For the past several years, a main focus of the Global Food Safety Conference has been food security: As a group of professionals focused on providing the world’s food supply, how are we to meet the growing need to feed the world’s ever-increasing population? Can it be done safely and sustainably? It is with these concerns in mind that Food Safety Magazine (FSM) sought to question several experts in the food safety and food security arenas to build awareness of the challenges ahead in solving this critical problem: How do we do more with fewer resources?
FSM asked Bruce M. Chassy, Ph.D., professor emeritus, food science and human nutrition, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, to enlist an expert panel for this discussion. From the food safety arena are Richard E. Goodman, Ph.D., research professor, food science and technology, University of Nebraska, Lincoln; Alison Van Eenennaam, Ph.D., Cooperative Extension specialist, animal genomics and biotechnology, University of California, Davis; and Wayne Parrott, Ph.D., department of crop & soil sciences at the University of Georgia. The food security experts include David Zilberman, Ph.D., professor and Robinson chair, department of agricultural and resource economics, University of California, Berkeley; Ronald J. Herring, Ph.D., professor of government and international professor of agriculture and rural development, Cornell University; and Clare Thorp, Ph.D., managing director at the Biotechnology Industries Organization.
FSM: Describe the cost and impacts of food insecurity in the world today.
Zilberman: There are between 1 and 2 billion people who are not reaching their human potential because of lack of access to food. Besides problems of blindness because of lack of vitamin A, stunting and wasting, hundreds of millions are suffering from nutritional deficiencies that affect their mental as well as physical development, and many more suffer from key nutrient deficiencies and at the same time are obese.
FSM: Can society bear the costs of solving food insecurity? Can it afford not to solve the problem and will it be at the sacrifice of food safety?
Zilberman: It is not clear that food security and food safety are contradictory. Solving one can solve the other. Increasing the food supply by taking advantage of all of the technologies available does not mean we need to relax regulatory standards that are used to improve food safety. Food insecurity is often the result of insufficient production, poor distribution and economic constraints. Frequently, reduced access to food may induce people to engage in activities that increase their productivity. Thus, policies that will increase productivity of food systems, access to and distribution of food, and economic access can enhance both food security and food safety.
FSM: From a plant breeders’ point of view, do we have the water, land and soil resources required to feed 9–11 billion people?
Parrott: Easily, particularly the land part. It is worth remembering that the amount of food could increase up to two-thirds for some crops simply by stopping pre- and postharvest losses from pests and diseases. The one resource that is lacking is public acceptance of new technologies.
FSM: Describe the political dimensions of food insecurity in the world today. What have/haven’t governments done to reduce food insecurity and improve food safety?
Herring: Food security is a goal that sounds good but is poorly understood and subject to different political framings. Opponents of modern technology deploy the term “food sovereignty” rather than “food security” to indicate opposition to trade, markets and extra-local dependencies. At the other end, industry groups talk of highly aggregated food security as if there were a single global situation. Food security needs disaggregation and context to be relevant to policy.
We’re on solid ground thinking of food security in individual and biological terms. And to be food secure does not mean living among great aggregate amounts: One can argue that overconsumption of calories now threatens more health in all societies than underconsumption, though “hunger” remains the politically effective framing. Food security should mean that individuals have adequate nutrition to fulfill the potential of their genes. The number of people who suffer from less than this adequate nutrition hovers around a billion.
Success in assuring food availability does not mean eliminating food insecurity. One example makes this point. India has the largest concentration of undernourished people in the world. But India produces and exports surplus food—especially beef, to the surprise of many. Nevertheless, rates of malnutrition among children are very high and very stubborn, despite great advances in food availability and rapid economic growth.
So if we ask, “Where does one most efficiently spend additional dollars to improve food security?” the answer may not be food. Once we focus on nutrition and bioavailability of nutrients, a range of interventions often trumps increasing access to more food.
Why have governments done little about this? In rich countries, the people who need help are often politically marginal. There is no consequence for politicians because these people do not vote for the folks who draw up budgets. Rich people in rich countries prefer not to part with their income to help poor people in rich countries. But there are coalitions that redistribute income and nutrition. The Bolsa Familia program in Brazil and food subsidies in Mexico are recent examples. India’s National Food Security Act of 2013 indicates how making a food entitlement apply to a very broad spectrum of society makes it more politically palatable: A larger coalition means more effective collective action. But such wide coverage incurs very large fiscal costs.
