Most people are going to hate this third installment of our future of food series. And the worst part is the reasons behind this hatorade will be emotional more so than informed. But alas, everything below needs to be said, and you are more than welcome to flame on in the comments section below.
In the first two parts of this series, you learned how the one-two punch of climate change and overpopulation will contribute to future food shortages and potential instability in developing parts of the world. But now we’re going to flip the switch and start discussing the different tactics scientists, farmers, and governments will employ over the coming decades to save the world from starvation—and just maybe, to save us all from a dark, future world of vegetarianism.
So let’s kick things off with the dreaded three letter acronym: GMO.
What are Genetically Modified Organisms?
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are plants or animals whose genetic recipe has been altered with new ingredient additives, combinations, and quantities using complex genetic engineering cooking techniques. It’s essentially a process of rewriting life’s cookbook with the goal of creating new plants or animals that have very specific and sought after traits (or tastes, if we want to stick to our cooking metaphor). And we’ve been at this for a long time.
In fact, humans have practiced genetic engineering for millennia. Our ancestors used a process called selective breeding where they took wild versions of plants and bred them with other plants. After growing several farming seasons, these interbred wild plants turned into the domesticated versions we love and eat today. In the past, this process would take years, and in some cases generations, to complete—and all to create plants that looked better, tasted better, were more drought-tolerant, and produced better yields.
The same principles apply to animals as well. What was once the aurochs (wild ox) was over generations bred into the Holstein dairy cow that produces most of the milk we drink today. And wild boars, they were bred into the pigs that top our burgers with delicious bacon.
However, with GMOs, scientists essentially take this selective breeding process and add rocket fuel to the mix, the benefit being that new plant varieties are created in less than two years. (GMO animals aren’t as widespread due to the heavier regulations placed on them, and due to their genomes being far more complex to tinker with than plant genomes, but over time they will become more commonplace.) Nathanael Johnson of Grist wrote a great summary of the science behind GMO foods if you’d like to geek out; but in general, GMOs are used in a variety of other fields and will have a wide-reaching impact on our daily lives over the coming decades.
Hung up on a bad rep
We’ve been trained by the media to believe GMOs are evil and are made by giant, devilish corporations interested only in making money at the expense of farmers everywhere. Suffice to say, GMOs have an image problem. And to be fair, some of the reasons behind this bad rep are legitimate.
Some scientists and an excessive percentage of world foodies don’t believe GMOs are safe to eat over the long term. Some even feel that the consumption of those foods may lead to allergies in humans.
There are also real environmental concerns around GMOs. Since their introduction in the 1980s, most GMO plants were created to be immune from pesticides and herbicides. This allowed farmers, for example, to spray their fields with generous amounts of herbicides to kill weeds without killing their crops. But over time, this process led to new herbicide-resistant weeds that required ever more toxic doses of the same or stronger herbicides to kill them. Not only do these toxins enter into the soils and the environment at large, they are also why you really should wash your fruits and vegetables before you eat them!
There is also a very real danger of GMO plants and animals escaping into the wild, potentially upsetting natural ecosystems in unpredictable ways wherever they are introduced.
Finally, the lack of understanding and knowledge about GMOs is in part perpetuated by producers of GMO products. Looking at the US, most states don’t label whether the food sold in grocery chains are a GMO product in full or in part. This lack of transparency fuels ignorance among the general public around this issue, and reduces worthwhile funding and support for the science overall.
GMOs will eat the world
For all the negative press GMO foods get, 60 to 70 percent of the food we eat today already contain GMO elements in part or in full, according to Bill Freese of the Center for Food Safety, an anti-GMO organization. That’s not hard to believe when you consider that mass-produced GMO corn starch and soy protein are used in so many of today’s food products. And in the decades ahead, this percentage will only go up.
But as we read in part one of this series, the handful of plant species we grow at an industrial scale can be divas when it comes to the conditions they need to grow to their full potential. The climate they grow in can’t be too hot or too cold, and they need just the right amount of water. But with the climate change that’s coming, we’re entering a world that will be much hotter and much drier. We’re entering a world where we’ll see a global 18 percent reduction in food production (caused by less available farmland suitable for crop production), just as we need to produce at least 50 percent more food to meet the needs of our growing population. And the plant varieties we’re growing today, most of them just won’t be able to meet the challenges of tomorrow.
Simply put, we need new edible plant species that are disease-resistant, pest-resistant, herbicide-resistant, drought-resistant, saline (salt water) tolerant, more adaptable to extreme temperatures, while also growing more productively, providing more nutrition (vitamins), and maybe even be gluten-free. (Side note, isn’t being gluten intolerant one of the worst conditions ever? Think of all those delicious breads and pastries these folks can’t eat. So sad.)
Examples of GMO foods making a real impact can already be seen across the world—three quick examples:
In Uganda, bananas are a key part of the Ugandan diet (the average Ugandan eats a pound per day) and are one of the country’s dominant crop exports. But in 2001, a bacterial wilt disease spread in much of the country, killing as much as half of Uganda’s banana yields. The wilt was only stopped when Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) created GMO banana that contained a gene from green peppers; this gene triggers a kind of immune system within the banana, killing infected cells to save the plant.
Then there is the humble spud. The potato plays a large role in our modern diets, but a new form of potato may open up a whole new era in food production. Currently, 98 percent of the world’s water is salinated (salty), 50 percent of agricultural land is threatened by salt water, and 250 million people around the world live on salt-afflicted soil, especially in the developing world. This matters because most plants can’t grow in salt water—that is until a team of Dutch scientists created the first salt-tolerant potato. This innovation could have a huge impact in countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh, where huge regions of flood and seawater contaminated farmland can be made productive again for farming.
