On left, a picture of white rice next to Golden Rice, and on right, a girl who lost one eye due to vitamin A deficiency.

(Photo Credit: Golden Rice Humanitarian Board)

In a few weeks it will be 20 years that we three have been working together. Our project has been independently praised as one of the most influential of all projects of the last 50 years.

Two of us figured out how to make rice produce a source of vitamin A, and the rice becomes a golden color instead of white.

The project's objectives have been admired by some and vilified by others. It has directly involved teams of highly motivated people from a handful of nations, from both the private and public sector. A book, dedicated to the three of us, has been written about our work. Nevertheless, success has, so far, eluded us all. The story of our thwarted efforts is a tragedy that we hope will soon – finally – reach a milestone of potentially profound significance for humanity.

So, what have we been working on, and why haven't we succeeded yet?

Food: everybody needs it, and many are fortunate enough to have enough, even too much of it. Food is a highly emotional subject on every continent and in every culture. For a healthy life our food has to provide energy, as well as, in very small amounts, minerals and vitamins. A varied diet, easily achieved and common in industrialised countries, provides everything.

But poor people in countries where rice is grown often eat little else. White rice only provides energy: no minerals or vitamins. And the lack of one of the vitamins, vitamin A, is responsible for killing around 4,500 poor children every day. Lack of vitamin A is the biggest killer of children, and also the main cause of irreversible childhood blindness.

Our project is about fixing this one dietary deficiency – vitamin A – in this one crop – rice – for this one group of people. It is a huge group though: half of the world's population live by eating a lot of rice every day. Two of us (PB & IP) figured out how to make rice produce a source of vitamin A, and the rice becomes a golden color instead of white. The source is beta-carotene, which the human body converts to vitamin A. Beta-carotene is what makes carrots orange. Our rice is called "Golden Rice."

The technology has been donated to assist those rice eaters who suffer from vitamin A deficiency ('VAD') so that Golden Rice will cost no more than white rice, there will be no restrictions on the small farmers who grow it, and nothing extra to pay for the additional nutrition. Very small amounts of beta-carotene will contribute to alleviation of VAD, and even the earliest version of Golden Rice – which had smaller amounts than today's Golden Rice - would have helped. So far, though, no small farmer has been allowed to grow it. What happened?

To create Golden Rice, it was necessary to precisely add two genes to the 30,000 genes normally present in rice plants. One of the genes is from maize, also known as corn, and the other from a commonly eaten soil bacterium. The only difference from white rice is that Golden Rice contains beta-carotene.

It has been proven to be safe to man and the environment, and consumption of only small quantities of Golden Rice will combat VAD, with no chance of overdosing. All current Golden Rice results from one introduction of these two genes in 2004. But the use of that method – once, 15 years ago - means that Golden Rice is a 'GMO' ('genetically modified organism'). The enzymes used in the manufacture of bread, cheese, beer and wine, and the insulin which diabetics take to keep them alive, are all made from GMOs too.

The first GMO crops were created by agri-business companies. Suspicion of the technology and suspicion of commercial motivations merged, only for crop (but not enzymes or pharmaceutical) applications of GMO technology. Activists motivated by these suspicions were successful in getting the 'precautionary principle' incorporated in an international treaty which has been ratified by 166 countries and the European Union – The Cartagena Protocol.

The equivalent of 13 jumbo jets full of children crashes into the ground every day and kills them all, because of vitamin A deficiency.

This protocol is the basis of national rules governing the introduction of GMO crops in every signatory country. Government regulators in, and for, each country must agree before a GMO crop can be 'registered' to be allowed to be used by the public in that country. Currently regulatory decisions to allow Golden Rice release are being considered in Bangladesh and the Philippines.

The Cartagena Protocol obliges the regulators in each country to consider all possible risks, and to take no account of any possible benefits. Because the anti-gmo-activists' initial concerns were principally about the environment, the responsibility for governments' regulation for GMO crops – even for Golden Rice, a public health project delivered through agriculture – usually rests with the Ministry of the Environment, not the Ministry of Health or the Ministry of Agriculture.

