GMO Scientists Could Save the World From Hunger, If We Let Them

May 25, 2015

ROBERT PRATTA/REUTERS

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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24 comments on “GMO Scientists Could Save the World From Hunger, If We Let Them

  • Giving Monsanto absolute control of the world’s food supply is what is really means to widely adopt GMO. They go together. That is why there is so much resistance to GMO, not because of distrust of the technology. It is one of the world’s worst behaved corporations.



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  • 2
    aroundtown says:

    I will likely make someone angry but it needs to be said. The science we desperately need is finding out how to thwart the religious brain proposing the “be fruitful and multiply” dogma. In my neck of the woods you see baby carriages pushed by parents with 8 or 10 kids in tow, additionally in the cast-system you see large families utilized as a security net, having lots of children secures your needs when your old and can no longer work and your government doesn’t care. These are situations that add pressure on the whole but are usually ignored. Catholic policies are daft regarding contraception but they continue to deny it year after year, no one stands up to say enough is enough with that thinking. Contraception should be the one thing that is free to all women of the world, and could easily be afforded, but the same old religious barriers always get in the way.

    How is it rational to have these large families in a world of 7.2 billion were science has already determined that we are crossing the un-sustainable threshold for feeding the world populace. I had myself sterilized in my early twenties after having one child but that was a pathetic gesture in light of present population pressures. I am not against children but we need to look beyond our immediate wants and needs and see that we belong to a world community.

    We will all suffer from strife and disruption if we continue to overlook the bigger picture. It is just a matter of time but it is already in play in some parts of the world. The Syrian conflict isn’t all about religion as some would have you believe, because the truth is there were other triggers prior to the conflict. I will post a quick link and there are more like it. Climate change and drought was involved and this is going to continue. We can’t feed people on the old agrarian model with climate change affecting year to year reliability like it is in California, and impoverished nations won’t be able to adapt due to cost pressures.

    In my opinion GMO is the least of our worries right now, waking up and doing something about climate change should be the focus but the unfortunate truth is this – a limited few in control could give a damn about it all.

    http://in-cyprus.com/syria-war-drought-link/



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  • Roedy
    May 25, 2015 at 4:48 pm

    Giving Monsanto absolute control of the world’s food supply is what is really means to widely adopt GMO.

    There is a new development on their GM glyphosate-resistant “Round-up-Ready” cereal crops!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-32677411

    Colombia to ban coca spraying herbicide glyphosate

    The decision follows a warning by the World Health Organization (WHO) that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic”.



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  • So instead of addressing the actual problem, you waste all of your energies and a pile of time on blocking and undermining what is likely to be a vital sector in providing for human well being. Well done. /sarcasm

    Seriously, the problem is that Monsanto has a well earned reputation as vicious corporate assholes so why not attack the failures in the legal system that permits them to be so? Oh that’s right, I forgot. The changes needed to reform the legal code to fix this problem can’t be expressed in a sound bite, won’t fit on a t-shirt and require a lot of actual, you know, knowledge and hard work to do. So much easier to blather on about how GMO’s are poisoning us all (despite the fact we’ve been eating them for centuries) and that only by blocking these heinous seeds of doom can the world be saved.



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  • This is getting boring now.
    In a few liner comment: the problem is not GMOs, yes there are hippies who think those plants will give us two heads but they were also thinking that the would would have ended in 2012 (how do you feel now?). The problem is that, as correctly pointed out by the article, this is an issue that concerns the whole human kind, therefore so does the knowledge and research to solve it and, perhaps even more importantly, the fruits of such research and knowledge must belong to the whole human kind. No licences, no fees, no patents locking out that knowledge and that research and absolutely no monopoly of a group of humans over a resource that must belong to all of us. Full stop.

    …Or, rather, semicolon: there are some environmental concerns about GMO related activities, such as the pesticides used and the reduction of biodiversity and, I might add, the possibility of doing to pests the same we did to bacteria with tha abuse of antibiotics (so yes, we might reach 9 bilions in 35 years, if superbugs don’t eat the most of us, which is not science fiction but a very plausible scenario).



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  • More on the “we’ll be 9 millions and we need to grow more crops!” kinda argument:
    It’s being said that the output of the crop fields could already feed in excess of 11 billions of people… so why do we need to increase our total output even further, if we could feed another 4 billions who aren’t born yet? The answer is: much of that output goes into feeding livestock. So chicken and cattle, mostly.

    Now, I don’t want to advocate vegetarianism or veganism, but perhaps having red meat every day, two times a day is a bit too much. And it is a bit too much even from a health perspective -and, by the way, the same goes for fish: a reasonable quantity is good, too much is bad. Both for you and for the oceans… and that’s actually a very serious concern: overfishing.

