As a Science and Technology Policy Fellow through the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as a lead on agricultural biotechnology (“ag biotech”) at the State Department, I get plenty of questions from my family and friends, such as “How did this food get made?” and “Is this safe to eat?” Eating is a very personal activity and food is central to our lives—everyone wants to better understand what they are eating and how it got on their plates. Part of my job is to help address these very important questions at the international level.
One of my interests, and a core focus of the U.S. government’s mission overseas, is sustainably and sufficiently feeding our planet. The global population is expected to exceed nine billion people by 2050 and our agricultural systems need to be strong enough to feed everyone. Part of reaching this goal is giving farmers effective tools, especially productive and high-quality seeds. The crops they grow must be resilient to changes in weather patterns, able to resist plant diseases and insect pests, and capable of using less land and water while achieving greater yields. Researchers are avidly developing new seeds with these qualities using a variety of techniques, including the new innovations found in the field of ag biotech.
Ag biotech encompasses a number of techniques that can give plants or animals specific traits that are useful in addressing agricultural challenges. Products created using ag biotech are sometimes called “GMOs” (genetically modified organisms), an unfortunate term that is associated with a lot of misinformation. The unwarranted distrust of ag biotech crops often prevents farmers across the globe from accessing the full range of safe tools needed to address the challenges they face. To address this, I spend a lot of my time sharing what we currently know and what the science tells us.
The global agricultural system has more than 30 years of experience with these foods. There is no solid evidence that ag biotech crops have caused harm to either people or the environment. In contrast, we have clear evidence that people are and will be harmed by lack of food and nutrients. Farmers are on the front-lines of fighting food insecurity across the globe, working to produce more food on less land and using fewer materials—they know what works best for them and their farms. It is vital that farmers be given access to the best tools possible to address and solve problems that they face every day in feeding the world, including pests, diseases, and extreme weather. Ag biotech is one of the tools that allows us to rise to these challenges. We need to look forward, as the lives of billions of people depend upon the choices we make in agriculture, especially as we need to conserve and safeguard a finite, and rapidly dwindling, supply of natural resources.
Already, ag biotech has been used to save the Hawaiian papaya from extinction, while Golden Rice (fortified with Vitamin A) can be used to supplement diets in malnourished population. I am excited as I think of what else this technology can do. Looking to the future, salt-tolerant rice is being researched and could eventually grow in salty waters that result from flooding. Moving onto fruit, scientists are in the process of developing citrus trees that are resistant to invasive bacteria, possibly saving orange and lemon orchards around the world. Soybeans are a very important crop, and there are varieties being designed to have higher protein levels for use in meatless burgers and better livestock feed. These products are all right around the corner and could eventually reach your dinner table, provided that our policies are informed by sound science.
We live in a global economy, which means that one country’s decision can affect trade of goods and services in other countries. Some countries lack sufficient experience or knowledge on ag biotech products, which can result in limited trade and access. To address this, the United States works with other governments, international organizations, and local stakeholders to promote effective policies that ensure ag biotech products are reviewed efficiently and based on the best science available. These efforts help to enhance trade between countries and boost economic growth across the board, ultimately making sure that farmers everywhere have the tools they need and that consumers have access to nutritious, dependable food sources.
I can’t solve food insecurity and world hunger. I can advocate for science-based solutions that can put technology into the hands of those who can.
About the Author: Adam Cornish, Ph.D., is a Science and Technology Policy Fellow through the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Dr. Cornish serves as a Program Analyst in Agricultural Policy Office in the Bureau of Economics and Business Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.