As a nation, we mourn the loss of an outstanding group of astronauts – “seven lives of great purpose” – who died as they neared completion of a journey through space that involved exploration and discovery. Through the years, myriads of advancements in science and technology have been discovered, tested and retested within the parameters of the US space shuttle program. Agriculture has been a key partner in some very unprecedented scientific research opportunities – and we may be the beneficiaries.
Just last June, Peggy Whitson, the Iowa farm girl turned astronaut, delivered soybeans to the International Space Station. They became the first plants to complete a major crop-growth cycle–from planting seeds to growing new seeds–outside the earth’s atmosphere. Scientists are analyzing whether the seeds harvested in a gravity-free environment have improved oil, protein, and carbohydrates, and whether these qualities can be passed on to later generations.
The wonder of biotechnology is helping discover and build a better soybean on the ground as well.
Food allergies, of course, are a much more down-to-earth concern. They occur when the body blunders. Here’s how the Food Allergy Network describes what happens:
“The immune system mistakenly believes that a harmless substance, in this case a food item, is harmful. In its attempt to protect the body, it creates specific IgE antibodies to that food. The next time the individual eats that food, the immune system releases massive amounts of chemicals and histamines in order to protect the body. These chemicals trigger a cascade of allergic symptoms that can affect the respiratory system, gastrointestinal tract, skin, or cardiovascular system.”
I don’t suffer from bad allergies, so I can only imagine the aggravations of people who do. Food allergies must be especially frustrating, because those who have them are forced to avoid many of the things that the rest of us take for granted.
Sometimes it isn’t even that easy. People allergic to peanuts, for instance, can’t just turn down airline snacks. They also need to be careful around sunflower seeds because these two different products often share equipment. People allergic to milk must be wary of meat from grocery-store delis because the meat slicers are often used on cheese as well.
Soybeans may be the trickiest, however, because they find their way into all kinds of food, from crackers and canned tuna to soup and baby formula. About 1 or 2 percent of adults, plus 6 to 8 percent of children, can’t eat soy products because of allergies. For most of them, the reactions are minor: just itching and hives. For a handful, however, it’s much more serious.
The result is that many foods derived from one of the most popular crops grown by American farmers are off limits to millions of people. Many of them find it difficult to achieve a balanced diet because of all the restrictions.
Scientists already have done amazing things with soybeans. More than 70 percent of the soybeans grown in the United States are genetically modified to reduce reliance on pesticides. Weed-free fields not only look nice, they improve yields.
Modern medicine can cure many ailments, but allergies are not among them. The best doctors can do is help people treat their symptoms. Telling those who suffer from food allergies to avoid the foods that make them sick may sound like common sense, but it’s also the very best advice there is.
Yet recent studies have shown that it’s possible to create a “knockout bean”–a soybean that’s genetically modified to suppress the proteins that cause allergies. According to USDA scientist Eliot Herman, “This is probably the first time a dominant human allergen has been knocked out of a major food crop using biotechnology.”
It will be a few years before grocery stores stock products drawing from this technology. When it happens, though, people suffering from soy allergies will find that their lives are suddenly much less complicated and hazardous.
That’s great news for lots of people.
There’s also an irony in all this. The enemies of biotechnology often complain that genetically modified foods may cause unexpected allergic reactions. I’ve never heard of anybody documenting a case of this, but that simple fact of course hasn’t stopped these radicals from making a speculative claim.
The new soybean research turns this assertion on its head. The enemies of biotechnology have it exactly wrong. Because of gene-altered crops, we’re not on the verge of making allergy problems worse – we’re getting ready to ease them.