Food: The DNA solution

Condemning genetically modified food is all the rage. But are we shutting down a technology that could feed the world?

Papaya isn’t exactly a staple for global diets, but for the Hawaiian economy, the fruit is the second-most-important food crop. Twenty years ago, the entire industry was in danger of being wiped out by a virus called ring spot. Hawaiians had been battling the virus for decades, in fact. Production shifted from the island of Oahu to the main Hawaiian island in the 1960s to escape the spread of the disease, which is transmitted by insects. But in the 1990s, the virus turned up there, too. In just a few years, the country’s output of papaya plummeted from 52 million pounds a year to 26 million.

As Hawaii’s papaya industry imploded, a plant pathologist at Cornell University in New York named Dennis Gonsalves was quietly working on a solution. Scientists had spent their entire careers trying and failing to use conventional plant-breeding techniques to make papaya resistant to the virus, but Gonsalves, along with researchers at the University of Hawaii, was working on a completely different approach.

Rather than trying to breed a hybrid from different varieties of the fruit, Gonsalves isolated a gene from the ring-spot virus and directly inserted it into a papaya chromosome. The resulting fruit developed a resistance to ring spot, in much the same way that humans develop a tolerance to a particular illness when vaccinated. For farmers, the results were nothing short of miraculous. The seeds began to reach farmers in 1998, and production is back up to 40 million pounds a year. The bulk of the papaya grown in Hawaii is now genetically modified.

Despite such successes, the world has adopted GM crops with great trepidation. They are now grown in 25 countries, mainly the United States, Brazil and Argentina. Farmers planted more than 300 million acres of them last year, an 80-fold increase since 1996. But opposition to the technology has spread faster than the crops themselves. There are numerous public interest groups vying to ban GM crops, most notably in Europe. Until recently, the European Union permitted only one GM crop to be grown commercially, a variety of corn developed by Monsanto. This month, the EU approved the first new GM crop for use in 12 years — a high-quality starch potato for industrial use, not consumption. Some viewed the news with dismay. “The EU has opened the door to GMOs,” a Greenpeace policy analyst told the Financial Times.

There are many reasons to be concerned about GM crops. The idea of meddling with something as fundamental to our existence as food can be unnerving, and the long-term health and environmental effects of the products will not be known for quite some time. Containing GM crops is also a near impossible task, and there is no telling what could happen if they escape the commercial fields on which they’re grown.

But there is also a much bigger problem to worry about: the world is on the brink of a food crisis. More than one billion people do not have enough to eat each day, and the situation could get a lot worse. High food prices in 2008 that sparked riots in several countries are likely to return. The increases in crop yields seen over the past few decades are starting to slow, and the world’s population is still rocketing up. By 2050, there will be an additional 2.3 billion people on the planet, for a total of roughly nine billion. Diets are changing, too. The emerging middle classes in China and India are consuming more meat, which requires more crops to be grown for animal feed. Climate change exacerbates the problem, and an increase in temperatures could slash crop yields in the most vulnerable parts of the world.

To meet the growing demand, global food production will have to increase 70% by 2050, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In developing countries, it will need to almost double. Because of that, many say that banning genetically modified foods is premature. After all, some day soon, we may need them to feed the world.

Doomsayers have been predicting for centuries that the world’s population will eventually run out of food. But thanks to food technology, such predictions have never come true. In 1798, the scholar Thomas Malthus delivered a dire assessment in his Essay on the Principle of Population. The earth could not provide enough food to sustain the rate of population growth, he concluded. Malthus relied on simple math: agricultural production grows arithmetically, while population explodes at a geometric rate. But what Malthus did not foresee were the great leaps in agricultural technology brought about during the Industrial Revolution, which allowed growth to continue unabated.

More than two centuries later, the world seemed poised for another disaster. American biologist Paul Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb in 1968, warning of mass famines in the coming years due to overpopulation. But again technology provided a solution, largely due to the work of a plant breeder from Iowa named Norman Borlaug. He brought high-yielding varieties of wheat to Asia and helped to introduce synthetic fertilizers to boost output even further. This massive transformation spread to other parts of the developing world and was dubbed the Green Revolution, earning Borlaug a Nobel Peace Prize.

