Growing up in a farming community made me passionate about farmers and farming. But you don’t need to grow up on a farm to understand that food and water are at the core of our survival and more vital than any other issue. Yet, many people would be surprised to know that only about nine countries in this world, besides a few smaller nations, are considered self-sufficient in food production. These include Canada, Australia, Argentina, Russia, India, Myanmar, Thailand, the United States, and – alone in Europe – France.
Most countries need to buy food for their people, feed for their farm animals, and/or fuel (biofuel) for their vehicles from abroad. Trade will always thrive in an open, rule-based global system, as no country can produce all the different types of food it consumes or like to consume. Having an open society that promotes innovation helps ensure robust food systems in the United States and elsewhere.
For innovation to flourish we need diversity. Cultivating different crops and diversifying locally suitable varieties help protect food systems against sudden natural or man-made shocks, including pest/disease outbreaks. There are more than 50,000 edible plant species, but about 75 percent of our calories come from just three crops (rice, wheat, and corn). More than 90 percent comes from just 15 crops. Even within a specific crop type, we rely on very few varieties. Bananas are a great example. There are actually more than 1,000 different varieties of bananas. In the 1950s the banana variety Gros Michel, which was a staple for many small economies, was wiped out by a fungal disease. It was replaced at the time by the Cavendish variety, which is also now under threat from a fungal disease. Many such examples make clear the need to have the ability to maintain diverse food sources.
One solution used by plant breeders is to introduce new and desirable traits into different crops and cultivated varieties. Introducing a new trait into a desired variety can take years of breeding, sometimes decades, once we identify a suitable trait. The process can take even longer, more than 150 years, for trees like mangoes or cherries to develop. Changing conditions due to climate change compel us to find ways to act as quickly as possible. Many crop varieties developed for warmer climates in the United States and elsewhere are not performing as before. We need innovation to develop new varieties to lock up carbon and mitigate shifts in temperature, growth, and disease. Developing new varieties to suit the taste and/or other parameters, including resistance to specific pests, for new target markets is increasingly in demand.
And here is where opportunity meets need. Employing innovations in food systems, especially in plant breeding through biotechnology, such as genetic engineering or genome editing, can make food systems more efficient. Genetic engineering enjoys overwhelming support among scientists, including 158 Nobel laureates (and growing), the American Medical Association, and more than 275 scientific institutions and organizations around the world. Genome editing is beneficial and used by almost all stakeholders – big and small – including universities, small start-ups, and large industrial producers. The use of genome editing by agile small- and medium- enterprises (SMEs) is creating well-paying jobs and producing value-added products for expanded niche markets.
Genome editing is driving opportunities globally to address sustainable food systems. A sugarcane variety that resists drought in Indonesia and a rice variety that tolerates longer duration submergence in flood water are just two examples. Some varieties of genome-edited rice have demonstrated that its resistance to floods also boosts its ability to recover from droughts.
Likewise, genetic engineering is being employed to supplement our diets with needed micro/macro-nutrients like iron, zinc, or vitamins (e.g., vitamin A supplementation in Golden Rice), and many such nutrients via biofortification. This also increases the efficiency of our food system and has other positive applications. The same genetic engineering of plants can be used for the remediation of soils contaminated with heavy metals to help in extraction (phytoextraction) of metals/metaloids. These technologies give us tremendous abilities to address challenges and enable a sustainable future with a much expanded toolkit. Innovation promotes competition via a feed-back loop. It creates wealth and endless new possibilities to solve problems.
These technologies can help to generate meaningful employment by making farming a viable profession that can sustain healthy and prosperous communities with a thriving middle class in America and beyond. But to ensure that viable technologies and products capable of delivering benefits to large segments of the global population make it onto the marketplace, we need policy makers and citizens around the world to opt in to making that possible – that means adopting policies that enable the technology, following sound science, and protect intellectual property rights.
I personally miss many tasty foods from the Indian subcontinent that I was very fond of while growing up there. The list includes the legendary mangoes and hilsa fish. In the same way, I miss American cherries, blueberries, wines, cheeses, and many other foods when I visit my native place. I feel frustrated that many of my friends and relatives there cannot taste those foods that I tell them about when I crave them. It would be even more satisfying to witness a happy and prosperous farming community in the United States and in other countries, including the Indian subcontinent, if people were able to buy – and could afford – any food they crave. Embracing innovation would help all of us to reach that goal.
About the Author: Jayanta Chatterjee is a Franklin Fellow working in the Office of Agricultural Policy (AGP) in the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs (EB). Dr. Chatterjee earned his Ph.D. in plant molecular biology and agricultural biotechnology from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, Switzerland.