Printed: 2017-06-25

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies





IEET Link: https://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/pereira20141011

Malnutrition reversal: The hidden promise of Biotechnology

Sebastian Pereira


Ethical Technology




October 11, 2014

Diet and genomes interact due to the simple fact that nutrition is perhaps the most important environmental factor in human development. The food we eat is the fundamental factor defining our optimal state of health and mental capacity.

For the moment of conception, the future of the individual hinges in the dietary choices of the mother, then the first five years are also crucial, the amount of micro nutrients provided to the new born determine brain development in the time to come.

Thus we may conclude that malnutrition at an early age creates permanent disadvantages for the adult; this in turn leads to structural inequality and social tension.

Now malnutrition is a daily fact in most of the world. Millions live with the bare minimum of calories necessary to maintain their lives, but not much else.

The crucial micro nutrients: Iron, zinc, vitamin A, manganese; to name a few, are not considered in food aid, or the millennial goals of the U.N. resulting in a permanent segment of the population suffering from long term pathologies.

This is where biotechnology can enter in the world stage to correct a permanent injustice, leading to healthier populations across countries and regions for a better humanity. First, for those already suffering from deficiencies, nutritional therapy can be applied to better their condition.

Nutritional therapy identifies imbalances in the body’s chemistry, then it develops a targeted nutritional regime in order to reverse the situation, this can be done through an especial diet or by using supplements in control doses to correct any deficiencies causes by poor eating habits.

In the developing world this could mean life or death for babies younger than 5 which have health problems, either because the mother had a bad diet, the region has a low variety of food production or prices prevented access to higher quality food. Using nutritional therapy at an early age could revert, almost completely, any long term damage resulting in a healthier more productive individual.

Second, plants can, and should, be modified to incorporate more nutrients for humans.

Red meat is the main source of iron for the human body, because iron found in vegetables is more difficult to absorb, but meat production is costly and difficult to implement in poor regions.

Using biotechnology to replace the iron in plants to a more absorbable type could end anemia; this is just one example of many. DNA splicing is the key to the next food revolution, by controlling the nutrients each vegetable, grain, seed, fruit, etc. has, and ensuring these are distributed properly, a balanced and sustainable food source could be created for the entire globe.

In the future this technology has the potential to end structural inequality caused by malnutrition, and prevent many diseases caused by a weakened immunological system. Of course more is needed; a proper educational system would be required to take advantage of a population with a higher mental capacity a better health, but is a crucial first step.

But these are solutions for the future, what can be done for the people now? Sadly very little, as stated before, the prenatal period and the first 5 years are the backbone for human growth. The adult generated by poor nutrition in early life has permanent disadvantages which with our current technology cannot be reverse.

There is some research suggesting that gene-therapy can be applied to correct the problems which result from early malnutrition, but the work in this area is not very advanced and the practical application is decades away if it even comes, which bring us to the next point.

The implementation question

Nutritional therapy was never meant to be used in the way above described. It is used today for elderly people, mostly of developed nations, whose bodies naturally drop the capacity to absorb nutrients, or cancer patients during chemotherapy.

The challenges for implementing this type of therapy in impoverished regions are many and, needless to say, there is not a market for it in place to encourage private intervention.

GMO’s are a very controversial subject these days. If the second solution is to be implemented a great deal of research is needed to have a viable product, but this cannot come to pass if the very existence of genetically modified organisms is in question. The money and even acceptability are put in question, and may end any chance for future progress.

Finally, affordable gene-therapy may still be many years away. Even if some major breakthrough is achieved in the field, it will most likely be in some other area. Reversing health and mental problems caused by malnutrition is not at the top of the list for private corporations, and the countries suffering under this situation don’t have the money, personal and infrastructure necessary to conduct the research alone. Much the same with the first case there is just no money for incentive to pursue gene-therapy for poor people.


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