Activists discovered, before Golden Rice was created, that inducing fear of GMO food crops from 'multinational agribusinesses' was very good for generating donations from a public that was largely illiterate about food technology and production. And this source of emotionally charged donations would cease if Golden Rice was proven to save sight and lives, because Golden Rice represented the opposite of all the tropes used in anti-GMO campaigns.

Golden Rice is created to deliver a consumer benefit, it is not for profit – to multinational agribusiness or anyone else; the technology originated in the public sector and is being delivered through the public sector. It is entirely altruistic in its motivations; which activists find impossible to accept. So, the activists believed, suspicion against Golden Rice had to be amplified, Golden Rice had to be stopped: "If we lose the Golden Rice battle, we lose the GMO war."

Activism continues to this day. And any Environment Ministry, with no responsibility for public health or agriculture, and of course an interest in avoiding controversy about its regulatory decisions, is vulnerable to such activism.

The anti-GMO crop campaigns, and especially anti-Golden Rice campaigns, have been extraordinarily effective. If so much regulation by governments is required, surely there must be something to be suspicious about: 'There is no smoke without fire'. The suspicion pervades research institutions and universities, the publishers of scientific journals and The World Health Organisation, and UNICEF: even the most scientifically literate are fearful of entanglement in activist-stoked public controversy.

The equivalent of 13 jumbo jets full of children crashes into the ground every day and kills them all, because of VAD. Yet the solution of Golden Rice, developed by national scientists in the counties where VAD is endemic, is ignored because of fear of controversy, and because poor children's deaths can be ignored without controversy.

Perhaps more controversy lies in not taking scientifically based regulatory decisions than in taking them.

The tide is turning, however. 151 Nobel Laureates, a very significant proportion of all Nobel Laureates, have called on the UN, governments of the world, and Greenpeace to cease their unfounded vilification of GMO crops in general and Golden Rice in particular. A recent Golden Rice article commented, "What shocks me is that some activists continue to misrepresent the truth about the rice. The cynic in me expects profit-driven multinationals to behave unethically, but I want to think that those voluntarily campaigning on issues they care about have higher standards."

The recently published book has exposed the frustrating saga in simple detail. And the publicity from all the above is perhaps starting to change the balance of where controversy lies. Perhaps more controversy lies in not taking scientifically based regulatory decisions than in taking them.

But until they are taken, while there continues a chance of frustrating the objectives of the Golden Rice project, the antagonism will continue. And despite a solution so close at hand, VAD-induced death and blindness, and the misery of affected families, will continue also.

© The Authors 2019. This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated.

Adrian Dubock, Ingo Potrykus, Peter Beyer
Peter Beyer headed a research group at University of Freiburg, Germany, with a strong focus on improving the nutritional value of crop plants. Ingo Potrykus worked at ETH Zurich, Switzerland, with a research group using genetic engineering technology applied to "food security" crops in developing countries. Adrian Dubock designed the international collaboration, and its governance, for turning the results of the Potrykus and Beyer teams into a useful product – Golden Rice - to combat vitamin A deficiency, a long-standing objective which all three share. Potrykus is the Chair of the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board, Beyer and Dubock are Board members, and Dubock is also the Executive Secretary of the Board. In common with other Board members, all three are unpaid volunteers.

A cornfield in summer.

(© mirkograul/Fotolia)

In the next few decades, humanity faces its biggest food crisis since the invention of the plow. The planet's population, currently 7.6 billion, is expected to reach 10 billion by 2050; to avoid mass famine, according to the World Resource Institute, we'll need to produce 70 percent more calories than we do today.

Imagine that a cheap, easy-to-use, and rapidly deployable technology could make crops more fertile and strengthen their resistance to threats.

Meanwhile, climate change will bring intensifying assaults by heat, drought, storms, pests, and weeds, depressing farm yields around the globe. Epidemics of plant disease—already laying waste to wheat, citrus, bananas, coffee, and cacao in many regions—will spread ever further through the vectors of modern trade and transportation.

