Could genetically modified crops hold the key to solving world hunger?
Feed the world – How biotechnology and food security go hand in hand
According to the U.N., the world’s population is expected to increase to 9.7 billion by 2050. Coupled with unprecedented levels of food consumption and the predicted increase in extreme weather events due to climate change, producing enough food to meet the demands of a rapidly growing population is one of our biggest challenges.
But, feeding the world isn’t just a problem of the future – it’s a problem now.
It is shocking to think that nearly one in three people in the world (2.37 billion) did not have access to adequate food in 20201. Moreover, close to 12% of the global population was severely food insecure in 2020; equating to 148 million more than in 20191.
The increase in hunger serves as a stark reminder of the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as highlighting the instability of food security. However, it is poignant to remember the billions of people who go hungry every year with or without a global pandemic.
Solving the problem of world hunger isn’t straight forward. And, it must account for the extremely high and persistent levels of inequality through political and social change.
Biotechnology and food security have the potential to become intrinsically linked. Increasing crop yield and quality – now and in the future – forms the basis of ensuring global food security; a challenge that could be met by agricultural biotechnology (AgBiotech).
Cultivating a culture of biotechnology
What exactly is AgBiotech? It’s a broad term, often overlapping with “green biotechnology”, used to refer to a variety of tools and techniques for improving agricultural practices by analyzing or manipulating living organisms and systems.
AgBiotech includes traditional practices such as selective breeding techniques, but also encompasses modern advances such as -omics strategies, molecular breeding, and genetic engineering.
Indeed, from genomics and transcriptomics to proteomics and metabolomics, -omics technologies are equipping scientists with strategies to decode the underlying mechanisms controlling plant growth, structure and composition in relation to their environment. In turn, this information can be used to accelerate breeding programs, hastening our ability to generate stress-resistant, high-yielding and nutritious crop varieties.
Cream of the crop – selecting the best crops with omics technologies
Genomics has provided a gold-mine of information for plant breeders. Specifically, next generation sequencing (NGS) lays the foundation for marker-assisted breeding strategies; the use of DNA markers associated with desirable traits to select a cultivar for breeding (Figure 1).
A typical workflow starts with sequencing the genomes of crop varieties. Through various bioinformatic approaches, developers can then link specific genes to important plant characteristics; like taste, yield, and pest resistance. Ultimately, this results in the identification of molecular markers that can be used to inform the selection of quality varieties.
More recently, research has branched out into using other -omics technologies to inform selection by prediction of agronomically important crop phenotypes. For example, metabolomics offers a direct method to assess the features of a crop that are relevant to biological function.
Simply put, while genomics tells you that a plant has the potential to display a particular phenotype, metabolomics can tell you if a crop is actually harnessing that potential. Consequently, researchers have used metabolomics to predict phenotypic performance in several model species2, helping reduce the gap between phenotype and genotype, and improving precision breeding.
But how can this be used to help achieve global food security?
The main attraction of molecular breeding is that it dramatically minimizes the ‘wait and see’ period associated with traditional plant breeding. Therefore, developers can get novel, potentially high-yielding and beneficial crop varieties to market faster – reducing the yield gap and, ultimately, feeding more mouths.
However, it’s not always the best tool for the job! When developers want to introduce very specific traits into a plant – especially when the phenotype is controlled by one or a few genes – there’s another more suitable biotechnological tool at their disposal.
Super crops – genetically engineering future-proof plants
Silencing, promoting, adding, or removing specific genes is a concept we’ve all become more familiar with in modern times – especially as scientists. This is a practice that is now increasingly applied in AgBiotech.
Through genetic engineering, developers can tinker with crop genomes to yield ‘super’ varieties – even those that stand in defiance against climate change.
There are various strategies that have been developed to alter genomes. Among these techniques, CRISPR-Cas based genome editing has brought about a paradigm shift in genetically modified (GM) crop technology because it allows the introduction, deletion, or suppression of genes in a highly precise and targeted way.
One of the most worrying concerns of climate change is its influence over the spread of pests and pathogens, which can diminish and decimate crop yield. However, armed with CRISPR-Cas technology, developers have introduced pest and disease resistance into agriculturally important crops.
