Improved nutritional and medicinal quality

With 800 million malnourished people in developing countries, malnutrition can be addressed with nutritional genomics that use metabolic engineering to manipulate plant micronutrients for human health (DellaPenna, 1999; Tian and DellaPenna, 2001; Lucca, Hurrell, and Potrykus, 2002; Mackey, 2002). Although the production of the so-called functional foods may initially focus on wealthy consumers in the developed world, genes can be engineered into crops cultivated and consumed by poor farmers to improve their dietary requirements. Efforts are also being made to enhance nutritional values and/or reduced toxic or allergenic properties in food. These may be especially beneficial to poor farmers and people who do not have a balanced diet composed of diverse food sources. The example of GM rice with enhanced beta-carotene and iron is just the beginning of efforts of what has been coined "nutraceuticals." This would benefit people whether rich or poor in developed or developing countries. Indeed, the rice-consuming nations may benefit from the vitamin A-enriched Golden Rice. This GM rice can provide up to 40% of the daily allowance of vitamin A, based on a diet of 300 grams of rice per day, to prevent severe problems of vitamin A deficiency (Potrykus, 2001); whereas GM cassava with a reduction in cyanogen glycosides can prevent food poisoning (Sayre, 2000). Work is being carried out to produce GM Golden Mustard to provide the daily allowance of vitamin A in one teaspoon of oil (Dahwan, 2002). A GM rice with a high iron content and high in phytase (an enzyme that degrades phytic acid, an inhibitor of iron absorption) has been obtained that has the potential to alleviate iron deficiency anemia in rice-consuming populations (Lucca et al., 2002). A GM potato with an engineered gene from Amaranthus hypochondriacus (Chakraborty, Chakraborty, and Datta, 2000), called "protato" due to its high protein, will soon be available (Coghlan, 2003). Antioxidant compounds, such as lycopene and vitamin E, are being enhanced in GM tomato and canola, respectively. GM soybean and canola with modified oil are also in the pipeline.

In addition, substantial progress is being made in using GM crops to produce vaccines at low cost and suitable for storage conditions in developing countries (Arntzen, 1995, 1996; Langridge, 2000; Kong et al., 2001). Lower cost production of drugs using transgenic crops has the potential to improve the health of the poor who may not have access to currently expensive drugs. Furthermore, the availability of inexpensive, plant-derived vaccines against diseases endemic in developing countries such as hepatitis B, cholera, and malaria would offer poor people a chance to lead healthy and productive lives. It is hoped that an inexpensive plant-derived vaccine against AIDS may one day be developed. Currently, there is evidence that GM Bt-crops play an important role in providing safer food than that of traditionally bred crops through the reduction in mycotoxins produced by fungi infection through insect attack (Bakan et al., 2002).

While there are concerns of transgenic flow of crops that are used as bioreactors to produce drugs, genetic-use restriction technologies (GURTs) may be very useful for preventing contamination of the environment with certain drugs and/or vaccines (through gene leakages) by restricting unwanted transgene flow. On the other hand, in forestry, researchers have also been manipulating genes involved in floral development to produce nonflowering trees, thus improving not only wood productivity but also preventing unwanted gene flow through pollens and/or seeds (Meilan, 2001).

Biotechnology tools are being used to investigate the mechanism of apomixis in plants for its potential applications in agriculture. This important trait could have enormous potential impact if the technology can be made available to resource-poor farmers who could replant hybrid seeds which retain permanent hybrid vigor in apomictic hybrid varieties.

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