So here's a thought experiment: Imagine that a cheap, easy-to-use, and rapidly deployable technology could make crops more fertile and strengthen their resistance to these looming threats. Imagine that it could also render them more nutritious and tastier, with longer shelf lives and less vulnerability to damage in shipping—adding enhancements to human health and enjoyment, as well as reduced food waste, to the possible benefits.

Finally, imagine that crops bred with the aid of this tool might carry dangers. Some could contain unsuspected allergens or toxins. Others might disrupt ecosystems, affecting the behavior or very survival of other species, or infecting wild relatives with their altered DNA.

Now ask yourself: If such a technology existed, should policymakers encourage its adoption, or ban it due to the risks? And if you chose the former alternative, how should crops developed by this method be regulated?

In fact, this technology does exist, though its use remains mostly experimental. It's called gene editing, and in the past five years it has emerged as a potentially revolutionary force in many areas—among them, treating cancer and genetic disorders; growing transplantable human organs in pigs; controlling malaria-spreading mosquitoes; and, yes, transforming agriculture. Several versions are currently available, the newest and nimblest of which goes by the acronym CRISPR.

Gene editing is far simpler and more efficient than older methods used to produce genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Unlike those methods, moreover, it can be used in ways that leave no foreign genes in the target organism—an advantage that proponents argue should comfort anyone leery of consuming so-called "Frankenfoods." But debate persists over what precautions must be taken before these crops come to market.

Recently, two of the world's most powerful regulatory bodies offered very different answers to that question. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) declared in March 2018 that it "does not currently regulate, or have any plans to regulate" plants that are developed through most existing methods of gene editing. The Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ), by contrast, ruled in July that such crops should be governed by the same stringent regulations as conventional GMOs.

Some experts suggest that the broadly permissive American approach and the broadly restrictive EU policy are equally flawed.

Each announcement drew protests, for opposite reasons. Anti-GMO activists assailed the USDA's statement, arguing that all gene-edited crops should be tested and approved before marketing. "You don't know what those mutations or rearrangements might do in a plant," warned Michael Hansen, a senior scientist with the advocacy group Consumers Union. Biotech boosters griped that the ECJ's decision would stifle innovation and investment. "By any sensible standard, this judgment is illogical and absurd," wrote the British newspaper The Observer.

Yet some experts suggest that the broadly permissive American approach and the broadly restrictive EU policy are equally flawed. "What's behind these regulatory decisions is not science," says Jennifer Kuzma, co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University, a former advisor to the World Economic Forum, who has researched and written extensively on governance issues in biotechnology. "It's politics, economics, and culture."

The U.S. Welcomes Gene-Edited Food

Humans have been modifying the genomes of plants and animals for 10,000 years, using selective breeding—a hit-or-miss method that can take decades or more to deliver rewards. In the mid-20th century, we learned to speed up the process by exposing organisms to radiation or mutagenic chemicals. But it wasn't until the 1980s that scientists began modifying plants by altering specific stretches of their DNA.

Today, about 90 percent of the corn, cotton and soybeans planted in the U.S. are GMOs; such crops cover nearly 4 million square miles (10 million square kilometers) of land in 29 countries. Most of these plants are transgenic, meaning they contain genes from an unrelated species—often as biologically alien as a virus or a fish. Their modifications are designed primarily to boost profit margins for mechanized agribusiness: allowing crops to withstand herbicides so that weeds can be controlled by mass spraying, for example, or to produce their own pesticides to lessen the need for chemical inputs.

In the early days, the majority of GM crops were created by extracting the gene for a desired trait from a donor organism, multiplying it, and attaching it to other snippets of DNA—usually from a microbe called an agrobacterium—that could help it infiltrate the cells of the target plant. Biotechnologists injected these particles into the target, hoping at least one would land in a place where it would perform its intended function; if not, they kept trying. The process was quicker than conventional breeding, but still complex, scattershot, and costly.

Because agrobacteria can cause plant tumors, Kuzma explains, policymakers in the U.S. decided to regulate GMO crops under an existing law, the Plant Pest Act of 1957, which addressed dangers like imported trees infested with invasive bugs. Every GMO containing the DNA of agrobacterium or another plant pest had to be tested to see whether it behaved like a pest, and undergo a lengthy approval process. By 2010, however, new methods had been developed for creating GMOs without agrobacteria; such plants could typically be marketed without pre-approval.

