You know how anti-GM organizations like Greenpeace like to say that GM foods don’t help feed the hungry, don’t increase yields, aren’t necessary and so on? It gets a little tiresome. They remind me of how Laura Bush defended the decision to limit embryonic stem cell research because cures from such research were not just “around the corner”. As I think Jon Stewart said at the time – “so that means we shouldn’t start looking?”
The findings could help ease hunger in many countries where people rely heavily on the cassava plant (Manihot esculenta) as a primary food source, said Richard Sayre, the study's lead author and a professor of plant cellular and molecular biology at Ohio State University.
The researchers used a gene from the bacterium E. coli to genetically modify cassava plants. The plants, which were grown in a greenhouse, produced roots that were an average of 2.6 times larger than those produced by regular cassava plants.
“Not only did these plants produce larger roots, but the whole plant was bigger and had more leaves,” Sayre said. Both the roots and leaves of the cassava plant are edible.
Cassava is the primary food source for more than 250 million Africans – about 40 percent of the continent's population. And the plant's starchy tuberous root is a substantial portion of the diet of nearly 600 million people worldwide.
And a separate study published in the July issue of Plant Biotechnology Journal as reported in SciDev.Net has produced a cassava immune to a devastating virus:
Researchers have used genes from a virus that periodically devastates cassava crops in Africa to create cassava plants that can resist the virus. The finding could save African farmers large economic losses.
African cassava mosaic virus is transmitted to cassava by whiteflies when they feed on the plant. In parts of East and Central Africa, epidemics of the disease can lead to total losses of harvests.
So far, the only way to fight the virus is by using massive doses of insecticide to kill whiteflies. But this can be prohibitively expensive for subsistence farmers and can threaten their health and that of surrounding plants and animals.
Apparently the virus’ RNA can be inactivated (thus preventing replication of the cell) when an engineered matching RNA strand is made to bind to it.
In tests, when the plants were exposed to small amounts of the virus, the researchers could see no signs of disease, suggesting their theory was verified.
Of course, field experiments will be needed to confirm the effectiveness of this technique, but it seems like a good start.
So, let’s review. Using genetic engineering it appears we may be able to increase the yields of a staple food, in an area where people are hungry, by 2½ times, and we may be able to reduce the need for expensive and unhealthy insecticides. (Admittedly not both in the same actual plant, as yet.) Perhaps we will now stop hearing about how GM does not produce higher yields, and how GM means poor farmers suffer. No? I don’t think so either.