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Farmers and Scientists Must Collaborate to Feed the World

June 6, 2014


“The world could be less than 40 years away from a food shortage that will have serious implications for people and governments,” writes the staff at Science 2.0. [“Without Science Leadership, Food Shortages Could Be Critical World Issue By 2050,” The staff insists that it is not trying to play the role of a Cassandra; but, they claim, “it’s a sign we need to keep science advancing.” There are several undeniable trends that are combining to make closer collaboration between farmers and scientists a necessity. First, the world’s population is growing and probably won’t peak until it reaches 9 to 10 billion people. Second, global climate patterns are continuing to change, which means that farmers can’t rely on historical patterns and practices as they try to feed the world. Third, the world is continuing to urbanize, which means that most countries have industrial (or post-industrial) economies and not agricultural-based economies. Dr. Fred Davies, Texas A&M AgriLife Regents Professor of Horticultural Sciences, told the Science 2.0 staff, “For the first time in human history, food production will be limited on a global scale by the availability of land, water and energy.”


One would think that people would welcome closer collaboration between farmers and scientists; but, one would be wrong. Science scares the hell out of some people and, when scientists start experimenting with the foods we eat, it is natural that people get nervous. The question is: “Should we be worried?” There are no black and white answers to that question. Of course we should be cautious about what we eat; but, we should also be open to scientific breakthroughs that can help feed the world in the decades ahead. Science is helping us understand how various foods and food additives can affect our health. Fortunately, there is evidence that the recommendations nutritionists have been making are having an effect. For example, in some areas, child obesity rates have started to decrease for the first time in decades as parents, restaurants, and food manufacturers emphasize eating healthier foods.


“But resource limitations will constrain global food systems,” Davies claims. “The increases currently projected for crop production from biotechnology, genetics, agronomics and horticulture will not be sufficient to meet food demand.” That means that we need more science, not less. “Agricultural productivity, food security, food safety, the environment, health, nutrition and obesity — they are all interconnected,” Davies stated. Maggie Hennessy reports, “Last month the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) unveiled Future Food 2050, a multi-media platform for sharing science-based solutions to how to sustainably feed a growing population.” [“The future of food, rooted in science,” Food Navigator, 5 May 2014] Managing editor of Future Food 2050, Elizabeth Brewster, told Hennessy, “The future of food is an enormous topic. You could spend the rest of your life writing about it and not cover everything. What we are trying to do is focus on the major issues in food today, zeroing in on broad themes that are either really relevant today or those we see as being relevant in the future.” To meet this goal, Future Food 2050 will publish interviews with three experts on specific topics.


One recent Future Food 2050 article is an interview with geneticist M.S. Swaminathan, who has been called the father of India’s Green Revolution. [“Birthing a new era of sustainable agriculture,” by Mridu Khullar Relph, 8 May 2014] One of Swaminathan’s early successes was creating “a wheat plant that yielded much more grain than the traditional crop.” In the article, Relph writes:

“What excites Swaminathan the most is biofortification, a process through which crops are bred to increase their nutritional value, such as rice fortified with iron or wheat fortified with zinc. These crops can be enhanced through either conventional plant breeding or technology such as genetic engineering.”

People know that farmers have been improving crops through hybridization for millennia; but, genetic engineering spooks a lot of people. One of the biggest players in this field is Monsanto. Its efforts have variously been depicted as welcomed breakthroughs or as activities leading to dangerous Frankenfoods. The term “Genetically Modified Organism” or “GMO” has been a rallying cry for an entire movement that wants to keep these foods out of the supply chain. European activists have led the charge in trying to keep GMO foods from entering the food chain; but, in May of this year, Vermont became the first U.S. state “to require labeling of genetically modified foods.” [“Vermont Requires Labeling Of GMO Foods,” by Dave Gram, Associated Press, Manufacturing.net, 9 May 2014] Gram reports, “The Biotechnology Industry Organization was quick to criticize the new law. In a statement, the group said scientists and regulators worldwide recognize that foods made from genetically modified crops are safe. ‘And these same GM crops have enabled farmers to produce more on less land with fewer pesticide applications, less water and reduced on-farm fuel use,’ BIO Vice President Cathleen Enright said.” John Gregory adds, “The argument for labeling foods with genetically-engineered ingredients isn’t based on science, according to a University of Illinois professor. Food Science professor Bruce Chassy is one of the co-authors of a study released by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology. It concluded that foods with genetically modified organisms have proven to be safe and don’t need to be labeled, but Chassy doesn’t expect that will convince proponents of labeling.” [“Study Blasts GMO Labeling,” Alton Daily News, 12 April 2014]


The debate about the safety of GMO foods is likely to be unending. The fact of the matter is, however, that the trends noted at the beginning of this post are moving at such a rapid pace that, without science, we are unlikely to be able to feed the world in the decades ahead. One method that is now being used to advance food production is called “marker-assisted breeding.” Adrian Higgins writes, “Marker-assisted breeding won’t bring an end to GMOs, scientists say, because genetically engineered crops can achieve highly specific tasks now unobtainable through even marker-assisted breeding.” [“Trait by trait, plant scientists swiftly weed out bad seeds through marker-assisted breeding,” Washington Post, 16 April 2014] He continues:

“But given the obstacles to GMO development — $100 million to create one variety, at least 10 years for regulatory approval and widespread public opposition — marker-assisted breeding has become alluring to such companies as Monsanto. It is attractive because it is a powerful tool to assemble an array of desirable traits in a plant. A GMO plant, by contrast, has been engineered for a specific task — such as containing a bacterium that would kill a certain pest.”

The focus of Higgins’ article is Alan Krivanek, a tomato breeder for Monsanto, and how his work is aimed at creating a better tomato plant. Higgins reports:

“Krivanek, 42, is part of a new generation of plant breeders who are transforming the 10,000-year history of plant selection. And their work has quietly become the cutting-edge technology among today’s major plant biotech companies. Instead of spending decades physically identifying plants that will bear fruits of the desired color and firmness, stand up to drought, and more, breeders are able to speed the process through DNA screening.”

As Higgins writes, “The goal is to sustainably feed an expanding global population while dealing with the extremes of climate change.” Like others, Higgins notes that there are critics of such efforts. He explains:

“Critics of Big Agriculture worry about the needs of small-scale farmers and breeders. Low-tech conventional breeding — judging plants by how they look and perform, not by their DNA — has been the lifeblood of small seed companies and local growers, often in conjunction with breeding programs at land-grant universities. But those programs have shrunk by a third in recent years, and the remaining ones are increasingly gravitating to the trendy sphere of molecular breeding.”

Although scientists dislike having to interrupt their research to respond to critics, responsible critics play an important role in ensuring that science doesn’t race ahead of safety. We’ve gone down that road before with unpleasant results. In the end, however, closer collaboration between scientists and farmers is going to benefit all of us and help stave off widespread hunger in the decades ahead.

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