Ready for Better GMOs?

Population growth isn’t the apocalyptic problem Malthusian greens once spent so much time making it out to be, but even though growth rates are slowing down, feeding our planet’s billions remains one of the biggest challenges for humanity. That task becomes even harder when you consider that our warming planet and its changing climate are going to create new challenges for farmers. Threats to food security are proliferating even as the demands placed on our agricultural system grow along with the global population.

But there’s hope yet, as scientists are continuing to refine the techniques by which they can genetically modify crops to make them hardier, less reliant on pesticides, and capable of producing higher yields. But as the WSJ reports, we’re looking at GMO 2.0, as companies are developing ways to do more than genetically modify. Now, we’re genetically editing:

Gene editing is different from the genetic modifications that Monsanto and other companies pioneered in the 1980s.

Gene editing allows scientists to make changes to a plant’s already-existing DNA with the same precision that word-processing programs can edit text, scientists say. In the crop-seed business, genetic modification up to this point mainly has involved inserting new genes from bacteria or another plant. That difference can mean a shorter review by U.S. regulatory agencies for gene-edited crops. […]

Dr. Robert Fraley, Monsanto’s chief technology officer, said gene editing could help corn plants thrive in dry conditions, or produce tastier bell peppers. “It’s a breakthrough technology,” he said. “It’s going to create just a wave of innovation.”

We’ve continued to refine our understanding of genomes, and that knowledge, coupled with advances in computing, is now creating new opportunities for us to make the best possible versions of the food crops on which we rely.

Greens will invariably decry the “unnatural” aspects of these “GEOs”, just as they did with GMOs, and they’ll be able to sway certain sections of the public. But those Luddite concerns ignore the fact that we’ve been working to create better versions of our food since we started planting crops those many thousands of years ago. Gene editing is a far cry from selective breeding to be sure, but it’s still a variation on the same basic concept: human ingenuity adapting nature to better serve our needs.

These new editing techniques will undoubtedly be subject to the same scientific scrutiny that GMOs have been over the past few decades, but thus far research has shown genetically modified crops to be perfectly safe for human consumption. That’s good news, because we’re going to need every trick in the book if we want to not just feed every human on our planet, but help them thrive (with tastier peppers, even) as well.

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