A science fiction author in the mid-1970s envisioned a future in which a deteriorating environment and limited resources meant we were all on an algae-based diet. Some 40 years later, three of the top five most pressing, global risks—both in terms of likelihood of occurrence and magnitude of impact—are environmental: extreme weather, natural disasters, and failure to mitigate and adapt to climate change. And it is against this backdrop that we are rapidly approaching the day on which we will need to be able to answer the question “how do you feed 10 billion people?”
This is not, of course, a problem that developed overnight. By the middle of the last century, two schools of thought had emerged. One view was that the only way to feed the planet without wrecking our ecosystem was to forego growing more grain to produce more meat and, instead, “eat lower on the food chain.” The other was that we should use technological advances to increase agricultural yield. The former has been characterized as the perspective of “prophets,” who looked “to decry the consequences of our heedlessness.” The latter? That of “wizards,” unveiling technological fixes.
Advances in agricultural science led to the Green Revolution that began in the 1960s. Over the course of four decades, grain production in developing countries increased three- or four-fold, relying on only one-third of the land that would have otherwise been needed to achieve the same yield. The technological “fixes” of the time included selective crop breeding and crop management. New technology was on the horizon, though, in the form of genetic engineering. Traditionally, this involved inserting a single gene conveying a desirable trait into a parental genome. How? By harnessing a bacteria or a virus that has the naturally occurring capability to move genes from one organism to another. This led, among other things, to transgenic, viral-resistant tobacco, slow-ripening tomatoes and herbicide-resistant soybeans.
Today, we have capabilities that Norman Borlaug could only have imagined. Genome-editing technologies developed in the last decade or so—CRISPR, TALENS and zinc finger nucleases— allow for the introduction of targeted mutations, including site-specific insertions, deletions, or alterations. The advantage over the older, transgenic technologies? Speed and efficiency, certainly. But also the ability to generate an “edited” organism with a genome that is transgene-free. In other words, the resulting organism’s genome looks no different from one that could have been achieved through traditional breeding practices. In a world in which a “non-GMO” label might allow a retailer to seek a premium price—and bloggers like “the Food Babe” have a cult following— this is important.
The first, genetically modified crop was approved in the U.S. more than 20 years ago. Today, most of the corn and cotton produced in this country is engineered to be herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant. An engineered rice strain can provide more Vitamin A than spinach. And we have the option of choosing apples that do not brown, or potatoes that do not bruise. What’s not to like?
No adverse health effects have been observed since GMOs became part of our food sources over two decades ago. Not surprisingly, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that genetically modified food is safe. But only about a third of consumers believe that. The rest remain concerned that genetic modification may change nutritional content, generate allergens, or be otherwise toxic. Will the new, genome editing technologies allay consumer concerns? Only time will tell.
Meanwhile, the FDA recognizes that new, genome editing technologies may require new regulations. It sought public input last year, and is working collaboratively with other federal agencies. On June 6, it announced new efforts to advance biotechnology innovation. An Action Plan for a Biotech Working Group will be released later this year, focusing on:
- Advancing and protecting public and animal health by promoting innovation through an efficient and predictable science- and risk-based regulatory framework;
- Strengthening public outreach and communication through strong, effective and transparent engagement with stakeholders; and
- Increasing engagement with domestic and international partners through coordinated and collaborative actions to support regulatory alignment and efficiency.
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