Is significant improvement in the malnutrition situation possible politically? Yes, with the right priorities. One precondition is acceptance of the science that will both delineate problems and develop solutions. That acceptance cannot be taken for granted in politics, either nationally or globally.
Thorp: Historically, food insecurity was simplistically associated with caloric deficiency, often with poverty and not in a developing country. As more complex understandings of food insecurity have developed, recognition of the multidimensional challenges and possible solutions have emerged.
Food security has been defined around the availability of the food supply, with adequate nutrition defined not just in terms of caloric intake but including essential micronutrients. If “availability” is defined in terms of sufficient quantities of food through domestic production or imports, then “access” to adequate resources for acquiring foods for a nutritious diet is another dimension to food security. Thus, one can see how food security is impacted by myriad factors and is not confined to societies traditionally viewed as food insecure or outside of developed nations.
Food security is also not just about the availability of food but about supply predictability. One common assumption is that adequate crop yields will protect against food insecurity. In 2008 and 2011, the food price index doubled despite yearly improvements in crop yield. There were many factors driving the sudden volatility, such as high fuel costs and significant growing demand in emerging economies.
The United Nations states that there must be a 70% increase in agricultural productivity to feed the growing population. Achieving this will require investment in agricultural research and the use of agricultural technologies of all types—improved breeding, the use of genetic modification, crop protection technologies, better irrigation systems and improved water conservation, integrated soil management and the use of no-till agriculture. The recent report Food Security in a World of Growing Natural Resource Scarcity: The Role of Agricultural Technologies by the International Food Policy Research Institute modeled the benefits of these technologies for different countries and crops: Integrating these technologies increases yield, and reduces food prices and the risk of hunger. What is important is not just the technologies, but that they are available to the farmer and can be used properly. Therefore, whenever we ban a technology for unfounded reasons, we compromise a farmer’s ability to manage and grow his crop because we reduce the number of tools he has available to him.
FSM: What sociopolitical forces are working to improve food safety and/or food security?
Herring: One does not find, to my knowledge, strong political forces behind enhanced food safety. Rather, there are ways in which political forces may endanger food safety for ideological reasons. Ideological opposition to state regulation can vitiate state capacity. Without regulatory capacity, and without consequences for violations of food safety law, food safety will be compromised. Second, opponents of modern agricultural technology may block innovations that could improve food safety—as well as the safety of food producers.
One example of the latter case may indicate the dynamics. Campaigners in a broad international coalition in India reversed the approval by a scientific regulatory authority of a transgenic eggplant in 2010. Investigations by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee in Delhi had found that an insecticide explicitly not approved for use on any food product was being sprayed on eggplants to control an especially devastating pest, the shoot and fruit borer. Moreover, I found in talking to farmers in India that spraying the eggplants continued up to the day—even hour—of harvest, despite warnings on all locally used insecticides that 5 days of no spraying should intercede before harvesting. There was also a simple remedy tested by conventional scientific protocols over 9 years and approved by the statutory body for regulating genetic engineering (GE) in agriculture. Nevertheless, the crop could not be approved; the scientists and regulators were overruled by a Minister of Environment very much influenced by popular mobilization. This decision blocked release to farmers because the crop contained a Bt gene (cry1Ac) to control insect pests, qualifying it as a genetically modified organism (GMO).
In this case, a safer food that is widely consumed was blocked for ideological reasons and the power of a single minister of environment to veto a decision on food safety. He was influenced in this decision by disreputable science claiming dire consequences of ingesting Bt proteins. That there was no evidence for these claims, which were rejected by the European Food Safety Authority as well as by India’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, was irrelevant to the politics. Science is inherently vulnerable in politics.
Thorp: There is no one solution for a problem with as many moving parts as improving food security. However, there have been some major breakthroughs in thinking or approaches to combating food security, and the development of disruptive technologies that have had significant influence on how food insecurity can be mitigated.
Ironically, the post-World War II policies of the EU as well as the post-Depression-era policies of the U.S. in the form of the Farm Bill have had both positive and negative impacts on food security. Both were driven by food insecurity and resulted in massive increases in agricultural production, driven by the application of evolving technologies coupled with payments for production—or insurance against loss—which drove increased efficiencies, yields and innovation. However, both resulted in large global stocks of commodities that inflated world prices, distorted trade and impacted the type of food aid given to developing countries in a significant and often detrimental manner. Generally, open markets or borders are beneficial to food security, not detrimental.
