Israeli scientists fight food crisis with gene research

Genetic engineering is used to produce wheat, other crops, but environmental groups are wary of it.

corn 88 (photo credit: )
corn 88
(photo credit: )
To alleviate shortages of staple foods in developing nations, some Israeli scientists are working to develop crops that grow faster and have a higher nutritional value. But the genetic engineering they are using to produce these crops, including wheat, have drawn negative attention from environmental groups. Joseph Hirschberg, a professor of genetics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said he believes that "without genetic engineering, the world will go hungry." "Today, there is hunger because of unbalanced distribution of food," Hirschberg said. "There is a worldwide surplus of about 10 percent, but the world's poor do not have the means to get it... Now, we are beginning to have a shortage, and here enter genetically modified plants." Prof. Tzion Fahima, who teaches biology at the University of Haifa, said that of the 600 million tons of wheat produced worldwide annually, 30% is lost to disease, parasites and other maladies. Fahima's research seeks to create wheat with higher nutritional value, protein, iron and zinc, as well as better immunity to disease. "During the domestication of wheat that began 10,000 years ago, there were genes that did not reach domestic wheat today," Fahima said. "We are trying to develop wheat with a higher nutritional value, and species that can also be grown in developing countries." But it may take a while until these countries, including India, Pakistan and South American nations, see the fruits of his research, Fahima said. "These are very slow processes," he said. "We create new species in the classical method, through interbreeding. It can take 10-12 years for a new species to be finalized." Fahima works with HarvestPlus, a Washington-based organization made up of scientists seeking to improve the nutritional content of staple foods such as wheat and rice. These foods are widely consumed, especially in developing countries, and are greatly affected by the shortages. But Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) have faced backlash from environmental, political, anti-globalization and health groups, Hirschberg said. "These groups have created a very negative crowd perception to GMO, and that is why one cannot grow GMO in Europe and Southeast Asia, in places like Thailand," he said. "When the green organizations understand that you cannot feed the world without GMO, there will be faster progress," Fahima said. In Israel, it is illegal to grow GMO except in labs, with permits and under full supervision, a spokesperson for the Agriculture Ministry said. The spokesperson said there was currently no plan to change this policy. According to Hirschberg, the claims that GMO are harmful to health have never been proven. "In Israel, there is research that ties into global research to grow species and increase output," he said. "There is basic research that discovers new traits, new genes and new processes in plants." He added, "We have breeders who create species of crops. Israel is strong in tomato research... China and India have legalized GMO for use in cotton. A characteristic of GMO is that they can increase production." Cotton production in India and China has doubled since GMO were introduced, Hirschberg said. There is currently no GMO that would double production of wheat, but there are some that would increase it, he added. Theodora Karchovsky, spokeswoman for Greenpeace Israel, said she was not aware of any anti-GMO campaigns in Israel. "Most of the action is in the United States, which is one of the biggest producers of genetically engineered products, and in places like Thailand, India and South America, which [are among] the biggest consumers," she said. However, Jan Van Aken, sustainable agriculture campaigner for Greenpeace International, said interbreeding between GMO and regular crops can be dangerous. "If anything goes wrong when GMO are released into the environment, there is no way to get them back. We cannot manage the risk, and the precautionary principle must prevail," Van Aken said. "With every technology in the past 100 years, someone has claimed it can solve world hunger," she added, citing a 1950s ad showing how nuclear power plants can feed the world through fast production and irrigation. "There is no rush, and there are no scientific finds behind that claim," he said.