Make no mistake, humans have been meddling with nature for thousands of years. Selective breeding, crop rotations and other techniques for preserving food have been used to optimise production and transport, and are some of the major factors in the growth of towns into cities. However, selecting desirable characteristics and trying to accentuate them through natural breeding methods could be argued as a world away from using the latest science to fundamentally change the genetic makeup of crops or using IVF as a breeding technique for cows. A discussion of some of the new methods to increase productivity and help alleviate world hunger will be the subject of this article.
GM crops may be the biggest grey area of the new up and coming techniques discussed. Despite being around in one form or another for decades, there is still debate about the potential effect of new GM crops being introduced into the environment. Fears over cross pollination and outcompeting the natural varieties are genuine concerns, and what impact this may have longer term is still unclear. Gene splicing using restriction enzymes works on a concentration basis and depending on the effectiveness of the technique and the gene involved, concentrations vary. As a result, genetic modification isn’t as simple as just cutting a bit of DNA and sticking it somewhere else; yields also play a part. Also, just having a specific gene does not solely define an outcome. How the protein produced from the inserted gene interacts with the rest of the organism also is a significant factor.
Whilst these concerns are reasonable, it should also be noted that GM crops have, at least on the surface, been successful in America amongst other places. Around thirty-six countries including the EU block ban GM crops, whilst twenty-eight others allow it. A strange dichotomy exists, particularly in the EU, whereby they ban the growth of GM crops, except one form of maize, yet at the same time rely on and import the produce of GMO on a huge scale (In 2013, the EU needed 36 million tonnes of equivalent soybean to feed its livestock; 1.4 out of it was non-GMOs and produced in the EU.) Genetic modification normally takes the form of fasting growing varieties or ones resistant to decay, either through disease or pests, which means less pesticide needs to be used. A faster growing, more resistant food source is surely a good thing. Reducing wastage and increasing productivity must surely lead to more readily available food and lower prices.
There are also examples of altering a crop in order to solve vitamin deficiencies in a local human population. So called ‘Golden Rice’ has been around since 2000 when the findings were published, and all it took was two genes to be spliced into the rice in order to produce 4 to 5 times more beta carotene, and as a result it is much higher in vitamin A. The team behind this GMO were reacting to a widespread vitamin A deficiency amongst the working population principally in South East Asia. This issue with Golden Rice is that since its initial hype in 2000, very little data has been published on improvements to it. The initial vitamin A levels were not at all as hoped, and although subsequent improvements to vitamin A content have been achieved, there is no data on how levels fare with cooking, storage and other conditions. Opponents and the WHO argue that we should instead fortify foods with vitamins separately or provide supplements to the developing world instead of altering the food supply. Although this seems like a simple answer it leaves the developing world at the mercy of donations and at the hands of the companies responsible for fortifying the food. Golden Rice has been shown to be non-toxic and the texture of the rice is the same. Rice dishes are already made yellow using saffron so it will look no different, with should ease adoption rates. With improvements to GM crops like Golden Rice subject to passing rigorous safety checks, putting it in the hands of the people who need it most instead of relying on outside help seems the best course of action.
Whilst GM crops are often the most divisive and publicised, there are other techniques being invented to alleviate the pressure on both the environment and the world population as a result of food availability. One fascinating solution is the idea of vertical farming using hydroponics (growing plants without soil.) The plan is to minimise transport costs by growing produce close to where it is consumed in large quantities, i.e. cities, and maximising the usage per unit area of the Earth’s surface. The standard economic barriers apply, including cost of building and running such an operation, and it struggles to complete with standard agriculture, but in the future, this may well become very important as pressure increases on the Earth to sustain human life and the destruction of natural habitat to make way for farming continues.
The subject of this article has so far been on plants, but this last section is devoted to a meatier topic. The first lab grown burger was created back in 2013, and it cost $300,000. It was grown from stem cells taken from a cow’s shoulder, and provides an alternative in the future to mass cow farming, threatening a $177bn global meat industry. Clearly it isn’t economically viable now, but at some point in the future R&D will yield lab grown meat cheap enough to be sold on the market. There are technological barriers to be overcome in bringing the cost down and increasing productivity but the projected figures are staggering. Just a few stem cells from a single cow could be used to grow as many as 175million clone quarter pounders (vs 440,000 cattle.) The meat grown in labs will also be far less susceptible to being infected with pathogens such as E. coli, effectively eliminating food borne disease, and require 90% less land and 70% less energy to produce pound for pound versus conventual cattle farming. Unlike GM crops, the ethical concerns don’t stand up to as much scrutiny because it also paves the way for decreasing livestock population and increasing quality of life for the resulting smaller herds, minimising animal suffering. Many millions of people eat at fast food chains or buy cheap meat without necessarily thinking about the origin of the meat and the suffering battery farming or other forced farming methods cause. The ethical implications of growing cloned meat pale in comparison to the widespread suffering of livestock to produce affordable meat.
In conclusion, the optimising of food production generally is an exciting and constantly evolving area of science, and making new discoveries economically viable is a real challenge. However, as pressure on the world’s resources intensifies, these new techniques will become increasingly relevant and important in order to continue the relative global stability we have enjoyed up to this point. Undoubtedly the topics discussed above are the future, but that doesn’t mean opponents are necessarily wrong in trying to make sure they are completely safe for use. A balance must be struck between safety and stifling progress.