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Feeding And Healing The World With GMOs

The USDA just updated its resource list on agricultural biotechnology — Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).

We should all be up on this issue because the future is, ineluctably, one of GMOs. Yes, you will hear many objections, and GMOs are not allowed in organics, at least for now, but the advantages are so great that the world will eventually turn to GMOs.

In the midst of the spinach crisis, The Wall Street Journal ran a great piece pointing out that even in France — a hotbed of anti-GMO activism — French farmers were increasing plantings of the one GMO product authorized for planting in France: Corn:

MARMANDE, France — In a country with strong and often romantic ties to food and the land, and amid this bucolic landscape of neat vineyards and village butchers, U.S. biotech companies have found an unlikely ally in their battle to bring genetically modified crops to Europe — French farmers.

More French farmers are sowing the one genetically modified seed permitted in the European Union, called transgenic corn, saying they want cheaper, better protection from pests. But that’s produced another kind of annoyance, a minor ground war with environmental activists and fire from politicians in Paris.

French farmers will grow 12,350 acres of genetically modified corn this year, more than 10 times as much as in 2005, according to the French corn-growers association…

Claude Menara, an ebullient 52-year-old farmer, says that for years he watched American farmers ship billions of euros worth of genetically modified foods to Europe, while he grew traditional corn on his farm near Bordeaux. While EU rules allow farmers here to grow only transgenic corn, the Union has been steadily adding to the list of genetically modified foods that can be imported.

Last year, Mr. Menara decided he’d had enough: He planted 17 acres of transgenic corn and much more this year. “It’s a business,” says Mr. Menara, whose bottom line approach to genetically modified seeds is not shared by many of his neighbors, who don’t use them. The Monsanto-patented corn saved him about $38 an acre in pesticide bills last year, he says.

Use of the corn is spreading elsewhere in Europe, too. The Czech Republic, Spain, Portugal and Germany are all growing more than before. Spain leads the pack with 148,200 acres. Farmers in the United Kingdom, Ireland and several other EU countries are also considering genetically modified corn.

But it’s in France, Europe’s biggest corn exporter, where the growth is sharpest….

This summer, activists — including Jose Bové, who once served 44 days in prison for destroying a McDonald’s — have vandalized dozens of farms, fought farmers in court and warned of irreversible environmental catastrophe if genetically modified crops are allowed to take root in Europe. In a recent speech, Ségolène Royal, the favorite to win the Socialist Party nomination to run for election as French president next year, called for a ban on planting the crops in France…

It might be noted that Ségolène Royal lost the election.

Besides, GMOs are changing. We’ve thought of them as useful tools to increase yields. That was just the beginning. Here is an article that details how researchers have genetically modified Kitaake rice to deliver a “vaccine” against cholera:

Dr Tomonori Nochi and his colleagues at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Medical Science has made an astounding breakthrough in tackling the scourge of cholera that afflicts a vast majority of Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia. A new rice-based vaccine has been developed to deliver effective and inexpensive treatment against this killer disease.

Cholera is a severe intestinal disease endemic to the tropics, manifesting as diarrhea. The causal organism, a bacterium, Vibrio cholerae, spreads among humans through ingestion of contaminated food or water. The pathogen produces an enterotoxin that acts on the mucosal epithelium lining the small intestine and is responsible for the characteristic massive diarrhea caused by the disease.

In its most severe forms, cholera is one of the most rapidly fatal illnesses known and can cause death in a healthy adult within 24 hours of onset of the disease! Although antibiotics such as tetracycline, ciprofloxacin and azithromycin can reduce the duration and severity of cholera, drug-resistance is being reported regularly.

Traditional protection from cholera, as indeed with many other diseases caused by microbial infections, has been bolstered through immunity either through exposure to the disease-causing organism or through vaccines containing live, modified or dead micro-organisms. Vaccines and their administration, though, are not without their share of impediments. Right from preparation until it is administered, with intervening steps of packaging, storage and transportation, vaccines typically require an unbroken cold chain, which is rather hard to come by in developing third-world nations that are struggling to have road lights and clean drinking water in their taps.

The assistance of trained paramedics is mandatory as most vaccines are administered through a syringe and a needle. Recycling needles often resorted to in indigent societies to save on costs open a Pandora’s box of spread of other diseases on an unsuspecting population already beset with maladies of diseases, malnutrition and poverty. Besides, vaccines come with a fixed shelf-life and have been known to be ineffective even under the best of cold-chain practices.

Fortunately the rice can deliver the vaccine:

Since the rice-based vaccine comes from an edible part of the plant, it is safe, inexpensive to produce in large quantities and can be orally administered. It is, further, a massive improvement over most other traditional plant-based oral vaccines since rice can easily be stored at room temperature for 18 or more months, and, once administered, its protein body protects the vaccine from digestive enzymes that would otherwise render it ineffective. Rice also has greater protein content than some of the other starch-based edible vaccines currently under experimentation for a variety of infectious diseases.

Besides, being a major food staple in most of the developing countries that are predominantly afflicted by similar diseases, the tradition of cultivating paddy in these societies helps. In addition to the huge savings from obviating the cold chain, which could run into several hundred millions of dollars annually, additional issues of purifying the antigen from the rice prior to administering it to humans is also rendered unnecessary. Other diseases targeted for rice-based vaccines include the pesky influenza and the much dreaded HIV.

We are going to feed the world on fewer acres, with less environmental impact. We will alleviate disease and human suffering. We will create proprietary items that both give pleasure and are functional for consumers and give growers and retailers a way to differentiate themselves.

And we will do it with GMOs. Download your resource guide here.

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