Technology’s Role in Feeding a Soaring Population Raises This Dilemma
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.
A single shot — a gene therapy injected into the brain — dramatically reduced alcohol consumption in monkeys that previously drank heavily. If the therapy is safe and effective in people, it might one day be a permanent treatment for alcoholism for people with no other options.
The challenge: Alcohol use disorder (AUD) means a person has trouble controlling their alcohol consumption, even when it is negatively affecting their life, job, or health.
In the U.S., more than 10 percent of people over the age of 12 are estimated to have AUD, and while medications, counseling, or sheer willpower can help some stop drinking, staying sober can be a huge struggle — an estimated 40-60 percent of people relapse at least once.
A team of U.S. researchers suspected that an in-development gene therapy for Parkinson’s disease might work as a dopamine-replenishing treatment for alcoholism, too.
The idea: For occasional drinkers, alcohol causes the brain to release more dopamine, a chemical that makes you feel good. Chronic alcohol use, however, causes the brain to produce, and process, less dopamine, and this persistent dopamine deficit has been linked to alcohol relapse.
There is currently no way to reverse the changes in the brain brought about by AUD, but a team of U.S. researchers suspected that an in-development gene therapy for Parkinson’s disease might work as a dopamine-replenishing treatment for alcoholism, too.
To find out, they tested it in heavy-drinking monkeys — and the animals’ alcohol consumption dropped by 90% over the course of a year.
How it works: The treatment centers on the protein GDNF (“glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor”), which supports the survival of certain neurons, including ones linked to dopamine.
For the new study, a harmless virus was used to deliver the gene that codes for GDNF into the brains of four monkeys that, when they had the option, drank heavily — the amount of ethanol-infused water they consumed would be equivalent to a person having nine drinks per day.
“We targeted the cell bodies that produce dopamine with this gene to increase dopamine synthesis, thereby replenishing or restoring what chronic drinking has taken away,” said co-lead researcher Kathleen Grant.
To serve as controls, another four heavy-drinking monkeys underwent the same procedure, but with a saline solution delivered instead of the gene therapy.
The results: All of the monkeys had their access to alcohol removed for two months following the surgery. When it was then reintroduced for four weeks, the heavy drinkers consumed 50 percent less compared to the control group.
When the researchers examined the monkeys’ brains at the end of the study, they were able to confirm that dopamine levels had been replenished in the treated animals, but remained low in the controls.
The researchers then took the alcohol away for another four weeks, before giving it back for four. They repeated this cycle for a year, and by the end of it, the treated monkeys’ consumption had fallen by more than 90 percent compared to the controls.
“Drinking went down to almost zero,” said Grant. “For months on end, these animals would choose to drink water and just avoid drinking alcohol altogether. They decreased their drinking to the point that it was so low we didn’t record a blood-alcohol level.”
When the researchers examined the monkeys’ brains at the end of the study, they were able to confirm that dopamine levels had been replenished in the treated animals, but remained low in the controls.
Looking ahead: Dopamine is involved in a lot more than addiction, so more research is needed to not only see if the results translate to people but whether the gene therapy leads to any unwanted changes to mood or behavior.
Because the therapy requires invasive brain surgery and is likely irreversible, it’s unlikely to ever become a common treatment for alcoholism — but it could one day be the only thing standing between people with severe AUD and death.
“[The treatment] would be most appropriate for people who have already shown that all our normal therapeutic approaches do not work for them,” said Grant. “They are likely to create severe harm or kill themselves or others due to their drinking.”
On the savannah near the Botswana-Zimbabwe border, elephants grazed contentedly. Nearby, postdoctoral researcher Alida de Flamingh watched and waited. As the herd moved away, she went into action, collecting samples of elephant dung that she and other wildlife conservationists would study in the months to come. She pulled on gloves, took a swab, and ran it all over the still-warm, round blob of elephant poop.
