- Imagine beans that are easier to digest, provide better nutrition and lessens the gaseous side-effects of normal bean consumption.
- How about a corn crop that needs little or no nitrogen fertilizers because it converts nitrogen in the air to nitrogen in the soil.
- Soybeans that produce Omega-3 fatty oils to replace the gross and expensive fish oil capsules that we take.
- Wheat that is free of the gluten that plagues so many suffering from gluten sensitivity
- Drought resistant corn and sugar cane that can turn unusable land into productive farmland.
- Early-yielding tomato’s that grow and ripen in a shorter growing cycle that can be grown in northern climates not usually suited for such a crop
- Hypoallergenic milk that can be consumed by people with milk sensitivities with no side effects
- Tobacco plants that produce food proteins more efficiently than common methods for use in food supplements, additives and animal feeds.
- Corn plants that have longer ears of corn producing one-third more corn per acre increasing production or reducing the land needed to match current production.
These and thousand of other ideas are all projects currently in play by people who work to engineer the food supply for our future. Some Genetic Engineering projects enhance food for flavor or varieties, and some are gearing us up to feed out growing population.
I prefer the term Genetically Engineered food to the term Genetically Modified Organism, it is a more precise description of the work being done it the Biotechnology industry to develop foods for our future.
Feeding the World
By the year 2100, the UN estimates that population may reach an astounding 11 billion people on our planet. The challenge will be to feed all these people using the same or less farmland that feeds our 2019 population of 7.7 billion. Although there is still unused land out there capable of supporting crops, the future use of that land is in fierce competition with non-agricultural uses such as Housing, roads, industry and commerce. Current Agricultural land is also in competition with these non-agricultural land uses as well.
Increasing yield per acre, modifying crops to grow in areas that would not normally be suited to agriculture, development of new food sources, crops that can store for a longer time or stand up to further travel, crops that need less water, fertilizer and pesticides and modifying current crops to be more nutritious are all areas that Genetic Engineering can help with.
Propagation of New Species
For centuries, we have been modifying plants genetically through selective breeding. This method relies on watching current crops for preferable traits and reproducing the plants that display these preferable traits, this is done repeatedly to produce new varieties of the plants and animals that feed us. Selective breeding is slow and relies on random mutations and close observations and while it is responsible for most of what you see on a supermarket shelf, it is inefficient and does not lend itself to fixing specific problems in agriculture in an efficient way.
Inducing mutations through exposing plants to radiation or Induced Mutagenesis, has been used since the 1920s to increase the frequency of mutations in search of desirable traits and is responsible for 2,300 different crop varieties in the world today. This method of propagating new varieties is also inefficient as we are still watching and waiting for random results, most of which are unusable.
In both Crossbreeding and Induced Mutagenesis methods of propagating new species, a desirable trait can be accompanied by undesirable traits because you are changing the entire plant. The sweetest grapes are still useless as a commercial crop if they need more irrigation or fertilization or take too long to ripen.
Genetic Engineering involves changing a specific gene sequence in a plant to produce a targeted result. In simpler terms, it is cutting and pasting gene sequences. Much in the way I can cut and paste a different word into a sentence to change the meaning or output of the sentence, I can edit the genetic material that defines one plant to make it do something that the original plant did not do. There are several different methods of Genetic Engineering in use today and I may expand upon these methods in a future blog.
Unlike the randomness of crossbreeding and mutagenesis, Genetic Engineering is a process where a problem is identified, and technology is applied to design a solution. In my example below, the identified problem could be “Nitrogen fertilizers used in Corn production make it too expensive to produce in large enough quantities to feed third world nations”
One of the Genetic Engineering projects in the works right now that I am quite excited about has to do with introducing nitrogen fixation to corn plants. Nitrogen fixation is the process where a plant can remove nitrogen from the air and place it in the soil. The plant can then use this nitrogen and you no longer need to add nitrogen fertilizers to your field. Currently all Legume crops have this ability, peas, soybeans, peanuts etc. But Botanists have discovered a species of corn in Mexico that can fixate nitrogen.
The solution to my problem statement above may be to identify the genetic material responsible for nitrogen fixation in corn and introduce it through Genetic Engineering into commercially viable corn varieties to make a new variety that can be grown reduced or zero dependency on the addition of nitrogen fertilizers.
The future of Genetic Engineering in Agriculture is twofold.
Identifying specific problems inherent to an area that limit agricultural production and coming up with New varieties of crops that meet the growing conditions and other farming limitations of that area.
Improving existing crops for flavor, nutritional content, appearance and any other desirable traits.
Genetic engineering, when paired with all of the other technologies emerging in agriculture will indeed feed our growing population and some day may even yield easily digestible beans that reduce flatulence as well.
Sources and further reading:
Federation of American Scientists – Case studies in Agricultural Biosecurity
Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN – Crop Production and Resource Use
UN World Population Prospects – 2019
National Center for Biotechnology Information – Methods and Mechanisms for Genetic Manipulation of Plants, Animals, and Microorganisms
UNIVERSITY of WISCONSIN–MADISON – Corn that acquires its own nitrogen identified, reducing need for fertilizer. https://news.wisc.edu/corn-that-acquires-its-own-nitrogen-identified-reducing-need-for-fertilizer/