Agricultural technologies have resulted in an evolution towards greater productivity, efficiency of production and sustainability, but this is often perceived as a move away from the bucolic view many have of farming and towards what is often referred to as “industrial agriculture.” More recent technological innovations offer massive potential, not just from the perspective of increased yield, but improved food quality, soil and water conservation, and food safety. Some offer massive promise but have also become hugely contentious. This has impacted their use, often through the implementation of restrictive government policies based on public opinion regarding their safety.
FSM: Could the use of nutrient-enriched GE crops serve as an effective tool to provide “more for less” in terms of the global food supply?
Goodman: Yes. Not only beta carotene (Golden Rice), but iron, zinc and other micronutrients in rice and other staple crops can help provide nutritious dietary needs that are only available through high-energy, high-input sources now. Some things are less direct: feeding farmed fish without the need for expensive and environmentally critical ocean resources. Some of those things can be achieved with GE algae, or GE soybeans or other untapped resources.
Van Eenennaam: Of course; why would this not be the case? Plants already make many nutrients—why not more? It frustrates me to have to choose one approach (GE) or another. That is a false dichotomy. It may be the inclusion of a nutrient-enriched crop combined with improved integrated pest management, crop diversity and raising some chickens to provide high-quality animal protein, salable eggs and animal manure for fertilizer offer the best nutritional options for a family. Why would any component of that solution be off the table based on ideological grounds? It should be the decision of those people facing food insecurity whether they chose to grow nutrient-enriched GE crops based on the science-based risks and potential benefits as documented in the scientific literature, and not on fearmongering of First World activist groups.
Parrott: To the extent where any given nutrient is deficient in the population, of course. There are regions where nutrition-enhanced crops would be useful. It does not cost any more to grow a more nutritious crop.
Zilberman: Without a doubt. Golden Rice is one example. But even applications that enhance the digestibility of soybean and reduce the volume of soybeans needed to feed animals can have incredible benefit for food availability and food cost.
Thorp: In short, yes, but it’s not the only tool available. Crop breeders are already using conventional breeding techniques to develop vegetables that have higher levels of antioxidant anthocyanins, such as the purple potato. Genetic technologies that allow mining of the plant genome are contributing to developing more rapid conventional breeding tools that enable targeted improvements and reduce the time required to develop a new variety from about 10 years to about 3 or 4.
FSM: Do some crops pose greater food safety hazards than others? Are GE crops a particular concern?
Parrott: Crops like potatoes have been known to intoxicate and even kill people from time to time. Bitter cassava can give konzo, and coconuts can fall and hit a person on the head; the same cannot be said for corn or rice. So yes, some crops are riskier than others. From a biological point of view, unintended effects from GE should not increase or decrease risks inherent in some crops.
FSM: Is plant breeding to introduce new traits such as improved nutrition or resistance to biotic and abiotic stresses generally safe?
Parrott: If increased resistance to insects and other pests involves toxins, then there are risks involved. Think celery, which can naturally cause skin irritation. In general, though, there are hundreds of thousands of examples of breeding for pest resistance that have not created problems. There is less experience with improved nutrition, but it is difficult to come up with a biologically plausible explanation of a higher risk. In general, plant breeding has one of the best safety records of all technologies. It is also important to note that unlike conventionally bred pest-resistant crops, pest-resistant GE crops have an impeccable safety record.
FSM: Which emerging biotechnologies in food safety hold the most promise for combating food insecurity?
Goodman: In the short term, RNA interference [RNAi], with either incorporated or coated RNAs to block insect/fungal and bacterial contamination in foods and reduced reliance on insecticides and fungicides that accumulate and adversely impact the environment or food utilization. Environmental stress relief (drought or flooding) will be a significant food security issue. There are some projects that are biotech, and some that are through marker-selected breeding that are showing promise. Also, there are a number of GE and non-GE biotech potential products under development.
Van Eenennaam: The application of inactivated or live, attenuated vaccines offers a cost-effective measure to control or even eradicate an infectious disease as exemplified by the near-eradication of rinderpest. Recombinant vaccines based on reverse vaccinology where genomics is used to predict antigenic proteins are also likely to be of increasing importance, if this biotechnology is allowed to be deployed. Since recombinant DNA technology was used in the development of these vaccines, they may be targeted by activists. Molecular diagnostics are also a powerful application of biotechnology to monitor disease outbreaks and animal health.