Sequencing DNA from fecal matter is a safe, non-invasive way to track and ultimately help protect over 42,000 species currently threatened by extinction. Scientists are using this DNA to gain insights into wildlife health, genetic diversity and even the broader environment. Applied to elephants, chimpanzees, toucans and other species, it helps scientists determine the genetic diversity of groups and linkages with other groups. Such analysis can show changes in rates of inbreeding. Populations with greater genetic diversity adapt better to changes and environmental stressors than those with less diversity, thus reducing their risks of extinction, explains de Flamingh, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
Analyzing fecal DNA also reveals information about an animal’s diet and health, and even nearby flora that is eaten. That information gives scientists broader insights into the ecosystem, and the findings are informing conservation initiatives. Examples include restoring or maintaining genetic connections among groups, ensuring access to certain foraging areas or increasing diversity in captive breeding programs.
Approximately 27 percent of mammals and 28 percent of all assessed species are close to dying out. The IUCN Red List of threatened species, simply called the Red List, is the world’s most comprehensive record of animals’ risk of extinction status. The more information scientists gather, the better their chances of reducing those risks. In Africa, populations of vertebrates declined 69 percent between 1970 and 2022, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
“We put on sterile gloves and use a sterile swab to collect wet mucus and materials from the outside of the dung ball,” says Alida de Flamingh, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
“When people talk about species, they often talk about ecosystems, but they often overlook genetic diversity,” says Christina Hvilsom, senior geneticist at the Copenhagen Zoo. “It’s easy to count (individuals) to assess whether the population size is increasing or decreasing, but diversity isn’t something we can see with our bare eyes. Yet, it’s actually the foundation for the species and populations.” DNA analysis can provide this critical information.
Assessing elephants’ health
“Africa’s elephant populations are facing unprecedented threats,” says de Flamingh, the postdoc, who has studied them since 2009. Challenges include ivory poaching, habitat destruction and smaller, more fragmented habitats that result in smaller mating pools with less genetic diversity. Additionally, de Flamingh studies the microbial communities living on and in elephants – their microbiomes – looking for parasites or dangerous microbes.
Approximately 415,000 elephants inhabit Africa today, but de Flamingh says the number would be four times higher without these challenges. The IUCN Red List reports African savannah elephants are endangered and African forest elephants are critically endangered. Elephants support ecosystem biodiversity by clearing paths that help other species travel. Their very footprints create small puddles that can host smaller organisms such as tadpoles. Elephants are often described as ecosystems’ engineers, so if they disappear, the rest of the ecosystem will suffer too.
There’s a process to collecting elephant feces. “We put on sterile gloves (which we change for each sample) and use a sterile swab to collect wet mucus and materials from the outside of the dung ball,” says de Flamingh. They rub a sample about the size of a U.S. quarter onto a paper card embedded with DNA preservation technology. Each card is air dried and stored in a packet of desiccant to prevent mold growth. This way, samples can be stored at room temperature indefinitely without the DNA degrading.
Earlier methods required collecting dung in bags, which needed either refrigeration or the addition of preservatives, or the riskier alternative of tranquilizing the animals before approaching them to draw blood samples. The ability to collect and sequence the DNA made things much easier and safer.
“Our research provides a way to assess elephant health without having to physically interact with elephants,” de Flamingh emphasizes. “We also keep track of the GPS coordinates of each sample so that we can create a map of the sampling locations,” she adds. That helps researchers correlate elephants’ health with geographic areas and their conditions.
Although de Flamingh works with elephants in the wild, the contributions of zoos in the United States and collaborations in South Africa (notably the late Professor Rudi van Aarde and the Conservation Ecology Research Unit at the University of Pretoria) were key in studying this method to ensure it worked, she points out.
Genetic work with chimpanzees began about a decade ago. Hvilsom and her group at the Copenhagen Zoo analyzed DNA from nearly 1,000 fecal samples collected between 2003 and 2018 by a team of international researchers. The goal was to assess the status of the West African subspecies, which is critically endangered after rapid population declines. Of the four subspecies of chimpanzees, the West African subspecies is considered the most at-risk.
In total, the WWF estimates the numbers of chimpanzees inhabiting Africa’s forests and savannah woodlands at between 173,000 and 300,000. Poaching, disease and human-caused changes to their lands are their major risks.
By analyzing genetics obtained from fecal samples, Hvilsom estimated the chimpanzees’ population, ascertained their family relationships and mapped their migration routes.
