When we think of the things that threaten our planet, our minds typically turn to the smokestacks that blacken and choke our cities, or to the plastic that clogs our oceans and kills marine life. We don’t typically think of food.
But we should.
In 30 years, there will be another two billion people to feed, which will necessarily increase food demands. However, we won’t need more food just because of the increase in population. Our diets are also changing. As Jonathan Foley notes in National Geographic, the spread of prosperity is driving increased demand for meat, eggs, and dairy. This, in turn, requires us to grow more corn and soybeans to feed cattle, pigs, and chickens. In short, ongoing shifts in our diets are increasing demands across nearly all agricultural sectors.
These changes lead us to a host of troubling questions. Will the Earth have enough food to sustain a population of this size? And how will changes in our diet impact animal and plant life? Are we destined to accelerate the loss of biodiversity?
These are pressing concerns, and according to current research, things aren’t looking very good. But there is hope in dramatic systems change.
Raymond McCauley, Principal at Exponential Biosciences and co-founder and Chief Architect for BioCurious, took to the stage at New Zealand’s Boma Grow summit to discuss advances in biotechnology and how these breakthroughs could help us answer the aforementioned challenges.
McCauley was clear and plainspoken as he articulated the gravity of the situation. "In the next 30 years, we need to grow as much food to feed the population as we have in the whole history of humanity," he said. However, he was quick to note that advances being made in “drag and drop" gene editing are making it easier to enhance plants and animals for agricultural purposes.
McCauley continued by outlining the ways in which researchers are already adapting gene editing techniques to “grow” edible meat. Using cells taken from just a single animal, and using only a syringe, we can create a variety of different meat products, and McCauley noted that these products can even be engineered to contain healthier fats.
Of course, these advances won’t solve all of our issues, but they take us a step closer to securing widespread systems change.