Life Sciences' Harvest Of Hopes

It has been over three decades since the Green Revolution brought much of the world back from the brink of famine. Doubling and tripling rice and grain yields ended the spectre of starvation for millions and fed the growing appetites of tens of millions of new middle-class consumers in Asia and Latin America. Now a second Green Revolution is under way, sparked by changes in biotechnology that promise qualitative as well as quantitative improvements in crops. Breakthroughs in genetics are producing cancer-fighting tomatoes and blue-fiber cotton, not to mention disease-resistant corn. So dramatic are the changes that biotechnology, agriculture, food, and drugs are merging to form a new field--life sciences.

In the Internet era, the term has a jazzier ring to investors than "chemicals" or "seeds," and it is no wonder that old-line companies such as Monsanto and DuPont are rushing to embrace it. But the science and technology underlying the shift are very real. Efforts to understand the genes in plants parallel the work being done to unlock the secrets of the human genome. And many discoveries are already being commercialized. This year, more than 50% of all U.S. corn, soybean, and cotton acreage will be planted with reengineered crops.

Yet a backlash has already begun in Europe against "Frankenstein foods." Regulators have blocked practically all U.S. shipments of genetically altered food. Consumers have expressed deep fears, while local farmers have protested the competition. Environmentalists worry about unexpected impacts on the flora and fauna of Europe.

In the end, though, the benefits of gene-spliced crops that are healthier, safer, and more productive are likely to overcome these fears. The Second Green Revolution may have an even greater impact than the first.

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