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June 20, 2001

Military foods could enhance soldiers' performance by 2025

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – As Napoleon Bonaparte was preparing to invade Russia in 1809, one of his largest obstacles wasn't firepower or fortifications, but food.

His challenge to find a method to keep food fresh and transportable gave rise to the famous dictum, "An army travels on its stomach" – and to the technology of the tin can.

Today's modern army is just as concerned about feeding the troops as Napoleon was two centuries ago. But the U.S. soldiers of 2025 will be eating foods that are a combination of hometown comfort and space-age wizardry.

"Opportunities in Biotechnology for Future Army Applications," a report released today (Wednesday, 6/20) by the National Research Council's Board on Army Science and Technology, lays out a vision of foods and agricultural activities that will keep future warriors fed, disease-free and even safe from friendly fire.

The report was prepared by a 16-member committee of university and industry scientists. Purdue University's Michael Ladisch, distinguished professor of agricultural and biological engineering and distinguished professor of biomedical engineering, chaired the NRC committee.

The committee's report states that genetically engineered foods could play a major role in reshaping how the U.S. Army feeds its troops.

"Biotechnology and biological materials have potential to greatly improve the logistical support of the Army," Ladisch says. "Genetically engineered foods have a role to play, not only through functional foods, but also through foods that can grow quickly."

One example mentioned in the report is the creation of plants that could grow in days instead of weeks, foods that are already being developed for use on space missions to Mars.

"These plants may not be used to create gourmet meals, but these could be critical in a survival situation," Ladisch says.

One of the most serious problems in combat is the potential for what the military calls unintentional fratricide, and is known to the public as friendly fire casualties: confused troops firing on their own comrades.

The NRC report recommends that soldiers' food could contain edible compounds, called biomarkers, that would be used to identify U.S. soldiers in combat or in peacekeeping actions. The report states: "The presence of particular biological organisms or attributes could be used to help identify, trace or track individuals."

Tagging soldiers through their food could allow them to be tracked on the ground or even via remote sensing satellites. The report notes that being able to accurately distinguish between friendly forces and units could significantly improve the Army's command and control.

The report also suggests making foods more digestible by including edible enzymes. "More efficiently digested foods would mean that more calories could be transported to troops for the same amount of weight," the report states.

Robert Love, director of the NRC study, says that food is a major logistics consideration on the battlefield.

"The Army is always concerned about logistics because it translates into being more effective in combat with fewer resources," he says. "A lot of the advances in biotechnology are going to have the effect of making things smaller and lighter, and that includes the food that a soldier eats."

Another important area of inquiry for military research is in functional foods, which are foods that can deliver extra nutrients or other healthful ingredients.

Since antiquity, as many soldiers have died from disease as have perished in combat. The NRC report suggests that edible vaccines, which are currently being developed, could also be used by soldiers in the field to fend off common ailments or diarrhea caused by intestinal viruses.

A common, serious problem for combat soldiers is dysentery, which is an irritation of the colon that can be caused by chemicals, bacteria, protozoa or intestinal worms. Dysentery could also be lessened through functional foods containing specialized components, the report states.

Field rations would also contain antimicrobial factors that would reduce or eliminate the need to send power refrigeration equipment into the field, or could be used to fend off common diseases that soldiers might be exposed to. The report suggests that such anti-infection agents would be made from edible proteins or peptides instead of pharmaceuticals.

Even a soldier's comfort would be increased by the food they eat: The report envisions candy bars with specialized nutrients that could elevate body temperatures in cold weather or reduce susceptibility to detection by enemy sensors.

"There is a great deal that can be done with foods through biotechnology to enhance a soldier's performance on the battlefield," Love says.

The NRC report was supported by the U.S. Army. The National Research Council provides information to the government, the public, and the scientific and engineering communities on behalf of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine.

Copies of the report are available from the National Academy Press for $27.75 (prepaid) plus shipping charges of $4.50 for the first copy and $.95 for each additional copy; call (202) 334-3313 or (800) 624-6242, or order on the Internet.

Sources: Michael Ladisch, (765) 494-7022; ladisch@ecn.purdue.edu

Robert Love, (202) 334-3118; RLove@nas.edu

Writer: Steve Tally, (765) 494-9809; tally@aes.purdue.edu

Purdue Ag Communications: (765) 494-2722; Beth Forbes, Ag News Coordinator, bforbes@aes.purdue.edu; http://persephone.agcom.purdue.edu/AgCom/news/

Related Web sites:
Natick Soldier Center:

Related stories:
Biotechnology promises major advances for U.S. Army
Future army could run on alternative fuels, photosynthesis

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu


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