Soon after that, the first gene-edited crops began appearing. If old-school genetic engineering was a shotgun, techniques like TALEN and CRISPR were a scalpel—or the search-and-replace function on a computer program. With CRISPR/Cas9, for example, an enzyme that bacteria use to recognize and chop up hostile viruses is reprogrammed to find and snip out a desired bit of a plant or other organism's DNA. The enzyme can also be used to insert a substitute gene. If a DNA sequence is simply removed, or the new gene comes from a similar species, the changes in the target plant's genotype and phenotype (its general characteristics) may be no different from those that could be produced through selective breeding. If a foreign gene is added, the plant becomes a transgenic GMO.

Companies are already teeing up gene-edited products for the U.S. market, like a cooking oil and waxy corn.

This development, along with the emergence of non-agrobacterium GMOs, eventually prompted the USDA to propose a tiered regulatory system for all genetically engineered crops, beginning with an initial screening for potentially hazardous metaboloids or ecological impacts. (The screening was intended, in part, to guard against the "off-target effects"—stray mutations—that occasionally appear in gene-edited organisms.) If no red flags appeared, the crop would be approved; otherwise, it would be subject to further review, and possible regulation.

The plan was unveiled in January 2017, during the last week of the Obama presidency. Then, under the Trump administration, it was shelved. Although the USDA continues to promise a new set of regulations, the only hint of what they might contain has been Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue's statement last March that gene-edited plants would remain unregulated if they "could otherwise have been developed through traditional breeding techniques, as long as they are not plant pests or developed using plant pests."

Because transgenic plants could not be "developed through traditional breeding techniques," this statement could be taken to mean that gene editing in which foreign DNA is introduced might actually be regulated. But because the USDA regulates conventional transgenic GMOs only if they trigger the plant-pest stipulation, experts assume gene-edited crops will face similarly limited oversight.

Meanwhile, companies are already teeing up gene-edited products for the U.S. market. An herbicide-resistant oilseed rape, developed using a proprietary technique, has been available since 2016. A cooking oil made from TALEN-tweaked soybeans, designed to have a healthier fatty-acid profile, is slated for release within the next few months. A CRISPR-edited "waxy" corn, designed with a starch profile ideal for processed foods, should be ready by 2021.

In all likelihood, none of these products will have to be tested for safety.

In the E.U., Stricter Rules Apply

Now let's look at the European Union. Since the late 1990s, explains Gregory Jaffe, director of the Project on Biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the EU has had a "process-based trigger" for genetically engineered products: "If you use recombinant DNA, you are going to be regulated." All foods and animal feeds must be approved and labeled if they consist of or contain more than 0.9 percent GM ingredients. (In the U.S., "disclosure" of GM ingredients is mandatory, if someone asks, but labeling is not required.) The only GM crop that can be commercially grown in EU member nations is a type of insect-resistant corn, though some countries allow imports.

European scientists helped develop gene editing, and they—along with the continent's biotech entrepreneurs—have been busy developing applications for crops. But European farmers seem more divided over the technology than their American counterparts. The main French agricultural trades union, for example, supports research into non-transgenic gene editing and its exemption from GMO regulation. But it was the country's small-farmers' union, the Confédération Paysanne, along with several allied groups, that in 2015 submitted a complaint to the ECJ, asking that all plants produced via mutagenesis—including gene-editing—be regulated as GMOs.

At this point, it should be mentioned that in the past 30 years, large population studies have found no sign that consuming GM foods is harmful to human health. GMO critics can, however, point to evidence that herbicide-resistant crops have encouraged overuse of herbicides, giving rise to poison-proof "superweeds," polluting the environment with suspected carcinogens, and inadvertently killing beneficial plants. Those allegations were key to the French plaintiffs' argument that gene-edited crops might similarly do unexpected harm. (Disclosure: Leapsmag's parent company, Bayer, recently acquired Monsanto, a maker of herbicides and herbicide-resistant seeds. Also, Leaps by Bayer, an innovation initiative of Bayer and Leapsmag's direct founder, has funded a biotech startup called JoynBio that aims to reduce the amount of nitrogen fertilizer required to grow crops.)

