Biotech Crops As 'Health Food?'

Genetically engineered food--is it potentially a good thing, or not?


Opponents call it "Frankenstein food," unsafe and untested.


But, as CBS News Correspondent Wyatt Andrews reports, there are others who say it has the potential to be the greatest "health food" the world has ever seen.


A dazzling upside to biotech foods can be found in the greenhouses at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.


There, Charles Arntzen is growing plants to vaccinate the world. For example, in a batch of tomatoes, he has gene-spliced a virus that makes the fruit make medicine.


In other words, Arntzen says, the vaccine is inside the fruit itself. "It's a manufacturing system. As that fruit develops, every cell is manufacturing vaccines."


The vaccine in Arntzen's tomatoes will treat diarrhea, a disease that kills 2.5 million people a year. But he is also growing the potential cures for malaria, cholera and hepatitis B. Very soon children in developing nations may not need shots. They'll eat biotech tomatoes or bananas instead.


"I definitely see the day when children in the developing world will eat a banana chip, and in that chip will be the vaccine."


Cross the ocean now to Zurich, Switzerland and you'll find another biotech marvel, called golden rice.


"It looks identical to normal rice," says Professor Ingo Potrykus, who has genetically fused rice with daffodils to produce a rice so rich in vitamin A, it could cure the vitamin A deficiency in 100 million people.


Potrykus, with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, believes he could move lots of the rice if he were to mass-produce it. "Many, many developing countries want this rice as soon as possible."


But now you have to ask, if this is possible now--mass scale cures for disease and malnutrition--why is it not being grown? The reason is there's no paying market.


"Our customers are poor kids in poor countries; there's not a big profit margin," Arntzen says.


But the biotech industry advertising the humanitarian side of this science, is not actually growing vaccines or golden rice anywhere. It has donated the technology, believing that the immense cost of developing such crops could never be recovered.


"We need to say this isn't enough," says Jeffrey Sachs of Harvard University. Sachs wants western governments to step in and subsidize these breakthroughs as a new kind of foreign aid.


"There are hundreds of millions of people that are living at the edge of survival right now, for which this technology could make the difference of life and death," said Sachs, an economics professor.


U.S. farmers now pay billions of dollars for biotech crop advances that help them avoid the use of chemicals. Tragically the very same technology can now save human life, but government and industry haven't yet found the formula for putting it to use.



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