by Roshani Edirisinghe
To feed a rapidly growing population (10 billion people by the year 2050) with an expanding middle class on a warming planet, we will have to use new technologies and build new systems to grow and distribute food. Will it ever be possible for food to be sustainable, healthy, delicious, and affordable?
Along with optimizing current farming practices, biotechnology is an equally essential part of the future of food. But what is the need for genetically modified organisms or GMOs? We have been modifying crops for thousands of years to prevent crop loss from pest and weather damage, to grow more food in less land, even to improve nutrition. GMOs are developed for the same reason. Genome editing allows for a combination of desirable genetic traits to be rationally designed into crops. With genetic engineering, scientists can change and improve crops easily and quickly.
The most common GMO crops were developed to address the needs of farmers, but in turn they can help foods become more accessible and affordable for consumers. The GMO papaya, called the Rainbow papaya is an example of a GMO crop developed to be resistant to a virus. When the Papaya Ring Spot Virus (PRSV) threatened the Hawaii papaya industry and the livelihoods of Hawaiian papaya farmers, plant scientists developed the PRSV-resistant Rainbow papaya. The Rainbow papaya was commercially planted in 1998, and today it is grown all over Hawaii and now occupy more than 80% shelf-space in the US market and in major Asian markets like Japan. A GMO eggplant developed to be insect resistant has been slowly released to farmers in Bangladesh since 2014. Farmers who grow GMO eggplants are earning more and have less exposure to pesticides. Some GMO crops were developed specifically to benefit consumers. For example, the Golden banana showcasing high levels of provitamin A and Arctic apples that resist browning after being cut are now available for sale and may help reduce food waste.
On the other hand, livestock farming account for around 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions, with beef production accounting for just under half of this figure, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). Eat Just, the Californian food start-up responsible for bringing the world’s first lab-grown chicken to tables is one of the many companies that took over the challenge of making real chicken and real beef that did not require killing an animal and using a single drop of antibiotics. Perfect Day, another food technology startup company based in California is inventing a new way to produce dairy with the best of both worlds: the real taste and texture of dairy, produced sustainably, and without the downsides of factory farming, lactose, hormones, or antibiotics. These food start-ups revolutionizing the animal agriculture comes amid the scrutiny on industrial farming over its unethical practices and harmful effects on the environment.
Beyond lab-grown meat and cow’s milk, there are also foods with vital benefits that are impossible to access in large amount sustainably, such as sturgeon eggs, camel milk, and everything in between. Just one year ago, scientists discovered a new protein in platypus milk that has surprising antibiotic properties. Using DNA sequence analysis and synthesis, scientists will be able to discover and produce hundreds of proteins from many different animals and plants and identify important new ingredients.
New techniques like Crispr-Cas have the potential to change the foods we eat every day, boosting flavor, disease resistance, and yields, and even tackling allergens like gluten. Scientists can develop new crops the way nature would do it given enough time, but gene editing allows these changes to be made at warp speed. Given the ever-increasing stresses on the global food system, precision gene editing could not have arrived at a more fortuitous time.