Technology must deliver again today, and genetic engineering has promise. The first wave of GM crops was developed for resistance to pesticides and herbicides. They are typically grown for industrial uses, such as biofuels or animal feed, and have been most beneficial for farmers in the developed world. But the next generation could do far more to alleviate hunger. In the labs of agricultural giants such as Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred, as well as public-sector institutions, researchers are developing plants that will provide bigger yields while contending with our changing climate.

Perhaps the most significant development will be drought-tolerant crops. “There’s nothing more important than water in terms of agricultural production,” says Robert Fraley, Monsanto’s executive vice-president and chief technology officer. Rainfall is still crucial for agriculture, and drought is not confined to the driest areas of the planet. Between 2001 and 2002, a severe shortage of rainfall left farmers in Western Canada with dry fields and shrivelled crops, costing the economy billions. Such extreme weather conditions could be more frequent as climate change rolls on.

Monsanto has been working for the past decade on crops that use water more efficiently. The company is currently testing a variety of GM corn in the U.S. that can produce up to 10% more yield under drought conditions than corn without the modification. The corn, thanks to a bacterium called Bacillus subtilis, flourishes even when water is scarce. Considered benign to humans and plants, the bacterium is found in soil, air and water, and has a unique ability to survive in hot and cold climates. Monsanto isolated a gene from the bacteria and found it helped plants cope with drought stress when it was inserted. The corn could be released in the U.S. within two years, and more varieties will follow. “We’re testing and screening hundreds of genes that have the potential to mitigate drought,” Fraley says.

Pioneer is conducting its own trials of drought-tolerant crops, but water efficiency is only the beginning. The company is also investigating genetic modifications to allow crops to cope with heat as the world gets warmer, and, ironically, to cope with colder temperatures, as well. The reason, explains William Niebur, vice-president of crop genetics research and development at Pioneer, is that growing crops in colder temperatures will open up new land for farming and contribute to greater agricultural productivity. “The largest land masses in the world today that are currently underutilized are north of the 45th latitude,” he says. “We’re putting greater emphasis on developing higher-yielding, more productive crop species for the northern land masses of Western Canada and Siberia.”

Potentially closer to development are plants that use fertilizer more efficiently. Nitrogen is a key ingredient in fertilizer, and while it has been instrumental in boosting agricultural output, it is a huge environmental problem. Commercial farming operations use massive amounts of fertilizer each year, causing nitrogen and phosphorous to leach into water systems. Some of the nitrogen the crops do not absorb is converted into nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 310 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Nitrogen is also derived from natural gas, a fossil fuel that will likely become more expensive, putting fertilizer out of reach for farmers in the developing world who can barely afford it today.

A GM crop requiring less nitrogen would not only benefit the environment but also save farmers money. “There’s a clear economic incentive to take action,” says Eric Rey, CEO of Arcadia Biosciences in California. In 2002, Arcadia licensed a gene isolated from barley by the University of Alberta that improved nitrogen use. The company spent millions to demonstrate the trait can work in other crops, and Rey boasts it can slash fertilizer use in half without affecting yield. Arcadia has since licensed the trait to a variety of companies for further testing. Monsanto is working with Arcadia’s gene in canola, Pioneer is trying it out in corn, and a Belgian company is attempting to make it work with sugar beets.

The idea of agriculture giants dabbling in what is still a relatively new and radical technology makes many people nervous, particularly when Monsanto is involved. The company has a reputation as a corporate bully and is fanatical about protecting its intellectual property, to the point of suing farmers for what it views as unauthorized uses of its patented seeds. At a talk last July organized by the Long Now Foundation, Raoul Adamchak, who teaches organic farming at UC Davis in California, argued some of the resistance to genetic modification has to do with the reputation of the companies involved. “If the opposition to genetic engineering is broad spectrum,” he said, “then we’re throwing out the potential to really improve agriculture around the world because we dislike corporations.” The public outcry has also pushed up the regulatory costs to get a GM seed approved, Adamchak went on to say, meaning the institutions that can most easily pursue the technology are corporations. Those high regulatory costs, combined with low returns, tend to keep corporations from developing GM crops for poor countries. Public-private partnerships are generally the only way to address the needs of developing nations.

In February, Pioneer teamed up with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and a handful of other organizations to develop nitrogen-efficient maize for Africa. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development are spending US$19.5 million to fund the research for five years.

