By Tom Parrett
A Nebraska Cornhusker frets as he surveys his drought-stunted crop. A Nigerian yam farmer digs up shrunken tubers. A Costa Rican coffee baron lays off hundreds of workers because a fungus has spoiled his harvest. I planted cherry trees in upstate New York last spring. One summer morning, they were denuded by Japanese beetles.
Such disasters are increasingly common on a planet buffeted by climate change and worldwide commerce, where heat burns crops, soil has been ruined by over-farming and drought, and bugs ride across oceans to feast on defenseless plants. Agronomists have been working on these problems for years, but the rapid population growth of humans makes overcoming these challenges increasingly urgent. If we can’t feed the world, it will eventually feed on us.
The United Nations and experts say global food production will have to double by 2050, at which point the world population is expected to have grown from 7 billion today to well beyond 9 billion. That’s just 35 years away, and there will be no new arable land then. In fact, there probably will be less. For example, 73 million acres of arable land in the U.S. were lost between 2002 and 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA); more was certainly made fallow during the last several years of severe drought. Looking ahead, growing conditions will only get harsher.
The solution, though, appears to be on the way: In 2012, a new tool was invented that revolutionizes how scientists can examine—and manipulate—plant genetic processes. It’s called CRISPR-Cas9, and unlike its predecessors in the world of genetic modification, it is highly specific, allowing scientists to zero in on a single gene and turn it on or off, remove it or exchange it for a different gene. Early signs suggest this tool will be an F-16 jet fighter compared with the Stone Age spear of grafting, the traditional, painstaking means of breeding a new plant hybrid. Biologists and geneticists are confident it can help them build a second Green Revolution—if we’ll let them.
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