“One of the threats is mining near the Nimba Mountains in Guinea,” a stronghold for the West African subspecies, Hvilsom says. The Nimba Mountains are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but they are rich in iron ore, which is used to make the steel that is vital to the Asian construction boom. As she and colleagues wrote in a recent paper, “Many extractive industries are currently developing projects in chimpanzee habitat.”
Analyzing DNA allows researchers to identify individual chimpanzees more accurately than simply observing them, she says. Normally, field researchers would install cameras and manually inspect each picture to determine how many chimpanzees were in an area. But, Hvilsom says, “That’s very tricky. Chimpanzees move a lot and are fast, so it’s difficult to get clear pictures. Often, they find and destroy the cameras. Also, they live in large areas, so you need a lot of cameras.”
By analyzing genetics obtained from fecal samples, Hvilsom estimated the chimpanzees’ population, ascertained their family relationships and mapped their migration routes based upon DNA comparisons with other chimpanzee groups. The mining companies and builders are using this information to locate future roads where they won’t disrupt migration – a more effective solution than trying to build artificial corridors for wildlife.
“The current route cuts off communities of chimpanzees,” Hvilsom elaborates. That effectively prevents young adult chimps from joining other groups when the time comes, eventually reducing the currently-high levels of genetic diversity.
“The mining company helped pay for the genetics work,” Hvilsom says, “as part of its obligation to assess and monitor biodiversity and the effect of the mining in the area.”
Of 50 toucan subspecies, 11 are threatened or near-threatened with extinction because of deforestation and poaching.
Identifying toucan families
Feces aren't the only substance researchers draw DNA samples from. Jeffrey Coleman, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at Austin relies on blood tests for studying the genetic diversity of toucans---birds species native to Central America and nearby regions. They live in the jungles, where they hop among branches, snip fruit from trees, toss it in the air and catch it with their large beaks. “Toucans are beautiful, charismatic birds that are really important to the ecosystem,” says Coleman.
Of their 50 subspecies, 11 are threatened or near-threatened with extinction because of deforestation and poaching. “When people see these aesthetically pleasing birds, they’re motivated to care about conservation practices,” he points out.
Coleman works with the Dallas World Aquarium and its partner zoos to analyze DNA from blood draws, using it to identify which toucans are related and how closely. His goal is to use science to improve the genetic diversity among toucan offspring.
Specifically, he’s looking at sections of the genome of captive birds in which the nucleotides repeat multiple times, such as AGATAGATAGAT. Called microsatellites, these consecutively-repeating sections can be passed from parents to children, helping scientists identify parent-child and sibling-sibling relationships. “That allows you to make strategic decisions about how to pair (captive) individuals for mating...to avoid inbreeding,” Coleman says.
Jeffrey Coleman is studying the microsatellites inside the toucan genomes.
Courtesy Jeffrey Coleman
The alternative is to use a type of analysis that looks for a single DNA building block – a nucleotide – that differs in a given sequence. Called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs, pronounced “snips”), they are very common and very accurate. Coleman says they are better than microsatellites for some uses. But scientists have already developed a large body of microsatellite data from multiple species, so microsatellites can shed more insights on relations.
Regardless of whether conservation programs use SNPs or microsatellites to guide captive breeding efforts, the goal is to help them build genetically diverse populations that eventually may supplement endangered populations in the wild. “The hope is that the ecosystem will be stable enough and that the populations (once reintroduced into the wild) will be able to survive and thrive,” says Coleman. History knows some good examples of captive breeding success.
The California condor, which had a total population of 27 in 1987, when the last wild birds were captured, is one of them. A captive breeding program boosted their numbers to 561 by the end of 2022. Of those, 347 of those are in the wild, according to the National Park Service.
Conservationists hope that their work on animals’ genetic diversity will help preserve and restore endangered species in captivity and the wild. DNA analysis is crucial to both types of efforts. The ability to apply genome sequencing to wildlife conservation brings a new level of accuracy that helps protect species and gives fresh insights that observation alone can’t provide.
“A lot of species are threatened,” Coleman says. “I hope this research will be a resource people can use to get more information on longer-term genealogies and different populations.”