Genetically Modified Crops – From Crop Pest to Food Sustainability

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September 16, 2022


Food & Nutrition / Synthetic Biology


Genetically Modified Crops – From Crop Pest to Food Sustainability

Global famine is a consequence of the misallocation of resources, but it also stems from exponential human growth. Every day more and more people suffer from malnutrition. While it is true that most of them live in underdeveloped or developing regions, these situations also exist in first-world countries. Moreover, the situation is expected to worsen if no action is taken, as humanity’s food and energy requirements will increase significantly by 2050. In the face of these vicissitudes – and many others throughout our history – the only thing that has allowed us to advance is reason and science.

The best way to lower prices and ensure excess production is to increase crop yield. The problem is that current agricultural yields are highly inefficient, as consumption of fertile soil and other resources such as water and energy are high. In addition, many “green” alternatives on the market attempt a highly unproductive model that they sell as a panacea to save the Earth. While their nutritional quality may be higher than a careless product, the truth is that if all the crops on the planet were grown in this way, we would feed far fewer people – which is a serious problem. So perhaps we should listen to what the science has to say about this, and whether it is possible to optimize yields without losing quality using genetic engineering.

How to increase production?

Obviously, this is easier said than done. To overcome the millions of years of physiological adaptations of plants, we must first know their genome very well. Each species has a very different genome, so we should focus on the plants that we grow most frequently, such as maize, potatoes, tomatoes, and wheat. Once we know their genetic instructions, we need to identify yield problems. Are they only productive a few months of the year because of drought avoidance strategies? Do some plants not withstand the winter cold? In addition to the problems to be solved, the other facet of genetic modification is to improve the characteristics that already work, such as photosynthesis.

The first category of modifications is somewhat simpler since in some cases it would be sufficient to add a resistance gene to solve these troubles. This includes solutions such as resistance to pests, whether fungal, bacterial, or phytophagous insects. The identification of resistance genes is a whole branch of genetic engineering in which thousands of candidate organisms are studied, which may have an interesting characteristic because of where or how they live. Thus, it is not uncommon to see GMOs with cold resistance genes isolated from an arctic bacterium.

As for improving plant physiological processes, they are the most complex and also the most promising. While solving problems avoids yield losses (a linear increase), multiplying photosynthetic capacity would mean much greater use of resources, with a net exponential increase to our current model. These changes are profound and complicated, and plant physiology alone is not sufficient to understand the outcome of the necessary modifications. This holistic approach is known as systems biology, where artificial intelligence and data science combine with genomic and physiological disciplines to achieve an optimal outcome. Of course, there are many different ways to improve photosynthetic performance: improving light energy uptake at the thylakoid membrane, increasing the affinity of RuBisCO carboxylase for CO2, or artificially concentrating CO2 within the leaf by carboxysomes to prevent photorespiration.

Can an artificial organism be good for health?

Of course. In fact, it is not only harmless; it may also be designed to be better than its natural variant. There are many examples that have already been created for that, such as golden rice. Thanks to this product, many people with a dietary vitamin A deficiency have been able to benefit from this biotechnological breakthrough. But, with more ignorance than anything else, some organizations and activists have criticized golden rice, with arguments that are more political than health-related. However, the origin of the problem of inequality should not be forgotten, nor should the possible loss of natural biodiversity, if the transgenic crop is not well designed and controlled. As always, the trick is to take advantage of tools without abusing or misusing them.

Current State & Start-ups

Simple to medium complexity modifications has been used in agriculture for some time. There are transgenic seedless watermelons that are perfectly integrated into our markets. However, those that lead to a significant improvement in production have not yet been implemented, and this is of concern because it is estimated that production must increase by 70% before 2050 to meet the minimum demand, and we are running out of arable land. For these reasons, the future necessarily lies in synthetic biology.

There are many Agtechs in this area, perhaps not attempting to engineer photosynthesis (ground still led by public research) but paving the way for the implementation of these genetic improvements. EarthSense has developed an autonomous robot (TerraSentia) that allows monitoring different physiological stresses of crop plants, as well as using machine learning to interpret this data in real-time. Another way to increase crop yields that often goes unnoticed is to diagnose the root microbiome of plants, on whose health the incorporation of nitrogen and phosphorus into the plant depends. Biome Makers are pioneers in this, as they not only make a diagnosis by sequencing but also interpret the presence of microorganisms and their impact on your crop. Yields can also be increased by taking advantage of space in vertical crops, such as Verdical.

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