Advances in molecular biology mean that genes can be deleted, modified and inserted with far greater precision. In particular, new GE tools known as TALENs [transcription activator-like effector nucleases] and CRISPR [clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats] allow geneticists to “edit” genomic DNA, changing chromosomes exactly where they want. Gene editing allows for undesirable alleles to be changed into desirable ones without the need for breeding those alleles in via introgression. The future of this technology is unclear due to regulatory uncertainty about these techniques despite the fact they directly mimic evolution.
Parrott: Besides modifications to prevent food losses and increase yields, I choose synthetic biology, simply because the flip side of food security is energy security, and they compete for land and other resources. Plants can also be repurposed to make many products, replacing petroleum and helping lessen climate change. In turn, synthetic biology needs genome editing (CRISPR and TALENs), which can be used to make precise sequence changes without introducing any rDNA, as occurred with older GE techniques. Such changes would not differ from natural sequence variations that underpin evolution. It is curently unclear whether such changes would trigger regulation, as the product would contain no detectable rDNA. Genome editing proides flexibility to breeders and extends the range of what can be done with GE.
Zilberman: Biotechnologies that reduce spoilage and disease can improve both food safety and food security. For example, Bt corn can reduce exposure to fumonisin and other mycotoxins.
Thorp: Crop biotechnology can reduce traditional pesticide use. It can be used to insert genes into a crop that confer resistance to a pest or pathogen, thereby obviating the need to apply a chemical pesticide. This has been successful in reducing insecticide use for pests such as the cotton boll weevil or corn borer. Another route is to develop crops that are resistant to certain herbicides. Reducing herbicide use has already been accomplished through approximately 20 years of using crops engineered to be resistant to glyphosate. As one of the safest herbicides available, which regulatory authorities describe as “practically nontoxic,” using glyphosate also addresses concerns over human health and environment. A more recent technology combines resistance to two herbicides, again allowing for improved weed control with reduced herbicide use. Unfortunately, the development of new biotech varieties with a wider range of traits has been stymied by public concerns, and the development of “second-generation” biotech crops that address nutrient deficiencies, or which could have medical, bioremediation or fuel uses, has been severely limited for the same reasons. This is unfortunate, particularly in countries where regulatory oversight of traditional pesticide use is poor to nonexistent, and where this technology could reduce farmer exposure while still protecting yield and quality of his crop.
FSM: Can biotechnology be used to improve food safety of animals?
Van Eenennaam: According to the Convention on Biological Diversity: “Biotechnology is any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms or derivatives thereof to make or modify products or processes for specific use.” By that definition, almost all technology we use in food animal production is biotechnology. There are three main areas where technology can influence animal production and food safety: genetics, nutrition and animal health. Improving these will improve both animal health and also animal food safety. There are a multitude of biotechnologies that could help with all three of these. The question is, which of these biotechnologies are we going to be able to use and which are going to be removed from consideration due to activist opposition and political interference? The use of GE in the production of food animals has been mired in considerable controversy. Despite the fact that GE animals predated GE plants in the early 1980s, not a single GE animal application has been approved for food use anywhere in the world. Such inexplicable delays are not a feature of a science-based regulatory system, but rather one that is clearly subject to activist pressure and political intervention. What other worthwhile applications will this regulatory roadblock preclude from coming to market in the future? Disease-resistant animals that do not succumb to common diseases and therefore have improved animal welfare, more efficiently produce milk, meat and/or eggs, and require less therapeutic treatment with antibiotics? The lack of a regulatory decision is itself also associated with risks and opportunity costs—as are all decisions!
FSM: Can we intensify farm animal production and at the same time maintain acceptable safety standards?
Van Eenennaam: This question seems to imply that farm animal intensification compromises animal product food safety. In fact, in many situations, the reverse is true—consider that avian flu is often the result of interactions between wild birds and domestic poultry populations. Like crop farmers, animal farmers have to protect their animals from pests, including disease-causing microbes, and this typically involves some type of integrated pest management system.
FSM: Can biotechnology affect food allergy?
Goodman: There is no scientific evidence to show any increase in food allergy related to consumption of GE crops. Of course, one can claim a correlation of increased food allergy and increased approvals and growing of GE crops. A number of social media authors are claiming many adverse health effects are due to the increased use of GE crops, but they do not have proof and have not offered any plausible mechanism by which such effects could occur, only speculation.
