In the midst of an ever-increasing global population, how can biotechnology address emerging nutritional issues?
by Pearly Neo
As of December 2017, the world population has reached a record number of 7.6 billion,1 a number estimated by the United Nations to increase to 11.8 billion by the year 2100.2 Since the Black Death back in the year 1350, the total world population has experienced continuous increase due to better healthcare, a declining death rate, fertility treatments, etc., and this increase naturally raises questions on how to deal with the accompanying issues, including those of space, environmental degradation, human and social conflicts, and, arguably most importantly, food and nutritional supply.
The advancement of science has brought with it numerous possibilities and options to deal with most of the above issues, even if it has not yet reached a stage where the root cause for any of these can be resolved. In the area of food and nutrition alone, numerous breakthroughs throughout the years have allowed for the gradual sustenance of an increasingly expanding population, though it will take more time and effort before malnutrition and starvation can be solved as a whole.
Means to further develop and advance agriculture for nutrition are of interest to stakeholders, not only to deal with food supply, but also because it is a major source of revenue for millions globally, especially in the Southeast Asian region. ‘Although agriculture’s contribution to GDP is declining, it is still an important source of livelihood for many people in lower-income economies, and requires continued attention and development,’ said Professor Paul Teng, Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies, Nanyang Technological University, when addressing delegates attending the Plant Science Primer held in Manila in November 2017.
The United Nations’ Committee on World Food Security defines food security as ‘the condition in which all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.3 It is estimated that by 2050, the world will need to produce 70 per cent more food4 than currently available to sustain the population, so one of the biggest challenges in meeting this definition lies with the provision of sufficient food for the masses, especially when faced with an increasing population, and this is precisely where science and technology has stepped in to attempt to address this gap.
In the area of increasing food production, biotechnology has been used in many efforts to increase crop yields. One of these discoveries is in the modification of the photosynthetic process in crops. Photosynthesis is the process by which plants convert light energy to chemical energy stored as sugar compounds used for plant growth and activity. To enhance this process is to enhance the amount of food and energy made available to the plant for growth, and this will naturally increase productivity and yield.
As an example, in 2016, scientists from the University of Illinois discovered a procedure to boost proteins crucial to the process of photosynthesis,5 including violaxanthin and zeaxanthin. This procedure targets a very specific plant defence mechanism called nonphotochemical quenching (NPQ) which converts excess energy into heat in the presence of intense sunlight. When light dims though, plants are generally unable to immediately turn off the NPQ process, and the process of shutting off can take up to half an hour to complete. A dim environment is when the plant most requires efficient photosynthesis, and the long period of time required to shut down NPQ and reactivate photosynthesis means that a lot of energy is being wasted as heat. The revolutionary procedure allowed for photosynthesis to be boosted significantly during conversion, increasing productivity by up to 20 per cent.
International research institutes like the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Manila have also played a significant role in advancing technologies pertaining to food security. IRRI, in particular, deals with rice, which is deemed to be ‘the most important human food’, as it is consumed by over 50 per cent of the world’s population daily, particularly in Asia where 90 per cent of rice is consumed globally.6 Rice comes from paddy fields and require a sufficient amount of water and sunlight to germinate and grow, but due to its high requirement for water, the areas where rice grow are often also particularly vulnerable to flooding. Flooding will cause complete submergence of the paddy plants, which kills them and causes total crop loss for many farmers yearly. As such, one of IRRI’s topics of research circulated around the development of flood-tolerant rice, or ‘scuba rice’. Scuba rice was developed around the discovery of a particular flood-tolerant gene dubbed the SUB1 gene, and the infusion of this gene into existing rice varieties. Currently, over five million farmers in Asia are reaping the benefits of this research.7
Improving the nutritional value of crops
While food security addresses the issue of food quantity, nutrition is affected by many more factors than just this alone. The nutritional value of individual crops also affects consumers’ nutritional take, and can cause various types of malnutrition if not handled carefully. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines malnutrition as ‘deficiencies, excesses, or imbalances in a person’s intake of energy and/or nutrients’, and also describes three main broad groups of this condition: 1) Undernutrition, 2) Micronutrient-related malnutrition, and 3) Overweight, obesity, and diet-related noncommunicable diseases (heart disease, stroke, diabetes, etc.). 8
To address these issues, biotechnology has stepped in to fortify crops directly with certain nutrients, or reduce less-than-optimal aspects in order to provide for healthier foodstuff. Maize, for example, has been engineered to contain increased amounts of the essential amino acid lysine by introducing the cordapA gene into the maize genome.9
Again, a good deal of research in this area of biofortification has been concentrated on rice. Much of this focuses on micronutrient malnutrition, which occurs when a person only obtains enough macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat) from regular diet, but not enough essential micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Over two billion people worldwide are estimated to suffer from this condition,10 and many depend solely on rice for all their nutritional needs, especially those on the lower end of the socio-economic scale who do not have access to most other varieties of foods.
High-iron rice was developed to address the high occurrence of anaemia globally, especially in developing countries, commonly due to iron deficiency. Iron in rice is mostly concentrated in the external portion of the grain, and is often hard to retain during the process of polishing. As such, researchers at IRRI have genetically modified rice grains to produce more iron in the internal endosperm portion, such that it can be retained even after the polishing process.11 This was done by combining a rice gene that transports iron into the rice grain with external ferritin genes, in order to enhance the rice grain iron storage capacity. When the same process was applied for zinc fortification, the resulting rice variety was dubbed High-Iron and High-Zinc Rice (HIZR).12
Another prominent example of rice biofortification is that of Golden Rice, or rice fortified with beta-carotene which can be converted to Vitamin A, in an effort to combat Vitamin A deficiency, especially in the Southeast Asian region. However, Golden Rice has been subject to a number of controversies in the recent past, including claims that its field trials resulted in stunted plants and reduced grain yield. These claims have been refuted by later research, and IRRI has published on its website13 that the application for a biosafety permit for the direct use in food, feed, or for processing, of GR2E Golden Rice has been submitted to the Philippines Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Plant Industry (DA-BPI), and that further investigations by foreign authorities in the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Canada have revealed no further health or safety concerns.
Stewardship and guidance
The widespread applications of biotechnology to nutritional improvement, especially via crops, means that research is continuously being carried out all over the world, but this does not mean that these developments are able to penetrate through to the parties that require the information the most, especially in developing countries. This is where organisations like International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) step in, to facilitate the sharing of information and experiences on crop biotechnology via a global network. According to Dr Rhodora Aldemita, senior programme officer at ISAAA, when addressing the Plant Science Primer 2017, ‘We aim to alleviate poverty and hunger in developing countries via biotechnology, and we also try to deliver the appropriate biotechnology applications to countries that need it.’
The applications of biotechnology in the area of nutrition are phenomenally widespread, and to truly make a difference in the long run, the issues that have already emerged need to be addressed in combination with other population-related issues like socio-economic livelihood and ensuring that assistance reaches the individuals who need it the most.
- Kromdijk, J. et. al. 2016. Improving photosynthesis and crop productivity by accelerating recovery from photoprotection. Science. 354 (6314). Pp. 857-861. DOI: 10.1126/science.aai8878
- Senadhira, D. et. al. 1998. High iron rice. Crop Protection Newsletter. Sourced at: http://agris.fao.org/agris-search/search.do?recordID=PH1998101126