I had hoped that last week would be all about countdowns–to the end of 2004, to the naming of a new college football champion, to the inevitable moment of me breaking my New Year’s resolutions.

But instead it was all about counting upward, as the death toll from the tsunami in Asia soared ever higher. At first we were told that only–only!–a few thousand people had perished from the massive waves. Yet the numbers kept rising, like a tide that never recedes–first tens of thousands were declared dead, then more than a hundred thousand gone. Well over a million people have lost their homes.

The tsunami was one of the worst natural disasters in human history. At last count, the dead numbered more than 140,000. With disease and malnutrition setting in, it is sure to grow.

Free trade and biotechnology won’t ever prevent catastrophes such as this–but they may have a role to play in alleviating them.

During this difficult time, trade is vital. It means we’ve already established the production methods, distribution channels, and transportation infrastructure that will make it possible to get food and water to Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the other nine hard-hit countries. Our ability to move material around the globe quickly will result in lives saved in the days ahead.

If the last half century had been spent building up the walls of protectionism rather than tearing them down, these already mind-boggling numbers of fatalities may have been even worse.

In the days ahead, we are going to hear a lot about malnutrition and disease–and biotechnology may soon offer solutions to both.

Malnutrition was a global problem before the tsunami and much research has gone into producing foods rich in nutrients through a process called biofortification. It’s an effort to make sure people receive all the vitamins and minerals they need in the foods they already eat. There are studies going on right now, for instance, to determine whether the millions of people who suffer from iron-deficiency anemia would be helped by a special kind of rice that is rich in iron.

Food that is biofortified in this and other ways clearly would provide a big boost to people who are struggling to feed themselves, to say nothing of eating well-balanced diets. That’s why China is experimenting heavily in this area and may begin plantings of biofortified rice in 2005.

Biotech will also help us fight diseases. We’re going to be hearing a lot about cholera and other water-borne diseases in the weeks ahead–and medicine derived from biotechnology will give us some of the tools we need to fight them.

Very soon, we may be able to combine the concepts of nutritional biofortification and biotech medicine. Imagine a future that includes a new kind of rice full of essential nutrients as well as medicines that act as a vaccine against cholera. It sounds far-fetched, but it may be closer to reality than most people realize.

Even closer to reality may be a tool that will be useful in dealing with the challenge of growing food in soil proportionately high in salt and sand. News reports from the affected Indian Ocean countries indicate that most of the low-lying coastal areas involved in agriculture were inundated with several “miles of seawater”. As I write this, biotech research continues on grains like rice and wheat that will provide a high resistance to salinity. Without this help, it will take many years – perhaps generations – of good rainfall and working the land hard to get it back to the production levels farmers experienced before December 26.

These dizzying visions of what the future may hold provide little comfort to the millions of people who are suffering and grieving right now. In the short term, our prayers and money must remain focused on the victims of today. But over the long term, our minds must devote themselves to making sure we can better help the victims of tomorrow.

Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org) is a national grassroots advocacy group based in Des Moines, IA formed and led by farmers in support of freer trade and advancements in biotechnology.