The Role of Biotechnology in Combating Zika Virus and Global Food Insecurity


Marshall Matz is an attorney for OFW Law in Washington, DC. He specializes in the food industry and has a background in global food security. Recently, he discussed the role of genetic engineering in today’s society.

The terrors of the disease known as the Zika virus have become well-known throughout our country and the rest of the world. According to the Center for Disease Control, there have been 346 reported cases of Zika in the United States, 32 of which were pregnant women. Most people won’t even know they have the disease because the symptoms for adults are such things as muscle pain and headaches. Unfortunately, infants and children are extremely susceptible to the symptoms.

The medical community scrambles for answers to fight this disease, but there is not a vaccine yet. But there is hope in the form of genetic engineering.

Scientists can alter the genetic makeup of male mosquitoes so that when they mate with females, no potential offspring can transmit the disease. Brazil was the first country to approve this technology, but in the United States it is pending approval. The skepticism that arises amongst a large segment of the population when biotechnology (specifically GMOs) is brought up suppresses the development and implementation of many potential breakthroughs in food and health.

Luckily, as Marshall Matz explains, the health care industry is much more inviting to these developments. Many of the current drugs we use are the product of genetic engineering.

A majority of the public doesn’t realize this, though, so the technology has not easily translated to the food industry.

Matz describes the relationship between medicine and food, and the public perception of both:

“In short, there is a strong relationship between health care, nutrition and food security yet the public (or a very vocal minority of the public) seems to have a different standard for, and acceptance of, genetic engineering when it comes to health care as compared to the production of food. Yet both medicines and food are consumed and enter the human body.
Why the difference? Maybe it's a secret that drugs are frequently produced through genetic engineering. Maybe we just trust medical doctors more than plant biologists. Or, maybe when we're sick we just want to get better and don't ask questions.
The public understands there is a process for testing and approving the safety and efficacy of drugs, including drugs that are genetically engineered. The public doesn't seem to know that there is a similar process for the clearance of agriculture biotechnology.”

He perceives this issue as a product of attacks on agriculture’s efforts, something the medical community doesn’t necessarily experience. Perhaps some of that has to do with “economic competition” from those benefiting from the “health halo” – an overestimation of the healthfulness of certain food items.

He diagnoses the problem, but can he, or anyone else for that matter, determine a solution?

As Matz puts it, we need all available tools to answer the challenges of global disease and food insecurity, that medicine and food should be judged on the same scale. After all, nutrition is directly tied to our health.

He believes that education is key to assuring the public that biotechnology is rigorously tested to ensure its safety. He also believes that government has an important part to play, that elected officials must not be divisive on issues such as national labeling standards for GMO products.

Do you agree with Marshall Matz that the American public should be more open to biotechnology in our medicine and food, especially as it relates to global disease control and food security? You can read the full editorial from Marshall Matz at Agri-Pulse.


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