The ruling was "scientifically nonsensical. It's because of things like this that I'll never go back to Europe."

In the end, the EU court found in the Confédération's favor on gene editing—though the court maintained the regulatory exemption for mutagenesis induced by chemicals or radiation, citing the 'long safety record' of those methods.

The ruling was "scientifically nonsensical," fumes Rodolphe Barrangou, a French food scientist who pioneered CRISPR while working for DuPont in Wisconsin and is now a professor at NC State. "It's because of things like this that I'll never go back to Europe."

Nonetheless, the decision was consistent with longstanding EU policy on crops made with recombinant DNA. Given the difficulty and expense of getting such products through the continent's regulatory system, many other European researchers may wind up following Barrangou to America.

Getting to the Root of the Cultural Divide

What explains the divergence between the American and European approaches to GMOs—and, by extension, gene-edited crops? In part, Jennifer Kuzma speculates, it's that Europeans have a different attitude toward eating. "They're generally more tied to where their food comes from, where it's produced," she notes. They may also share a mistrust of government assurances on food safety, borne of the region's Mad Cow scandals of the 1980s and '90s. In Catholic countries, consumers may have misgivings about tinkering with the machinery of life.

But the principal factor, Kuzma argues, is that European and American agriculture are structured differently. "GM's benefits have mostly been designed for large-scale industrial farming and commodity crops," she says. That kind of farming is dominant in the U.S., but not in Europe, leading to a different balance of political power. In the EU, there was less pressure on decisionmakers to approve GMOs or exempt gene-edited crops from regulation—and more pressure to adopt a GM-resistant stance.

Such dynamics may be operating in other regions as well. In China, for example, the government has long encouraged research in GMOs; a state-owned company recently acquired Syngenta, a Swiss-based multinational corporation that is a leading developer of GM and gene-edited crops. GM animal feed and cooking oil can be freely imported. Yet commercial cultivation of most GM plants remains forbidden, out of deference to popular suspicions of genetically altered food. "As a new item, society has debates and doubts on GMO techniques, which is normal," President Xi Jinping remarked in 2014. "We must be bold in studying it, [but] be cautious promoting it."

The proper balance between boldness and caution is still being worked out all over the world. Europe's process-based approach may prevent researchers from developing crops that, with a single DNA snip, could rescue millions from starvation. EU regulations will also make it harder for small entrepreneurs to challenge Big Ag with a technology that, as Barrangou puts it, "can be used affordably, quickly, scalably, by anyone, without even a graduate degree in genetics." America's product-based approach, conversely, may let crops with hidden genetic dangers escape detection. And by refusing to investigate such risks, regulators may wind up exacerbating consumers' doubts about GM and gene-edited products, rather than allaying them.

"Science...can't tell you what to regulate. That's a values-based decision."

Perhaps the solution lies in combining both approaches, and adding some flexibility and nuance to the mix. "I don't believe in regulation by the product or the process," says CSPI's Jaffe. "I think you need both." Deleting a DNA base pair to silence a gene, for example, might be less risky than inserting a foreign gene into a plant—unless the deletion enables the production of an allergen, and the transgene comes from spinach.

Kuzma calls for the creation of "cooperative governance networks" to oversee crop genome editing, similar to bodies that already help develop and enforce industry standards in fisheries, electronics, industrial cleaning products, and (not incidentally) organic agriculture. Such a network could include farmers, scientists, advocacy groups, private companies, and governmental agencies. "Safety isn't an all-or-nothing concept," Kuzma says. "Science can tell you what some of the issues are in terms of risk and benefit, but it can't tell you what to regulate. That's a values-based decision."

By drawing together a wide range of stakeholders to make such decisions, she adds, "we're more likely to anticipate future consequences, and to develop a robust approach—one that not only seems more legitimate to people, but is actually just plain old better."