Finally, Rubisco. A weird, Italian sounding name for sure, but it’s also one of the holy grails of plant science. This is an enzyme that’s key to the photosynthesis process in all plant life; it’s basically the protein that turns CO2 into sugar. Scientists have figured out a way to boost the efficiency of this protein so that it converts more of the sun’s energy into sugar. By improving this one plant enzyme, we could boost the global yields of crops like wheat and rice by 60 percent, all with less farmland and less fertilizers.
The rise of synthetic biology
First, there was selective breeding, then came GMOs, and soon a new discipline will arise to replace them both: synthetic biology. Where selective breeding involves humans playing eHarmony with plants and animals, and where GMO genetic engineering involves copying, cutting, and pasting individual genes into new combinations, synthetic biology is the science of creating genes and entire DNA strands from scratch. This will be a game changer.
Why scientists are so optimistic about this new science is because it will make molecular biology similar to traditional engineering, where you have predictable materials that can be assembled in predictable ways. That means as this science matures, there will be no more guesswork in how we alter the building blocks of life. In essence, it will give science absolute control over nature, a power that will obviously have wide-reaching impacts on all biological sciences, especially in the health sector. In fact, the market for synthetic biology is set to grow to $38.7 billion by 2020.
But back to food. With synthetic biology, scientists will be able to make entirely new forms of food or new twists on existing foods. For example, Muufri, a Silicon Valley start-up, is working on animal-free milk. Similarly, another start-up, Solazyme, is developing algae-based flour, protein powder, and palm oil. These examples and more will be explored further in the final part of this series where we’ll talk about what your future diet will look like.
But wait, what about Superfoods?
Now with all this talk about GMOs and Franken foods, it’s only fair to take a minute to mention a new group of superfoods that are all natural.
As of today, we have well over 50,000 edible plants in the world, yet we only eat a handful of that bounty. It makes sense in a way, by only focusing on a few plant species, we can become experts in their production and grow them at scale. But this reliance on a few plant species also makes our agricultural network more vulnerable to various diseases and the mounting effects of climate change.
That’s why, like any good financial planner would tell you, to safeguard our future welfare, we need to diversify. We will need to expand the number of crops we eat. Luckily, we’re already seeing examples of new plant species being welcomed into the marketplace. The obvious example being quinoa, the Andean grain whose popularity has exploded in recent years.
But what made quinoa so popular isn’t that it’s new, it’s because it’s protein-rich, has twice as much fiber as most other grains, is gluten-free, and contains a range of valuable vitamins our body needs. That’s why it’s considered a superfood. More than that, it’s a superfood that’s been subjected to very little, if any, genetic tinkering.
In the future, many more of these once-obscure superfoods will enter our marketplace. Plants like fonio, a West African cereal that’s naturally drought-resistant, protein-rich, gluten-free, and requires little fertilizer. It’s also one of the world’s fastest growing cereals, maturing in just six to eight weeks. Meanwhile, in Mexico, a grain called amaranth is naturally resistant to droughts, high temperatures, and disease, while also being protein-rich and gluten-free. Other plants you might hear about over the coming decades include: millet, sorghum, wild rice, teff, farro, khorasan, einkorn, emmer, and others.
A hybrid agri-future with safety controls
So we’ve got GMOs and superfoods, which will win out over the coming decades? Realistically, the future will see a mix of both. Superfoods will expand the variety of our diets and protect the global agricultural industry from over-specialization, while GMOs will protect our traditional staple foods from the extreme environments climate change will bring about over the coming decades.
But at the end of the day, it’s the GMOs we worry about. As we enter a world where synthetic biology (synbio) will become the dominant form of GMO production, future governments will have to agree on the right safeguards to guide this science without stifling its development for irrational reasons. Looking into the future, these safeguards will likely include:
Allowing controlled field experiments on new synbio crop varieties prior to their widespread farming. This could include testing these new crops in vertical, underground, or just temperature controlled indoor farms that can accurately mimic the conditions of outdoor nature.
Engineering safeguards (where possible) into the genes of synbio plants that will act as a kill switch, so that they are unable to grow outside of the regions where they have been approved to grow. The science behind this kill switch gene is now real, and it could relieve the fears of synbio foods escaping into the wider environment in unpredictable ways.
Increased funding to national food administration bodies to properly review the many hundreds, soon thousands, of new synbio plants and animals that will be produced for commercial use, as the technology behind synbio becomes dirt cheap by the late 2020s.
New and consistent international, science-based regulations on the creation, farming and sale of synbio plants and animals, where approvals of their sale are based on the traits of these new lifeforms instead of the method by which they were produced. These regulations will be governed by an international organization that member countries fund and will help ensure the safe trade of synbio food exports.
Transparency. This is probably the most important point of all. In order for the public to accept GMOs or synbio foods in any form, the companies who make them need to invest in full transparency—that means by the late 2020s, all foods will be accurately labeled with full details of their GM or synbio origins. And as the need for synbio crops rise, we’ll begin to see heavy mass marketing dollars spent to educate consumers about the health and environmental benefits of synbio foods. The goal of this PR campaign will be to engage the public in a rational discussion about synbio foods without resorting to “won’t somebody please think of the children” type arguments that blindly reject the science altogether.
There you have it. Now you know much more about the world of GMOs and superfoods, and the part they will play in protecting us from a future where climate change and population pressures threaten global food availability. If governed properly, GMO plants and ancient super foods together could very well allow humanity to once again escape the Malthusian trap that rears its ugly head every century or so. But having new and better foods to grow means nothing if we don’t also address the logistics behind farming, that’s why part four of our future of food series will focus on the farms and farmers of tomorrow.