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Chapter 4: Food Technologies

Healthy People, Healthy Economy
Just as biomedical technologies have made enormous contributions to Americans’ health and well-being in this century, they have also helped the economy. The health care industry generates roughly $1 trillion in economic activity, high-wage jobs, and trade. Another measure of medicine’s economic importance is the amount of money
it saves: for example, improved treatment of acute lymphocytic leukemia has saved the nation more than $1 billion in restored lifetime earnings, and lithium treatment for manic-depressive illness has saved about $7 billion per year since its introduction in 1970. And the list of cost savings continues to grow.

The challenges facing biomedical sciences in the 21st century are daunting. Emerging infectious diseases such as AIDS are a major threat across the globe. Antibiotic-resistant strains of infectious agents threaten progress already made against diseases such as tuberculosis. In this country, coupling prolonged good health with prolonged life span remains an unfinished task. Today’s killers and disablers more often arise as a consequence of things we do to ourselves (unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, drug and alcohol abuse, poor diets, failure to adhere to drug regimens, or inadequate physical exercise) or others (violence and injuries). Growing evidence that changing behavior reduces the risk of disease suggests that our efforts to improve human health must address the complex interplay between body and mind.

A broad portfolio of balanced research investments is the key to advancing biomedicine. The physical, mathematical, behavioral, and other sciences must continue to advance in tandem with the life sciences if we are to continue to make progress against disease.

Improving Farm Productivity

Farmers increasingly rely on precision farming — tools and techniques designed to work the land by the square meter instead of the square mile — to improve productivity. Using GPS and other technologies, farmers can now achieve an extraordinary degree of accuracy in a range of operations including field mapping, soil sampling, fertilizer and pesticide application, and crop-yield monitoring.

Thayne Wiser’s 2,000-acre farm lies in the “rain shadow” of Washington’s Cascade Mountains, and receives only six inches of rain a year, mostly in winter. Irrigation is critical to the growth of his crops, but managing it is a complex process. The soil on Wiser’s farm is sandy and prone to erosion and leaching, and it varies in its ability to hold water and nutrients. To complicate matters, the water pressure at the hundreds of sprinkler heads that make up Wiser’s irrigation system varies with elevation. Balancing soil moisture levels with the right amount of fertilizer and pesticide had been more of an art than a science, but GPS helped Wiser develop a precision irrigation system that saves water, reduces runoff of pesticides and fertilizers from fields, and increases crop yield.

Walk into almost any grocery store in the United States, and you will be overwhelmed by the sheer variety of foods. All year round, fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy goods, meat and poultry, baked products, canned goods — and, of course, snack foods — line the aisles. Not only are our supermarket shelves well stocked, but we also export enormous amounts of agricultural products to the rest of the world. Sometimes we take this abundance for granted, but we can thank science and technology for these blessings.

As the quantity of food available has increased, overall food prices have steadily decreased, so that food in the United States is also more affordable to the consumer. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average U.S. family spent 10.7 percent of its income on food in 1997, compared to 11.6 percent a decade earlier and 22 percent 50 years ago.

Progress Through Research
The United States has increased its agricultural output largely through growth in productivity, which rests heavily on our long history of Federal investment in agricultural research, development, and infrastructure. Economists have found that the annual rate of return for publicly funded agricultural research is about 35 percent — for every dollar spent, society gains $1.35 in benefits.

Research in the agricultural sciences is continuous and cumulative. Our modern supermarket cornucopia did not spring forth overnight or as a result of research in any one field of science. Rather, over many decades of research, our farmers and scientists have adapted knowledge from many scientific disciplines to help them grow and deliver more nutritious and satisfying food to our citizens with less harm to the environment.
Remarkable advances in genetics, for example, have steadily pushed agriculture forward. At the beginning
of the 20th century, scientists were rediscovering work done some 30 years earlier by the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel, who conducted breakthrough scientific experiments proving that plant traits are largely inherited. Mendel’s research allowed scientists early in this century to develop selective breeding techniques, which identify agronomically desirable genetic traits and integrate those traits into crops and livestock to improve them.