Kenneth Miller
Kenneth Miller is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He is a contributing editor at Discover, and has reported from four continents for publications including Time, Life, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, and Aeon. His honors include The ASJA Award for Best Science Writing and the June Roth Memorial Award for Medical Writing. Visit his website at
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Farmers harvest rice in a field.

(© tong2530/Fotolia)

The 21st century food system is awash in ethical issues. To name just a handful: There's the environmental impacts of farming, the human health effects of diets based on animal products and processed foods, the growing clamor around food waste, and the longstanding concerns about agricultural labor. The last decade has seen the emergence of "ethical consumption," as people have been encouraged to avoid products that are associated with animal cruelty or unfair to farmers.

Misguided concerns about GMOs are missing the point altogether and distracting from a far more substantive ethical problem.

But consumers have never been so ignorant about where food comes from, and they are vulnerable to oversimplifications and faulty messaging. Many would include the first generation of crops from agricultural applications of recombinant DNA methods for genetic improvement—so called GMOs—among the foods they should avoid for ethical reasons. Unfortunately, these misguided concerns are missing the point altogether and distracting from a far more substantive ethical problem.

As we stand on the precipice of a new era in food and biotechnology – crops and animals with genomes altered through gene editing – it is more important than ever to let go of unnecessary fears and to pay attention to the real hazards of agricultural innovation.

But first, as a bioethicist with almost 40 years of experience working on issues in the food system, let me stress the overall context and rationale for trying to make changes in plant and animal genetics. Doing so, whether through conventional breeding or biotechnology, allows producers to meet the challenges of seasonal climate differences and increase yields.

And just because a food was created through ordinary plant breeding vs. genetic modification does not automatically make it safe. Things can and do go wrong in ordinary plant breeding, such as with potatoes and tomatoes. These both produce toxins in the green parts of the plant, and breeders exercise caution to ensure that toxins aren't transferred to edible parts.

Despite real risks, there is no regulatory oversight that protects us from these known hazards. We rely on the professional ethics of agricultural scientists. And GMOs are, in comparison, much more carefully tested and regulated. The claim that they are "unregulated" is just false.

We should not ignore the role that all gene technologies have played in displacing small farmers, depleting rural communities, and shifting economic control.

I do want to shift the public's attention away from the anti-GMO debate to more substantive questions about contemporary agriculture that really have little to do with where the genes in their food came from, or how they got there.

No matter how important genetic improvements might be in terms of total global food production, we should not ignore the role that all gene technologies—including breeding—have played in displacing small farmers, depleting rural communities and shifting economic control of agriculture into a small circle of powerful actors. Globally, these changes have had disproportionately harmful effects on women and people of color.

Combined with mechanization and chemicals, gene technologies have freed planters from their dependence on impoverished and poorly educated field hands, but they did nothing to help the fieldworkers transition to a new line of work. These are the real problems that deserve the public's and the science community's attention, not the overly narrow worries about eating GMOs.

But these problems are viewed as "not ours" by agricultural insiders, and they continue to be ignored by scientists whose focus is solely on biology. Many of the concerns that are today viewed as "urban problems" or "social issues" have origins in agriculture. For example, in California tomatoes, the development of mechanical harvesting led to a rapid concentration of ownership and the displacement of thousands of field hands. In the South, similar technologies displaced black farmers working land owned by whites, causing migration to urban centers and unskilled jobs. I must fault the science community for a lack of willingness to even take the thrust of these more socially oriented critiques seriously.

The new suite of tools for genetic modification that go under the name "gene editing" promise greater precision. They should allow scientists to target the locus for new genes in a plant or animal genome, and minimize the chance for causing unwanted impacts on gene functioning. This added precision is reducing some of the uncertainties in the mind of technology developers, and they have been expressing hope that their own confidence will be shared by regulators and by the public at large. In fact, the U.S. government recently issued a statement that gene-edited crops do not require additional regulation because they're just as safe as crops produced through conventional breeding.

It is indeed possible that the public doubts about genetically modified food will be assuaged by this argument. We can only wait and see. Whether or not gene editing will lead to more reflection about agriculture's complicity in problems of economic inequality or structural racism depends much more on the culture of the science community than it does on the technology itself.