The project is spearheaded by Toronto-born Gary Atlin, the associate director for CIMMYT’s global maize program based in Mexico. “African farmers use a fraction of the fertilizer farmers in other regions are able to apply,” he says. Poor distribution and high prices keep synthetic fertilizers out of their hands for the most part. Farmers can use organic matter as a substitute, typically cow dung, but those animals are eating food grown on soil that is already deficient in nutrients, and their waste contributes little to the health of new crops. A nitrogen-efficient crop, however, would make the most out of what little fertilizer is available.

Pioneer will supply the genes for the project, and the company is already developing nitrogen-efficient crops for developed markets. Atlin says the goal is to ultimately increase crop yield by up to 50% in 10 years without having to increase fertilizer. That is in ideal conditions, however. “Where there are drought problems or insect pests, we’d be happy to see a 25% increase,” he says.

Monsanto has its own project with the Gates Foundation underway. Along with CIMMYT and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), researchers are trying to develop water-efficient maize for Africa. Drought is an even larger problem for African farmers than for others. Less than 5% of agriculture on the continent is irrigated, and rainfall can be absent for weeks on end in some countries. Monsanto provided the same gene it is using in its drought-tolerant corn in the U.S. to researchers in Africa, and the first round of maize incorporating the gene will be harvested in South Africa this spring. “When we put this gene in there, we’re expecting to have a boost in yield on average of 25%,” says Daniel Mataruka, executive director of the AATF in Kenya.

That would be a remarkable gain. Yield increases of that level in Africa through genetic engineering are as of yet unproven, and the technology has been overhyped in the past. But Mataruka remains optimistic. “We believe they will be successful,” he says. “Otherwise we would not be wasting our time with them.”

Despite widespread concern, the safety record of genetically modified foods thus far is good. There have been no known human health or environmental problems associated with the technology, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington. But GM crops have been around for only about 15 years, and that is not long enough to fully assess their effect on complex biological and ecological systems. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a non-profit based in Massachusetts, has identified a number of potential risks posed by such crops, ranging from introducing new allergens to the food supply to increasing antibiotic resistance in humans and animals. Another danger is if GM crops designed for increased survival escape cultivation and become weeds. And then, of course, there are risks we can’t anticipate. “The recognition of this possibility does not by itself justify stopping the technology,” according to the UCS, “but does put a substantial burden on those who wish to go forward to demonstrate benefits.”

To that end, the UCS has put work into showing modern plant-breeding techniques can compete with genetic modification technologies. In December, the organization issued a report arguing that plant breeding has improved nitrogen-use efficiency in wheat by 20% to 40% over the past few decades, while genetically engineered varieties have yet to move out of the lab. Some contend there is a danger in devoting research and development dollars to genetic engineering if cheaper, less risky methods to address the same issues exist. But even Monsanto divides its spending between genetic engineering and modern plant breeding. The water-efficient and nitrogent-efficient maize projects in Africa are using plant-breeding methods, as well, but genetic engineering can provide further boosts to productivity.

There are also some situations in which GM technology may be the only solution. Take banana wilt, for example, a devastating bacterial disease wiping out plantations in sub-Saharan Africa. The banana has no natural resistance to the bacteria, and because culinary varieties are propagated vegetatively (meaning without seeds) it is extremely difficult to develop a hybrid through conventional breeding. The AATF is using genetic engineering to create resistance to the bacteria, but even if a solution is found, not every African country allows GM crops to be planted. That may prove counterproductive. “What is urgently required in Africa is first to survive starvation,” Mataruka says. “Trying to block the African farmer from accessing these technologies, you are not allowing them to progress.”

Developing disease-resistance and increasing crop yields are only part of the solution to the world’s food challenges, of course. There are many more problems that need to be addressed. There are issues with pricing, distribution, and even ensuring farmers in developing countries have proper storage facilities for their crops. But the whole process begins with getting food out of the ground. “The idea that wewould back off on improving productivity in a sustainable manner is, for me, immoral,” says Niebur at Pioneer. And while there is no way to be certain about the long-term effects of genetic engineering, the proponents argue the potential reward — helping to provide an adequate supply of food for those who need it most — outweighs any risk. If the world is to increase food production to anything close to what is needed, they say, genetic engineering must play a role. “We’re not in a position to turn down any tools,” Atlin says. Otherwise, Malthus may turn out to be right after all.

With files from Kasey Coholan