The aisles of your corner grocery may look mundane. But as you walk past the stacks of cherries and blueberries, the ears of corn and bottles of white wine, consider that you are witnessing a race against time.
Every day, our planet grows a little hotter and a little more crowded. Every day, we need to grow more food in the face of more hostile conditions. Every day, scientists are racing to develop tougher crops that can withstand growing heat, drought and ferocious storms to feed a growing population.
“Our existing varieties of crops, our existing seeds, are not necessarily well-adapted to the new environment,” said Glenn Denning, a professor of development policy at Columbia University. “We have to look elsewhere.”
The race never stops. It plays out year after year, in our laboratories, on our farms and along the aisles of our supermarkets. We have managed to stay one step ahead largely due to human ingenuity.
The quest for a more perfect crop is about to take a quantum leap. Scientists have developed a breakthrough technology that will allow us to develop new crops built for a harsher climate.
It’s called gene editing and it could prove vital to our survival in a warmer world.
For most of human history, genetic engineering meant breeding uncommonly tasty fruits and vegetables. Take corn. Over generations, we fashioned corn from a similar plant that sported fewer kernels, each hidden beneath a hard shell.
Today, we don’t need to wait for desirable mutations. We can borrow beneficial traits from other species. Scientists installed DNA from a bacteria known to kill insects into the genetic blueprint of corn. The resulting crop could fend off pests. This process is called genetic modification.
Genetic modification, while light years ahead of selective breeding, can be slow and unwieldy. Think of it like editing a book by inserting new pages in between randomly selected chapters.
With gene editing, scientists can alter every letter, period and exclamation point in that book with a speed and precision never seen before. Using a tool called CRISPR, researchers can turn specific genes on or off. The technology has made gene editing faster, cheaper and more efficient.
“These new tools enable us potentially to go much further than we were able to do with traditional breeding approaches,” said Denning. “We can be much more precise. We can develop new varieties much faster.”
Researchers at DuPont Pioneer have already used CRISPR to develop a strain of corn that can better withstand drought. In the years to come, the technology will deliver a new generation of climate-resilient crops.
The human race can’t wait. The global population will total almost 10 billion by mid-century. A new report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization notes that most of that growth will take place in “regions with the highest prevalence of undernourishment and high vulnerability to the impacts of climate change.”
Southern Africa is one such place. The region is coping with ongoing drought that has withered crops, leaving millions hungry. In response, experts have pushed for “climate-smart seeds.” Some organizations, like Drought-Tolerant Maize for Africa, are working to supply farmers with seeds that can endure persistently dry conditions. Where do these seeds come from?
They often come from seed banks, stores of battle-tested crops adapted to withstand drought, pests and other hardships. Denning says seed banks are becoming more important in the age of climate change, but they may not always hold the answer.
“In the future we’re going to need to produce more food,” said Denning. “We’re going to need to be much more efficient at how we produce that food. A lot of the traits that we need actually aren’t available naturally.”
Importantly, CRISPR can only mute or amplify specific traits in existing species. Even as scientists use gene editing to develop climate-smart seeds, they must still recruit the raw materials from seed banks. But, using CRISPR, researchers can develop crops not found in seed banks or in the wilderness, and this holds immeasurable value.
“[Imagine] a farmer in Tanzania, who is growing cassava that has been attacked by a virus, and there’s no known resistance within the seed banks,“ said Denning. “If you go to that woman and say, ‘We’re working on a new variety… with a resistance to that virus,’ that woman is going to say, ‘Bring it on! I want it now, how long do I have to wait?’”
Not everyone feels like Denning’s hypothetical Tanzanian farmer. Some have concerns about gene editing. One concern is that gene-edited crops would pass on their traits to future generations. A particular trait, say, an ability to ward off root worms, would become ubiquitous in the population. Pest-resistant crops could drive the root worm to the brink of extinction, dislodging a potentially vital species from the ecosystem.
“I think you’d have to be foolish to take it off the table as an option, as a way of tackling some of the problems we still don’t understand going forward,” said Denning. “We need to have all the tools of the trade ready, and at a point where we can deploy them very quickly, or we’re going to have catastrophes.”
In Western Europe, widespread opposition to genetically modified foods has led to bans on GMOs. We may see similar resistance to gene editing in wealthier countries. In places where people are already coping with climate change — Zimbabwe, Malawi and Tanzania, for instance — it is more likely to be a welcome development.
“If we had seeds that were more efficient at using our resources, using our land, using our nutrients and using our water, I think it would be potentially a great contribution to addressing climate change,” said Denning. “And I think we’re only starting to understand the powers of genetic modification and the tools of gene editing.”