Excited about Biotech


Oh wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me backtrack.

Last month, I attended the Farm Journal Forum in Washington, D.C.–an annual gathering for people in the business of agriculture to hobnob for a couple of days in the nation’s capitol.

A single word explains my latest experience there: excitement.

I’m excited about how biotechnology is going to make our food healthier. I’m excited to see our country stand on the threshold of remarkable progress. And I’m excited to think that so far we’ve done nothing but underestimate the potential of human creativity to improve our lives through what we eat.

One of the speakers I heard at the Farm Journal Forum was Hugh Grant, the CEO of Monsanto. Take a look at American and European men between the ages of 45 and 55, he said. (I swallowed hard: That’s my demographic.) Our coronary health, he said, “is pretty lousy.”

He’s right about that: I know lots of guys my age with heart problems. Personally, I take medication to treat high blood pressure.

Then Grant described our peers in Japan. They smoke more cigarettes and drink more alcohol. “There’s almost an order of magnitude difference on heart health,” he said. But here’s the catch: It’s in favor of the Japanese. Despite their bad habits, they’re living longer than we are.

How can that possibly be? “The reason is fish,” said Grant. “Two portions of fish in the diet a week makes a difference and after aspirin is probably one of the most researched areas of human health.”

Actually, fish are only part of the equation. Think of them as middlemen–or at least middlemen with gills, fins, and scales.

The real reason the Japanese are so heart healthy is because they consume a lot of Omega 3s–healthy oils that are often found in fish. The fish themselves don’t produce these oils. They get them from eating algae. This, in turn, helps the Japanese keep cholesterol levels low, stabilize irregular heart rates, and reduce blood pressure.

You’ll be happy to know that I’m not going to suggest a diet rich in algae, though the financial incentives of becoming America’s next nutrition guru are indeed tempting.

But I am going to propose something: a little patience. Some of our leading scientists are on the verge of getting rid of the middleman–or the middlefish, that is.

They’ve figured out how to transplant Omega 3 into corn. Biotechnology is what makes this possible and crop tests are now underway in experimental fields. It’s impossible to know what the final result will be or when we’ll have it, but the promise of heart-healthy crops is tantalizing. Maybe I’ll get off my meds. Maybe my kids won’t ever have to go on them. I’m confident that we’re looking at a huge upswing in our quality of life over the next decade or so because of what biotechnology is making possible.

There’s an ecological benefit as well. We’re depleting the world’s fisheries right now–fish are in high demand because people know that eating them contributes to good health. Transferring some of their nutritional benefits into our staple crops may put less pressure on these creatures in the wild.

I happen to enjoy the flavor of fish, but I recognize that not everybody does. So here’s the final piece of good news, especially for folks who don’t share my taste: Putting Omega 3 in corn doesn’t make the corn taste fishy. It tastes like corn. But it holds the promise of being healthier than ordinary corn.

Like I said, I’m really excited about all this. What never ceases to astonish me, however, is that some people don’t want us to mix food and biotechnology. I cannot even begin to understand their supreme small-mindedness and complete inability to imagine a brighter future. They make me so mad that I could…

Well, I’ve got to stop now. I feel my blood pressure rising. Maybe I’ll eat some fish tonight, with corn on the side, and think about the good things that lie ahead for all of us.

I’m starting to feel better already.

Tim Burrack

Tim Burrack

Tim grows corn, seed corn, soybeans and produces pork. Has been very involved with Mississippi River lock improvements and has traveled to Brazil to research their river, rail and road infrastructure changes. Tim volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network and is currently serving as Vice Chairman.

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