To prevent mass starvation, biotech needs to magic up more food

Growth in global food production can no longer match the growth in consumption.

Acrylamide is a chemical used in paper-making and plastics. It’s also a constituent of cigarette smoke, and proven to increase the risk of cancer. But the real Acrylamide scare story came in 2002 when Swedish scientists found that it was formed in the process of cooking potatoes.

Now, though, we can tuck in to as many chips as we like without having to worry about anything more than obesity and heart disease. A new type of potato, InnateTM, generates 50-75% fewer acrylamides when cooked at high temperatures. Innate potatoes are also less likely to bruise, which should mean a reduction in waste.

Innate was developed by the J.R. Simplot company from Boise, Idaho and approved for the US market at the end of last year. It is a great example of the way in which innovation in plant science is helping to feed the world’s growing population.

World food demand is going to skyrocket, and biotech’s role will be huge

The EU’s Scientific Steering Committee has just published ‘The Role of Research in Global Food and Nutrition.’ Hidden beneath the jargon and statements of the obvious – (“for billions of people, the problems of gaining adequate nutrition and calories are primarily due to lack of access to food”) the paper acknowledges the role of science. This, of course, is very welcome.

The problem is by now well-rehearsed. The global population is heading towards eight billion. As they get richer people want to eat more meat, and the amount of plant protein used to feed animals could otherwise feed four billion people.

70% of the water taken from rivers and the ground is already used in agriculture. Climate change adds fresh uncertainty. A recent study of the French maize crop says that “yields will have to increase by more than 12% simply to offset the increasing frequency of very hot days.”

The bottom line is this. Historically global growth in food production has more than matched growth in consumption, leading to a steady fall in real food prices. But the rate of improvement in crop productivity has slowed. By 2050 the world will need 60%-110% more food and we will not produce that simply by carrying on the way we are.

Of course it need not necessarily be a matter of producing more food. It is a shameful fact that while nearly three billion people are undernourished two billion are overweight. Persuading the latter group to eat less, with all of the beneficial consequences for public health, would make more food available for the former. Meanwhile up to a third of the world’s food production is lost or wasted ‘from farm to fork.’ Surely we could do better in this respect.

The EU paper touches upon a few other things that might help, for instance the role of the gut microbiome (a popular topic at present) in metabolism, educating consumers to make food choices that favour the environment and better weather forecasting. But most of them sound like little more than excuses for more EU-sponsored research projects.

We must produce more food, and the new buzz-phrase is “sustainable intensification”. This means producing more food from the same amount of land and water resources, in a way that protects the wider eco-system. Given the EU’s opposition to GM crops it is encouraging to find that the paper acknowledges the role of genetic improvement albeit that “this requires a significant dialogue with society to ensure legitimacy.” “Improving genetics of crops and livestock is necessary” and can help farmers to cope with climate change, to counter pests and to produce food of higher nutritional quality.

GM farming is in rude health

While the EU likes to think that it has “had a significant impact in developing the innovation culture” and “has a key role to play in unlocking the potential of agriculture and in enabling developing countries to escape poverty” the real progress is being made away from the marble halls of Brussels and out in the real world.

The Innate potato has a starring role in the latest annual report of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (‘ISAAA’) which as the name suggests is unashamedly in favour of GM crops and all other forms of plant science.

According to the ISAAA 30% of potatoes are lost each year to fungal and bacterial pathogens “in addition to the 18% for insect pests and 23% for weeds.” The single most important disease, late blight, destroys 15% of all potatoes; its cause, the fungus Phytophthora infestans, is the very same that caused the Irish potato famine. 150 years later, we still have not beaten it!

J.R. Simplot has developed the Innate potato by taking a gene from a wild potato and inserting this into the russet Burbank potato. This suppresses certain genes in the latter resulting in potatoes that are much less prone to bruising and have lower levels of asparagine, thus making them less carcinogenic when cooked.

Despite the EU and other doubters, this type of biotech crop is being grown in increasing quantities all over the world. In 2014 farmers in 28 countries planted a record 181.5 million hectares, up from 175.2m in 2014. Those numbers owe a lot to three countries (the USA, Brazil and Argentina), four crops (soya bean, maize, cotton and canola) and two traits (herbicide tolerance and insect resistance). But the field is now broadening out to encompass squash, papaya, aubergines and other crops favoured by developing countries, as well as new traits like tolerance of salt water, efficient processing of nitrogen and improved nutritional quality.

Uptake is driven by economic benefit. A meta-analysis of 147 published studies found that biotech crops have significantly reduced pesticide use, increased crop yields and boosted farm income, especially in poorer countries. Innovation is driven by new plant breeding techniques such as CRISPR, which make it possible to alter the DNA of a plant by editing it at source, rather than by introducing a gene from a separate plant or species.

The ISAAA acknowledges one problem. Some weeds are becoming resistant to herbicides, while some insects are building resistance to the toxin derived from the biological insecticide Baccilus thurengiensis (Bt), that is engineered into pest-resistant plants. That said there is little doubt that, following the step change in productivity achieved by synthetic fertiliser and the industrial farming methods of the Green Revolution, biotechnology is now set to transform agriculture.

“The astonishing growth of knowledge about plant physiology, biochemistry and genetics,” says Dr Nina Fedoroff a professor of life sciences and biotechnology and adviser to the US government, “gives me confidence that molecular modification is the safest and most powerful technology we’ve ever developed for the daunting task of continuing to increase the amount of food for a growing population and doing it more sustainably.”

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