Finding the Urgency in Food Security
Friday, January 20, 2017
As Global Head of Trait Research for Bayer with 20 years of wheat research behind me, I know just how much time it takes to solve some of the challenges facing agriculture. One of the biggest concerns I work with is food production and security. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), “food production will have to increase by 60 percent through 2050 to feed the world population.”
Because of these time crunches, there is a constant sense of urgency about our responsibility to help feed the world. While traditional wheat breeding has been doing a fantastic job over the past 100 years, wheat breeding alone will not be able to continue the necessary yield increase to feed the growing population. When you look at the evolution of the wheat yield since 1995, it’s started to plateau. Classical breeding needs a boost to continue the increase we need to have if we look at the demand in 20 years. So this is why, I say okay, now let’s try to see how with a trait approach and biotechnology or whatever technology we may have and is scientifically proven to be safe, how we could help to continue to increase yield.
But the public is not always convinced of the safety and benefits of genetic modification and that is creating roadblocks for much needed solutions. There is a misconception of what genetic modification is about and the fact that for hundreds of years, breeders have been genetically modifying genomes. Genomes are modifying in nature every day. We have to explain this better and avoid that misconceptions are jeopardizing the use of new technologies such as genome editing nowadays. And we are already late. We already have over 800 million people undernourished in the world. The frustration for me isn’t always that people don’t understand or come with arguments, it’s that I see what needs to be done, and we are losing time. We don’t have this time!
These alarming numbers and facts bring up the question of why? Why don’t people understand the benefits? Why are there roadblocks to using GMOs if they are safe to use? Well, one reason is that many people do not have a close relationship to food production anymore. Two generations ago, most people had some kind of connection to agriculture, whether through a family member or neighbor in farming, but not so much anymore.
So we in the agriculture industry need to do a better job of communicating to the public about the safety of GM foods, like the rigorous development and testing process that they must undergo. Also, we need to convey the fact that 1,000+ scientific studies over the past 30 years show no food safety or health issues from GMOs.
Another reason for a lack of understanding by the everyday consumer is that our access to food can be easily taken for granted. We don’t often think about the fact that if we have food in the supermarket, it’s because somebody was able to produce it in the field and get a good yield because there weren’t tons of weeds, insects or other pests destroying their field.
There are many countries that could really benefit from modern agriculture technologies. In countries where people are not fed as well, these same technologies could be good solutions for them. Just look at the recent World Food Prize winners that saved over millions of people through micronutrient and vitamin biofortification of the orange-fleshed sweet potato.
I think one of our biggest cultural thoughts of “Is it safe what I eat every day?” is a good and responsible way to think. But, we also have a responsibility to not jeopardize technologies that will help us provide enough food for everyone. Our world needs to understand the urgency behind getting on board with modern agriculture that’s safe, reliable and improving food security concerns.
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About the Author
With an interest in biology the majority of her life, Catherine Feuillet received a Master’s and Ph.D. in molecular biology at the University of Toulouse. It was here she began her research focused on Eucalyptus trees and found motivation from work that solves real-life problems. For Feuillet, knowing her studies have application is imperative. The same motivation was found during her post-doctoral research on wheat at the University of Zurich. Here, Feuillet helped develop molecular markers and isolate genes to support breeding wheat that is more resistant to rust disease fungi, and learned how these genes work in wheat. She is known worldwide for her work in sequencing the complex wheat genome, a project that was completed in 2016 after 11 years.