Paul Thompson
Paul B. Thompson is the author or editor of more than 10 books and over 200 academic articles on food and agricultural ethics. He has taught at Texas A&M University and Purdue University and is currently the W. K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University.

When farmer Terry Wanzek walks out in his fields, he sometimes sees a grove of trees, which reminds him of his grandfather, who planted those trees. Or he looks out over the pond, which deer, ducks and pheasant use for water, and he knows that his grandfather made a decision to drain land and put the pond in that exact spot.

Growing more with fewer resources is becoming increasingly urgent as the Earth's population is expected to hit 9.1 billion by 2050.

"There is a connection that goes beyond running a business and making a profit," says Wanzek, a fourth-generation North Dakota farmer who raises spring wheat, corn, soybeans, barley, dry edible beans and sunflowers. "There is a connection to family, to your ancestors and there is a connection to your posterity and your kids."

Wanzek's corn and soybeans are genetically modified (GM) crops, which means that they have been altered at the DNA level to create desirable traits. This intervention, he says, allows him to start growing earlier and to produce more food per acre.

Growing more with fewer resources is becoming increasingly urgent as the Earth's population is expected to hit 9.1 billion by 2050, with nearly all of the rise coming from developing countries, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. This population will be urban, which means they'll likely be eating fewer grains and other staple crops, and more vegetables, fruits, meat, dairy, and fish.

Whether those foods will be touched in some way by technology remains a high-stakes question. As for GM foods, the American public is somewhat skeptical: in a recent survey, about one-third of Americans report that they are actively avoiding GMOs or seek out non-GMO labels when shopping and purchasing foods. These consumers fear unsafe food and don't want biotechnologists to tamper with nature. This disconnect—between those who consume food and those who produce it—is only set to intensify as major agricultural companies work to develop further high-tech farming solutions to meet the needs of the growing population.

"I don't think we have a choice going forward. The world isn't getting smaller. We have to come up with a means of using less."

In the future, it may be possible to feed the world. But what if the world doesn't want the food?

A Short History

Genetically modified food is not new. The first such plant (the Flavr Savr tomato) was approved for human consumption and brought to market in 1994, but people didn't like the taste. Today, nine genetically modified food crops are commercially available in the United States (corn, soybean, squash, papaya, alfalfa, sugar beets, canola, potato and apples). Most were modified to increase resistance to disease or pests, or tolerance to a specific herbicide. Such crops have in fact been found to increase yields, with a recent study showing grain yield was up to 24.5 percent higher in genetically engineered corn.

Despite some consumer skepticism, many farmers don't have a problem with GM crops, says Jennie Schmidt, a farmer and registered dietician in Maryland. She says with a laugh that her farm is a "grocery store farm - we grow the ingredients you buy in products at the grocery store." Schmidt's father-in-law, who started the farm, watched the adoption of hybrid corn improve seeds in the 1930s and 1940s.

"It wasn't a difficult leap to see how well these hybrid corn seeds have done over the decades," she says. "So when the GMOs came out, it was a quicker adoption curve, because as farmers they had already been exposed to the first generation and this was just the next step."

Schmidt, for one, is excited about the gene-editing tool CRISPR and other ways biotechnologists can create food like apples or potatoes with a particular enzyme turned off so they don't go brown during oxidation. Other foods in the pipeline include disease-resistant citrus, low-gluten wheat, fungus-resistant bananas, and anti-browning mushrooms.

"We need to not judge our agriculture by yield per acre but nutrition per acre."

"I don't think we have a choice going forward," says Schmidt. "The world isn't getting smaller. We have to come up with a means of using less."

A Different Way Forward?

But others remain convinced that there are better ways to feed the planet. Andrew Kimball, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, a non-profit that promotes organic and sustainable agriculture, says the public has been sold a lie with biotech. "GMO technology is not proven as a food producer," he says. "It's just not being done anywhere at a large scale. Ninety-nine percent of GMOs are corn and soy, and they allow chemical companies to sell more chemicals. But that doesn't increase food or decrease hunger." Instead, Kimball advocates for a pivot from commodity agriculture to farms with crop diversity and animals.

