Essay: Human involvement in crop development is necessary

John Purcell, head of Vegetables R&D for Bayer, was leading the conversation on plant breeding on a tour of Bayer's research facility in Woodland, Calif., in August. (Planet Forward)

The world population is projected to reach 8.6 billion by 2030, and 9.8 billion by 2050, according to a 2017 United Nations report. That’s nearly 10 billion people for this planet to shelter, 10 billion people for this planet to heat, 10 billion people for this planet to feed. Sustaining a food supply for the planet’s growing population is one of the biggest challenges the world faces, both today and looking towards the future.

The farming industry has already begun finding more sustainable farming techniques to combat the high food demand. The Morning Star Company is an agribusiness and food processing company that embodies sustainable farming. This California-based company specializes in tomato products, primarily paste, and has developed numerous techniques in the processing of their crops that not only benefit the company itself, but has a positive impact on other agriculture around them.

Morning Star harvests as close to 100% of their tomatoes as possible. Since the company primarily makes paste, they are able to use the green tomatoes that were not quite ripe when it was time to harvest, according to Morning Star employee Marc Haywood.

Tractor pulling truck trailers filled with tomatoes
In the field of a Morning Star supplier, tomatoes rushed through a harvester to fill a truck trailer. When one trailer was filled, they'd hook up another, then cart them out of the field with a tractor, kicking up dust along the way. (Planet Forward)

Once in the processing plant, the company has a recycling water system to empty the field trucks and transport the crop around the facility. Morning Star also makes great use of their byproducts; plant waste is used to fertilize their fields or transported to local farms for no profit to be used as animal feed. These types of sustainable practices are crucial, and will need to spread throughout the industry moving forward.

While traditional farming progressions are a necessity in creating a sustainable food supply for the world, these advances alone won’t be enough. Genetically engineered and modified crops will need to become more commonplace in order to feed the planet.

The terms “genetically engineered” and “genetically modified” are now commonly used in supermarkets and coffee house conversations, it is possible that the terms are not clearly defined by their users.

According to Keith Edmisten, Ph.D., a professor of Crop Science at NC State University, as reported in a 2016 study, “Genetic modification refers to a range of methods (such as selection, hybridization, and induced mutation) used to alter the genetic composition of domesticated plants and animals to achieve a desired result.

“Genetic engineering is one type of genetic modification that involves the intentional introduction of a targeted change in a plant, animal, or microbial gene sequence to achieve a specific result.”


At the Bayer research farm in Woodland, Calif., this chart helped to break down the plant breeding process and provided examples. (Planet Forward)

Accepting genetically engineered and modified foods by the public would be a huge step toward a sustainable food supply. The daunting task of feeding the planet is highlighted by Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak in their book “Tomorrow’s Table” (2018): “The world faces an enormous challenge. Food production needs to rise by 50% by 2050 in order to feed the growing population, which will expand from the current 7.6 billion to an estimated 10 billion by mid-century—the equivalent of adding the population of two Chinas.”

This harsh reality will need to be combated with serious scientific advances, both when manufacturing seeds and the actual farming of crops.

While a common argument against GMOs include the fact that the seeds are more expensive, leaving corporate farms to run family-owned operations out of business, farms on any level of production can, and are, benefiting from growing modified crops. Farmers are able to grow crops that are drought-resistant so they don’t lose their fields during a dry spell, or insect-resistant crops so they don’t have to spray harmful pesticides. Seed companies are constantly developing modifications to help farmers maximize their yields.


Bayer research associate Pat Hogan explains how a lab can speed up traditional plant breeding to successfully breed in a desired trait or traits more quickly, rather than waiting for multiple planting seasons to produce a new hybrid. (Planet Forward)

John Purcell, head of Vegetables R&D for Bayer (the largest seed producer in the world), says they focus on three aspects when modifying an organism: protection in the field to prevent loss, ship-ability of the crop, and the product’s shelf life. Pursuing these characteristics through advanced breeding technology will be crucial for the planet moving forward, in terms of the growing population as well as climate change. The agriculture industry, “will have to continue to find solutions as agriculture will be monumentally impacted by climate change,” Purcell said.

Not only can genetically modified crops maximize and enhance farms efficiency and yield, it has already proven to save an industry. The papaya crop, a staple in Hawaiian culture, would have been wiped out of the islands due to disease had it not been for genetically engineered seeds. According to “Tomorrow’s Table,” ringspot virus had devastated the Hawaiian papaya fields in the 1990s when there was not currently a method to control the virus.

Dennis Gonsalves and his team are credited with developing a virus-resistant papaya seed which was distributed to local growers at no cost. The genetically engineered papaya produced a yield that was 20 times higher than the traditional papaya crop. The Hawaiian industry recovered and flourished after the introduction of the new seeds, and production grew from 26 million pounds to 40 million pounds of papaya from 1998 to 2001, according to Gonsalves.

various colored watermelons
Watermelons are a great example of breeding for different traits: Some are bred for flavor, some for seeds (or lack there of), and some for durability after being cut. (Planet Forward)

Health is another frequent argument against genetically modified crops. There is a public misconception that GMO’s and genetically engineered crops are dangerous to eat- this is a widely believed notion that is largely due scare propaganda from both food companies and organic activists. Apart from being approved by the FDA, there have been zero reports of health hazards related to genetically engineered or modified crops.

“Just to be clear, there has never been a single reputable, peer-reviewed study that has found any link between the consumption of genetically modified foods and adverse health effects,” wrote Aaron Larsen, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. “Perhaps more importantly, there is no proposed mechanism that can explain why such a link could exist.”

It seems that the idea that GMOs are harmful has been inflated and pushed by propaganda and unnecessary food labeling. While it is impossible to prove a food is safe, GMOs on the market have been FDA approved and have a clean record when it comes to public health.

Not only are GMO and genetically engineered crops safe to eat, there are situations around the world where these crops are needed to nurture and benefit populations. A prime example of this is Golden Rice. This rice was engineered to contain higher levels of carotenoids, which are precursors to vitamin A in order to help populations that are vitamin-A deficient — particularly Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines, according to “Tomorrow’s Table.” Introducing rice that is high in vitamin A is crucial, and potentially life-changing in these regions. One in five preschool aged children are vitamin A-deficient in Bangladesh, according to the World Health Organization’s vitamin A-deficiency database, as reported by The Daily Star.

Feeding a growing humanity is a reality that the planet needs to face. Genetically modified and engineered crops will be necessary to provide a food supply for our population in the coming years. Not only are these crops safe to eat, but they can benefit everyone involved in the process.

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