Over 800 million people depend on cassava as a main food staple. Also known as manioc and yuca, this root vegetable also makes up around 50 percent of the caloric intake of around one-third of people in sub-Saharan Africa.
Unfortunately, it isn’t the most nutritious of food sources. As a result, iron and zinc deficiencies are sky high in many parts of Africa. It’s estimated that up to 75 percent of preschool children and 67 percent of pregnant women in Nigeria are anemic as a result of iron deficiency.
However, researchers have now developed super-charged cassavas using genetic engineering to enrich the plant with significantly higher levels of both iron and zinc.
Reporting in the journal Nature, scientists at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in the US created the genetically modified organism (GMO) using two genes taken from thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) that encode for an iron transport protein and an iron storage protein. By inserting these two genes into the cassava’s genome, the plant was “biofortified” with increased iron and zinc. By the researchers’ estimates, the gene-tweaked cassava could provide children aged 1 to 6 years with up to 50 percent of the dietary requirement for iron and up to 70 percent for zinc.
GMOs often get a very bad rap as being toxic “Frankenfoods,” however, the majority of these concerns are totally unfounded. Literally, thousands of scientific studies have found that GMOs pose no risk to human health, animals, or the environment.
The European Union (EU) pored hundreds of millions of dollars into research regarding the biosafety of GMOs. After a decade of work, using the help of 130 research studies and over 500 independent research groups, they concluded that “GMOs are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.”
According to a statement by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 2012: “The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the US National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.”
Pretty much all food has been tweaked genetically, albeit not quite as directly as modern genetic engineering. Wheat, for example, started as merely a grass until ancient humans fostered certain genes to produce larger amounts of grain.
Even as it stands now, it is estimated that some 70 percent of processed food in America contains GMO ingredients. As Earth’s population continues to rise at an unprecedented rate, and climate change is set to wreak havoc with the planet, it has been argued that genetically modified crops could the only way to feed everyone on the planet.