consumers are clear, but the value proposition to farmers is less persuasive. When farmers choose to plant a high oleic varietal, they sacrifice the potential yield of conventional varietals, and expect to be compensated in return. At present, the premiums paid by food companies and consumers are insufficient to incentivize either farmers or grain merchandising firms to switch en masse to the new varietals.

In the developing world, genetically engineered (GE) crops serve an entirely different purpose, and come with their own challenges. Acute needs have prompted the use of biotechnology to improve the nutritional value of staple foods. Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is among the most widespread and preventable health issues in the developing world, and leads to weakened immune systems of about 250 million children. Rice, which feeds more than two billion people globally, was a natural early target to help alleviate VAD. In the early 2000s, a public-private partnership between Syngenta and leading academics produced the key technological breakthroughs to fortify rice with beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A. The results, Golden Rice (2000) and Golden Rice 2 (2005), contain high enough levels of vitamin A to meet the recommended dietary need in rice-based cultures. 

For Golden Rice, however, the largest hurdle remains the stark divide between public and scientific consensus on genetic engineering. In a 2015 study, the Pew Research Center found that 88% of polled scientists believe GE foods to be safe, while only 37% of US adults believe the same. Golden Rice is particularly controversial: 20 non-governmental organizations have united to form the STOP Golden Rice Alliance and have succeeded in blocking commercial production of the crop globally, notwithstanding support from the scientific and philanthropic communities.

The agricultural genetics industry is leveraging cutting-edge technology to meet the nutritional needs of both health-conscious consumers in the developed world and malnourished consumers in the developing world. Only an approach that integrates the entire value chain and closes the gap between scientific and public opinion will allow the global food system to meet these nutritional needs.  
 
References:
  • Albright, Matthew. “Soybeans Could Open New Markets for Area Farmers.” The News Journal, last modified April 26, 2014.
  • “FDA Cuts Trans Fat in Processed Foods.” FDA, last modified June 16, 2015.
  • Funk, Cary. “5 Key Findings on What Americans and Scientists Think about Science.” Pew Research Center, last modified January 29, 2015.
  • Pollack, Andrew. “In a Bean, a Boon to Biotech.” NPR, last modified November 15, 2013.
  • “Vitamin a Deficiency-Related Disorders (VADD).” Golden Rice Project. Accessed July 22, 2015. 
 
Read previous posts in the Next Generation Delegation 2015 Commentary Series:

About

The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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