Kimball also suggests a way to use land more appropriately: stop growing so much biofuel. Right now, in the U.S., more than 55 percent of our crop farmland is in corn and soy. About 40 percent of that goes into cars through ethanol, 40 percent is fed to animals and a good bit of the rest goes into high-fructose corn syrup. That leaves only a small amount to feed people, says Kimball. "If you want to feed the world, not just the U.S., you want to make sure to use that land to feed people," he says. "We need to not judge our agriculture by yield per acre but nutrition per acre."

Robert Streiffer, a bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, agrees that GMOs haven't really helped alleviate hunger. Glyphosate resistance, one of the traits that is most commonly used in genetically engineered crops, doesn't improve yield or allow crops to be grown in areas where they weren't able to be grown before. "Insect resistance through the insertion of a Bt gene can improve yield, but is mostly used for cotton (which is not a food crop) and corn which goes to feed cattle, a very inefficient method of feeding the hungry, to say the least," he says. Important research is being done in crops such as cassava, which could help relieve global hunger. But in his opinion, these researchers lack the profit potential needed to motivate large private funding sources, so they require more public-sector funding.

"A substantial portion of public opposition is as much about the lack of any perceived benefits for the consumers as it is for outright fear of health or environmental dangers."

"Public opposition to biotech foods is certainly a factor, but I expect this will slowly decline as labels indicating the presence of GE (genetically engineered) ingredients become more common, and as we continue to amass reassuring data on the comparative environmental safety of GE crops," says Streiffer. "A substantial portion of public opposition is as much about the lack of any perceived benefits for the consumers as it is for outright fear of health or environmental dangers."

One sign that the public may be willing to embrace some non-natural foods is the recent interest in cultured meat, which is grown in a lab from animal cells but doesn't require raising or killing animals. A study published last year in PLOS One found that 65 percent of 673 surveyed U.S. individuals would probably or definitely try cultured meat, while only 8.5 percent said they definitely would not. In the future, lab-grown food may become another way to create more food with fewer resources.

Danielle Nierenberg, president of the Food Tank, a nonprofit organization focused on building a global community of safe and healthy food, points to an even more immediate problem: food waste. Globally, about a third of food is thrown out or goes bad before it has a chance to be eaten. She says simply fixing roads and infrastructure in developing countries would go a long way toward ensuring that food reaches the hungry. Focusing on helping small farmers (who grow 70 percent of food around the globe), especially female farmers, would go a long way, she says.

Innovation on the Farm

In addition to good roads, those farmers need fertilizer. Nitrogen-based fertilizers may get a boost in the future from technologies that release nutrients slowly over time, like slow-release medicines based on nanotechnology. In field trials on rice in Sri Lanka, one such nanotech fertilizer increased crop yields by 10 percent, even though it delivered only half the amount of urea compared with traditional fertilizer, according to a study last year.

"I'm not afraid of the food I grow. We live in the same environment, and I feel completely safe."

One startup, the San-Francisco-based Biome Makers, is profiling microbial DNA to give farmers an idea of what their soil needs to better support crops. Joyn Bio, another new startup based in Boston and West Sacramento, is looking to engineer microbes that could reduce farming's reliance on nitrogen fertilizer, which is expensive and harms the environment. (Full disclosure: Joyn Bio and this magazine are funded by the same company, Leaps by Bayer, though leapsmag is editorially independent. Also, Bayer recently acquired Monsanto, the leading producer of genetically engineered seeds and the herbicide Roundup.)

Terry Wanzek, the farmer in North Dakota, says he'd be willing to try any new technology as long as it helps his bottom line – and increases sustainability. "I'm not afraid of the food I grow," he says of his genetically modified produce. "We eat the same food, we live in the same environment, and I feel completely safe."

Only time will tell if people several decades from now feel the same way. But no matter how their food is produced, one thing is certain: those people will need to eat.

Katherine Gammon
Katharine Gammon is a freelance science writer based in Santa Monica. She writes for a wide variety of publications about technology, science and child development. She can be followed on Twitter @kategammon.