    So, perhaps, we may consider fixing our habits and bring them a bit more in line with things like how our bodies would need to be fueled, which is not with two big macs a day, before selling ourselves to the promises of Monsanto & co. It would be cheaper, and also the environment would thank. So: cut it down to one or two high quality steaks a week, perhaps, and maybe all the need of increasing production would disappear.

    That is not to say that genetic research is not welcome: on the contrary, if efficiency gets boosted, fields could actually shrink, freeing up stolen habitats for endangered species (or humans, if we don’t know where to put ourselves). The caveat is: I want that knowledge to be freely available to every single human on this planet, and so must be its fruits. Because this is not Monstanto’s (or the like) problem, it’s humanity’s problem -thus the skill to solve it and the possibility to do so must also belong to the whole of humanity.



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  • Muljinn
    May 26, 2015 at 12:08 am

    So instead of addressing the actual problem, you waste all of your energies and a pile of time on blocking and undermining what is likely to be a vital sector in providing for human well being.

    Or alternatively a set of expensive monumental disasters.

    The changes needed to reform the legal code to fix this problem can’t be expressed in a sound bite, won’t fit on a t-shirt and require a lot of actual, you know, knowledge and hard work to do.

    That is certainly true. Unfortunately the strict safety regulations are not what the industries or the politicians promoting GMO have in mind!

    They can’t even make regulations or quarantine work, to prevent the casual spreading of imported invasive species, let alone manage any new ones accidentally created by GM.

    The most widely referenced paper
    (Pimental et al. 2005) on this issue
    reports that invasive species cost the
    United States more than $120 billion in
    damages every year.

    The agro-chemical and intensive farming industries, have an appalling record on the safe responsible use of science. – 80% of antibiotic production still goes into the feed of healthy animals despite 50 years of warnings about cumulative antibiotic resistance in pathogens.

    I cannot see an intelligent basis for the commercial spread of GM products while the industry is still campaigning to operate without the fail-safes and safety mechanisms enforcible.
    In the mean time a precautionary approach should be adopted.

    Each product needs to be evaluated, and its safe use in the environment tested – not just the safe consumption of the end product.

    You will see from my earlier post, that recent research indicates, glyphosate, (like DDT before it) which has been extensively spayed on or near, food crops all over the world, looks as if it is carcinogenic!



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  • Syrian conflict […] climate change…

    This all reminds me a bit of an old show called ‘Connections’.

    Not literally, but how if one thread is pulled, there go the others. Even a small group of rare Bald Ibis, residing in the overtaken town of Palmyra, are at risk.



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  • That’s exactly it. There is enough food to go around; there has been for a long time. The problem is human and corporate greed, war (usually religious but not exclusively), transportation and other issues. But it’s not that we’re lacking food.



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  • This is only a temporary solution. Until the population starts reducing it is a loosing battle.
    It’s also not just the food supply but water and existence for some of the other life on the planet!
    Not trying to be negative just honest.
    Education on population control is far more important but sadly not talked about because of religious, tribal or social taboos.
    The planet is not getting any bigger!



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  • Organic/Anti-GMO/March Against Monsanto are just another aspect of the anti-intellectual bias in human nature. To fear and distrust what we do not understand, From the Tower of Babel, to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the Terminator.
    GMO’s potential isn’t just in growing more food, it’s also about growing more nutritious food. Golden Rice. Potatoes that provide protein as well as starch. Potatoes that don’t producer carcinogens when they’re peeled and left out.
    And seriously,saying “everybody should just go vegan, that would save the world” is unrealistic. Meat and dairy are old, long-established artifacts in most cultures that aren’t going away anytime soon.



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  • 15
    aroundtown says:

    Thanks for putting that on my radar bonnie, I will try to find that at my library. Looked at your link and my first impression was how spectacular the diversity of shape and form is in birds. My second, was how awful it would be to lose the species due to an ignorant horde. Let us hope they avoid the immediate pressures.



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  • 16
    aroundtown says:

    It’s also not just the food supply but water and existence for some of the other life on the planet!

    Thanks for that Mbee, acknowledgment of other life forms and their needs are important too. It’s not all about us and our needs only. Glad you put that on the table.



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  • Brian
    May 26, 2015 at 6:33 pm

    Organic/Anti-GMO/March Against Monsanto are just another aspect of the anti-intellectual bias in human nature.

    Not really!
    While there are hippies who do not understand science shouting about GMO there are also sponsored media pro GMO propagandists who pretend that the the ecologists who warn of the serious dangers and of the disreputable record of the some of the companies involved are just hippies.

    The anti-intellectuals are those who are mindless cheerleaders for or against GMO, who have no understanding of the implications of its use, and consequently only focus on a single aspect of its application to the exclusion of everything else.

