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Do we really need next-gen foods?

Bob Berwyn
July 20, 2018

Companies are on the verge of selling lab-grown meat. The new products are touted as environmentally friendly, but is it what consumers want and where exactly are the lines when it comes to genetic engineering?

Plant ecologist Hermann Bürstmayr discusses and examines different types of grain at the BOKU/IFA ag research facility in Tulln, Lower Austria
Image: Bob Berwyn

When a strawberry from Chile and a strawberry from the United States met in a genteel French garden 200 years ago — on a blind date arranged by gardeners who wanted to create a better berry — it was love at first sight.

Previously, imported species from the US state of Virginia hadn't produced much, while the fruits of European varieties were very small. As it turned out, the Chilean genes held the magic ingredient, and nearly every strawberry you buy in the market today comes from that strain.

Luscious strawberries may be among the the tastiest results of genetic tinkering, but they are not the only. Mesopotamians started propagating wild grasses with the biggest seeds 10,000 years ago, which eventually turned them into the crops we now call rice, wheat, barley, oats, millet and rye.

In the fertile floodplain of the Danube river, west of Vienna, farmers have been breeding plants for at least 5,000 years.

Scientists at the Department of Agrobiotechnology research facility in the Vienna University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Tulln, Austria, are tracking about 80 varieties of grains in outdoor plots and greenhouses, in some cases right down to the molecular DNA.

The work matters because about a billion people are malnourished around the world, and ensuring there is enough food for the rapidly growing global population through 2100 and beyond is a big challenge, says plant ecologist Hermann Bürstmayr, standing amidst waist-high test plots of goldening grains.

Read more: Climate change strips nutrients from food crops

In greenhouses, researchers carefully pollinate unique strains of grain, using plastic sheaths to keep the flowers isolated. In nearby labs, the seeds and plants are chemically analyzed, and even sliced and diced down to the cellular level.

Stored jars of seeds.
More than 6,000 varieties of seeds are stored at the Arche Noah seed bankImage: Bob Berwyn

"I'm worried. Global population is increasing, but the amount of land for agriculture is not," Bürstmayr told DW.

"There is no single tool, but there are many adjustments we can make to agricultural systems for ensuring food supplies," he said. "We're decoding the genomes, but do we understand what they're telling us?"

Quantum leap

Working with other international teams, the scientists can alter the fundamental molecular structure of plants with a sharp snip of an accurate new genetic scissor called CRISPR, which has also been touted as a tool for "democratizing" genetic information.

Read more: Gene editing: The key to food security in a warmer world?

The latest advances in genetic technology have revived fundamental ethical debates about human manipulation of genetic material in plants and animals, especially because the discipline is heading into uncharted territory.

From modifying animals to make them more feedlot friendly, to genetically modifying algae and yeast to create lab products that could replace farm-grown food in so-called synthetic biology, genetic engineering is reaching a new level.

Read more: Food from labs for a sustainable future?

Investors are very excited about food that can be patented, says Stacy Caldwell, director of Right to Know, a California-based GMO watchdog group. Products made with the latest gene-modification technologies are fundamentally different and can be patented for profit, she points out.

"The food industry is spending massive amounts of money to convince people that we need high-tech food to feed the world," she tells DW.

"Industrializing food production works for concentrating power and wealth in the hands of a few, but it's not what people are asking for."

Rehashing an old debate

"The concern is the industry is going down the road that it always has in the past," Caldwell says, referring to how the widespread adoption of crops that have been genetically altered for pesticide tolerance have ended up increasing reliance on hazardous pesticides.

In general, technology is still outpacing society's ability to establish effective regulations — and in the absence of those rules, the market becomes the main decider. Some of the latest gene-editing patents are currently being contested in high-stakes court battles.

Strains of wheat
Wheat lab: Researchers are decoding and cataloging a detailed genetic record of the plantsImage: Bob Berwyn

There is still debate about where the exact lines are when it comes to genetic engineering, from "regular" plant breeding to the inter-species insertion of genetic material.

But for Caldwell, new gene-editing techniques should be as regulated as the already accepted types of genetic modification.

Even if scientists aren't adding anything new, the removal of genetic material could trigger unwanted changes, including potential loss of nutritional values, as suggested by some early studies.

"Genes fit within an ecosystem of an organism, and changing one part of that can have unexpected consequences," she says.

"Using this in our food supply before fully understanding it is the last thing we should be doing."

'Rebound effect' for food

When you view the question of secure food supplies at the global level over time, a clear picture emerges from the observed patterns, says Karlheinz Erb, a social ecologist at the University of Vienna.

"There's one striking story: We have very strong rebound effects," he told DW.

"When food production becomes more efficient, the increasing efficiency is over-compensated by increasing consumption."

This "rebound effect" is also known from energy economics: A 10 percent improvement in efficiency might provide only a 9 percent reduction in energy use, since people end up using more if energy is more plentiful.

Erb believes addressing issues around global food solely by steering the production side is a false approach. "We have to look at the consumption side. We can't combat malnutrition by forever producing more."

Like with energy, the more we produce, the more we eat — but the root problem is that production is not distributed evenly around the world.

Meatless burger
Simply consuming less meat and considering alternatives like this plant-based burger could solve most of our food problems without the need for genetic engineeringImage: Reuters/Moving Mountains/M. Michaels

Simply put, the Global North has an overconsumption and waste problem, which is leading to heart disease, obesity and diabetes — also a form of malnutrition. Eliminating global hunger requires a recognition of that imbalance, he said.

Simpler solutions?

A landmark 2016 diagnostic modeling study led by Erb showed that global food supplies for the projected population can be secured without radical genetic intervention, and even without any additional deforestation.

Read more: The world is losing vital forests quicker than ever 

As many other recent studies have concluded, Erb also found that a massive switch to high-yield crops isn't necessary. By for example reducing global meat consumption, "the world population can be fed healthily even with low cropland yields and little cropland expansion," the study concluded.

Read more: Berlin: Vegan capital of the world? 

 The latest findings may inform agricultural policy, including ongoing European Union discussions in the area, says Erb.

Key revisions, including phasing out subsidies for fertilizers and pesticides, and promoting agro-ecology alternatives, would be major steps on the road towards a sustainable food future, he believes.