DNA: Detective for Food-Borne Pathogens

After DNA “fingerprinting” was successfully used in 1995 to stop an outbreak of E. coli illness, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) established a national network of public health laboratories to track foodborne bacteria. PulseNet laboratories in 22 states and two major cities can quickly identify and compare specific DNA patterns found in bacteria isolated from sick persons or contaminated foods by using the same technology that creates DNA fingerprints of human criminals. The technique creates a “barcode” pattern, unique to each type of bacteria, that can be quickly compared to the barcodes of bacteria in the CDC’s centralized electronic DNA database. This tool helps us understand how foodborne illnesses might be spreading from a common source and how to stop them.

PulseNet now plays a vital role in surveillance and investigation of foodborne illnesses that were previously difficult to detect. Scientists can spot an outbreak even if its victims are far apart geographically. With new fingerprinting tools, electronic technologies, and Federal coordination through the CDC and states, outbreaks and their causes can be figured out in hours rather than days, and control measures can be instituted more quickly to prevent loss of life and illness.

The Promise of Genomics
Further advances in genetics, coupled with powerful computer technology, led to a new field of study called genomics — the study of the entire DNA complement of an organism. Using traditional breeding practices,
scientists found the means to move desirable genes between sexually compatible species. Today, scientists
can use genetic engineering to move genes between unrelated species — and can modify them to function
in specific tissues at specific times.

In 1999 alone, U.S. farmers planted roughly 25 percent of the nation’s corn crop using genetically engineered varieties that reduce our dependence on toxic chemical pesticides. Half of all soybeans planted in the United States in 1999 will be seeds that have been genetically modified to resist herbicides. New varieties of fruits and vegetables are being grown that will ripen more reliably and resist virus infections better.

Genomics research will be particularly important to the emerging U.S. aquaculture industry. Declining natural fishery harvests and rapidly growing populations mean that aquaculture production will need to increase some 300 percent worldwide by 2025 to meet projected seafood demand. There is great potential for rapid gains in growth rate, production efficiency, and health status of farm-raised fish through targeted genomic research.

In some parts of the world, genetically engineered foods have generated environmental and human health concerns. In the United States, our food safety regulatory agencies have a strong track record of utilizing sound science in their regulatory actions, and that engenders public trust. Citizen participation in the policymaking process and ongoing research and outreach programs to address emerging concerns can help ensure that these new food technologies serve the best interests of consumers.

Biodiversity as the Foundation of Agriculture

Whoever first said “variety is the spice of life” may have been wiser than we thought. Judging from what scientists have established over the past 50 years, variety in and among plant and animal species is what allows life itself to survive and thrive. Biological diversity, or biodiversity — all the species on Earth, all the varieties within each species, and all the ecosystems that sustain them — is now recognized as a critical factor in the natural processes at work in agriculture.

When we began domesticating plants and animals, we wrought perhaps the most far-reaching single change in the ecology of the Earth to that time. By patiently perfecting food crops such as wheat, rice, and corn and making them the dominant crops around the world, we also enabled humans to emerge as the dominant animal species. Since then, we have steadily improved our standard of living despite ever greater population densities. Agriculture has permitted this progress, and agriculture relies on biodiversity for its continued success.

Biodiversity allows higher yields, pest resistance, and improved quality of crops. It fosters the development of crop varieties that adapt to different soils, climate regions, and environmental threats such as insects and disease. Of the annual increases in crop productivity achieved through agricultural research, about half are attributable to extractions from wild species in biodiversity’s “genetic library.”

Biotechnology now offers us the ability to tap into the genetic diversity of all species — not just close
relatives — and apply desirable traits to completely different species. For this reason, preserving natural biodiversity is more crucial than ever before. We cannot predict which individual strain — or even which particular plant species — might, at some point in the future, offer a genetic weapon against a pathogen or pest and thereby save millions of acres of food crops from ruin. And although scientists are now able to move genes from species to species, only nature can create them. Only by maintaining the widest possible diversity among all species and their related ecosystems can we hope to ensure that we will have the resources to develop new crop varieties when needed to respond to environmental challenges.