Additionally, extreme events such as drought, flooding, and heatwaves are predicted to increase in both occurrence and intensity due to climate change. However, CRISPR technology has opened the opportunity for hardier crops that can flourish in even the harshest environments, display resistance to an array of pests and diseases, and even require less fuel, labor, fertilizer, and water (Table 1).
|Table 1. The different ways to use CRISPR-Cas technology for engineering plants with resistance to biotic/abiotic stressors|
|CRISPR Method||Biotic Stress||Example||Reference|
|Introduction of CRISPR-Cas9 system into plant genome.||Tomato yellow leaf curl virus (TYLCV)||Engineered plants that reliably express the CRISPR/Cas9 machinery targeting TYLCV, which remained active across multiple generations.||Tashkandi et al. (2018)3|
|Editing host susceptible genes||Pseudomonas syringae, Phytophthora capsica, and Xanthomonas spp||Used the CRISPR-Cas9 system to inactivate the DMR6 (downy mildew resistant 6) ortholog in tomato and found that dmr6 mutants showed disease resistance against various pathogens.||Thomazella et al. (2016)4|
|CRISPR mediated resistance gene insertion.||Herbicide||Inserted EPSP synthase, the common target of the herbicide glyphosphate, into rice using CRISPR-Cas9. Rice demonstrated herbicide tolerance.||Li et al. (2016)5|
|CRISPR mediated promoter insertion.||Drought stress||Used the CRISPR-Cas9 system to insert an active promoter in front of endogenous maize genes (co-ordinating ethylene responses) to increase its expression. Transgenic plants demonstrated increase yield under drought stress condition.||Shi et al. (2017)6|
Remediation is the remedy
Land degradation has accelerated during the 20th and 21st centuries and among other consequences, has had a negative impact on food production. However, genetically engineered plants have the potential to give new life to unusable land.
Through a process known as phytoremediation, plants and microbes can reduce the concentrations or toxic effects of contaminants in soil.
Although some plants have a natural aptitude for phytoremediation, genetic engineering has shown promise for improving their abilities. For example, to increase heavy metal accumulation, genes involved in the uptake, translocation, and sequestration of heavy metals have been introduced and overexpressed in various plant varieties7.
Ultimately, the result is the improved soil quality at polluted sites and consequently, the increased spatial opportunity for food production.
Coming to Fruition
World hunger has become such a major crisis that food is at the core of the United Nations sustainable development goals8. In fact, goal 2 aims to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”. Included in the UN’s multi-pronged approach is the use of agricultural and technical innovations – and this will inevitably include the use of biotechnology.
While biotechnology and food security may go hand in hand from a scientific perspective, simply having and utilizing biotechnological innovations is not enough.
Attitudes towards the use of biotechnology, particularly GM products, are mixed. Some of the concerns associated with GM crops have some scientific grounding; such as the potential for transfer of novel traits to wild relatives or environmental effects on wildlife.
These can be addressed by comprehensive risk assessments to evaluate the possibilities and minimize potential harmful consequences. However, efforts to communicate and educate consumers and legislators regarding the benefit of these technologies is essential to quelling many unfounded concerns.
Additionally, to meet the UN sustainability goal of ending hunger and all forms of malnutrition, a multi-faceted approach is needed that encompasses the socio-economic factors affecting food security. Biotechnology is just a part of the puzzle – but just how big that puzzle piece is, remains to be seen.
If you are developing a study and looking for -omics support, discuss a project with us today.
- FAO. Global agriculture towards 2050. (2009).
- Alseekh, S. & Fernie, A. R. Using Metabolomics to Assist Plant Breeding. Methods Mol. Biol. 2264, 33–46 (2021).
- M, T., Z, A., F, A., A, S. & MM, M. Engineering resistance against Tomato yellow leaf curl virus via the CRISPR/Cas9 system in tomato. Plant Signal. Behav. 13, (2018).
- Thomazella, D. P. de T. et al. Loss of function of a DMR6 ortholog in tomato confers broad-spectrum disease resistance. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 118, (2021).
- Li, J. et al. Gene replacements and insertions in rice by intron targeting using CRISPR–Cas9. Nat. Plants 2016 210 2, 1–6 (2016).
- J, S. et al. ARGOS8 variants generated by CRISPR-Cas9 improve maize grain yield under field drought stress conditions. Plant Biotechnol. J. 15, 207–216 (2017).
- Fasani, E., Manara, A., Martini, F., Furini, A. & DalCorso, G. The potential of genetic engineering of plants for the remediation of soils contaminated with heavy metals. Plant. Cell Environ. 41, 1201–1232 (2018).
- THE 17 GOALS | Sustainable Development. https://sdgs.un.org/goals.