    To fear and distrust what we do not understand,

    There are of course those who fear the predictable consequences of things they understand only too well – such as the potential to accidentally engineer invasive species, to increase the use of carcinogenic herbicides, or to unbalance ecosystems on which planetary systems depend.



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  • 18
    aroundtown says:

    Thanks Stafford,

    Used Duck Duck Go, but it got me the information.

    Norman Ernest Borlaug was an American biologist, humanitarian and Nobel laureate who has been called “the father of the Green Revolution”, “agriculture’s greatest spokesperson” and “The Man Who Saved A Billion Lives”

    Another individual I wasn’t aware of. Thanks for the nudge to look him up.



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  • 19
    Kenneth says:

    The thing is, there IS enough food. In fact, for 10,000 years, since the advent of totalitarian agriculture, the amount of food we produce worldwide has always sustained population growth. Humans were around for hundreds of thousands to millions of years with a stable population just like most species, until that point when our current taker culture was implemented. Since that time our population has grown exponentially, mainly due to the production of food, and spurred by technological advancements that are part and parcel of this culture. In 2000 we hit 6 billion. That was a doubling from 1960 when we hit 3 billion, which was a doubling from 1900 when we were at 1.5 billion, down the line to the beginning of civilization. This means we will likely reach 12 billion folks well before 2040, especially if we produce enough food. We’re in the water and it’s beginning to boil, but when will it be at a state where we realize the danger?



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  • Mbee
    May 26, 2015 at 3:04 pm
    .
    This is only a temporary solution. Until the population starts reducing it is a losing battle.
    It’s also not just the food supply but water and existence for some of the other life on the planet!

    Indeed! While it is not a GM issue, the commercialism behind GM issues, and escalation of population and levels of consumption, is already causing downgrading of water, air, and food resources, for humans as well as wildlife.

    http://www.nrdc.org/health/effects/mercury/sources.asp
    Each year power plants and other sources create tons of mercury pollution, which makes its way into our homes and bodies in fish.

    Mercury pollution can make its way to oceans and waterways, contaminating fish and seafood, and accumulating in higher concentrations as it makes its way up the food chain.

    Subsistence and sports fishermen who eat their catch can be at a particularly high risk of mercury poisoning if they fish regularly in contaminated waters. Across the United States, mercury pollution has contaminated 18 million acres of lakes, estuaries, and wetlands (43 percent of the total), and 1.4 million river miles. From 2006 to 2008, the number of lake acres under advisory increased by 18 percent, and the number of river miles increased by 52 percent. And many waterways have not even been tested. In 2008, all 50 states issued fish consumption advisories, warning citizens to limit how often they eat certain types of fish caught in the state’s waters because they are contaminated with mercury.



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  • In the sixth comment Aroundtown strikes pure gold, and everyone sits listless like octogenarians in an Alzheimers ward wondering ” whad he say?” The article tell us exactly what the problem is by implication as clearly as Hitler told the world what he was going to do to Europe in Mein Kampf. Nobody listens…

    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)

    The problem is not food shortage but overpopulation. So what should we do? Redouble our efforts to squeeze out GMOs? Grab the mop when the clogged bathtub is overflowing in front of our eyes without first turning off the spigot. Load the musket for one last wild shot before the human flood over-runs us?

    Look at the title photo. Ten people in the foreground blotting out the fertile field behind them. Now put 10 billion more people off camera standing in front of them, demanding the fresh water that waters the field, demanding that “affordable housing,” shopping malls, restaurants and cineplexes be built on this valuable land presently useless for real human needs -habitation, commerce and entertainment. Note the developer and the farmer just outside the frame shaking hands that will transform all this organic lettuce into monetary lettuce and turn the verdant field into a swarm of human sewer rats.

    Slightly editing the title, we are still given the hope of our religion: “Scientists Could Save the World.”
    Until the world’s people start to exercise rational reproductive judgement using science as an aid through the universal distribution of contraception backed up by abortion, until the world’s people implement a collective strategy to stabilize then reduce global population, then Science in the abstract will not save us anymore than Jesus.



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  • Just keep the green revolutions coming in order to feed the extra billions of mouths in Africa and Asia. What could possibly go wrong?

    Just make sure we don’t thereby needlessly increase the scale of an already catastrophically great potential crash in future food production levels when crops eventually fail.

    How about the stable populations of Europe, America and the west generally, holding back on enabling global hyper population growth for a while?



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  • 24
    Clayton says:

    Human diet, until relatively recently, has been majority meat, some berries and nuts. All vegetables and grains have been severely modified to become edible. It probably started when people began to season their meat and artificially modified vegetation through selective planting. The mustard plant gave us cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, etc. Corn and wheat are grass and so on. Vegetarianism is about as unnatural diet a human can have.



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