Approved GE crops are closely evaluated for potential risk factors of food allergy that would have an impact. The primary risk would be transfer of a gene/protein of an allergen from one source into a different food crop. Similar risks would be associated with the transfer of a protein that is nearly identical to an allergen so that it might cause cross-reactions.
Of course, we cannot predict all potential risks of food allergy by scientific tests. Scientists are striving to improve the safety assessment, but we have to work within the constraints of scientific knowledge about allergy to all foods and all proteins. And we have to acknowledge that whenever you eat a new food, there is a risk of sensitization and acquisition of new food allergies, but the actual prevalence of novel allergies emerging is exceedingly low. Some critics of the technology would suggest we should not consume any GE crop unless we can prove absolute food safety. No food is absolutely safe; what we can do is demonstrate that a GE food is as safe as any other variety of that same crop.
There are some opportunities for the reduction of food allergy or celiac disease through tools of modern biotechnology. However, there are many challenges to such an undertaking. Some are technical, some are economic, some regulatory, and some involve being able to reliably differentiate between varieties and foods that have reduced allergen content and those that are “normal” in allergenicity.
We do not yet understand whether the individual proteins in allergenic crops contain all of the properties that lead to allergy, or if there are other matrix factors, whether lectins, fatty acids or other compounds, in a food crop like peanut or wheat that makes them more allergenic than soybeans (medium allergenicity) and rice and maize that are considered much lower in allergenic properties. We are trying to use animal models to try to understand the difference between peanut and soybeans, but so far do not have answers.
There is the possibility that using RNAi technology will markedly reduce the expression of the most potent allergens in peanut, the 2S albumins. These changes in expression would likely make peanuts less likely to elicit reactions in peanut-allergic subjects if they consumed low amounts of peanut. But some would likely still react. It is not clear if this peanut would be less likely to sensitize naïve consumers. So in principle, scientists may be able to reduce allergen levels using RNAi.
Parrott: Except that there are viruses that can infect plants in the field and turn off RNAi, restoring production of the allergen. The only “safe” way is to use genome editing to remove the offending gene entirely.
Goodman: Another method of promise for gene editing to remove functional genes is the CRISPR/Cas9 system, which can target specific genes. I have not yet seen any publications using this technique to remove genes encoding allergens or specific glutens, but it is theoretically quite achievable. An important question is whether the major allergens or glutens could be removed without dramatic alteration of the functional food properties of the crop. Additionally, it would be essential to ensure that any gene expression compensatory system has not upregulated other allergens or glutens.
Assuming one of these methods is successful in the dramatic reduction of the expression of allergens, is there a way to differentiate the commodity in the food chain? If so, there is a chance that product could be channeled to food companies and on to consumers to reduce risks of allergy.
Costs of developing a new GE variety range from tens of millions to more than $130 million, which includes development, germline selection and breeding to homozygosity, demonstrating that the variety is environmentally adapted to where it can be grown and evaluating potential risks of allergy, toxicity and nutritional properties. Regulatory submissions are likely required for most GE technologies, although some developers are arguing for deregulation of RNAi products. It also takes about 10 or more years to advance from product concept to a commercial event that is approved and seed advanced to commercial sales.
Currently, the major allergenic crops and food ingredients derived from those crops must be labeled on packaged foods. If the product cannot be differentiated from the normal varieties in processed foods, it is unlikely that regulators would allow it on the market except with a label showing the product contains the allergenic source. That would not help allergic consumers.
FSM: What are the top areas where food safety and food security overlap, and which provide the greatest challenge to food security?
Goodman: If there are opportunities to reduce plant pathogens that lead to toxicity or antinutrient expression in commodity crops, there would be good opportunities. For instance, reducing fungal or bacterial diseases in plants, reducing the ability of human or mammalian pathogenic bacteria to invade and be maintained in plants would be useful. Currently, food contaminated with certain bacteria or fungi has to be discarded or destroyed to prevent harm to consumers.
Van Eenennaam: There are some very clear conflicts between increasing animal protein food security and food safety. The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) estimates that worldwide, more than 20% of animal protein is lost as a result of disease. The widespread occurrence of animal diseases in developing countries is one of the major factors responsible for decreasing livestock productivity in these countries and can pose a food safety risk in the case of zoonotic diseases. Generally, these diseases mostly affect resource-poor livestock farmers, and hence their effective control is essential for poverty alleviation. However, some of the animal disease reporting and trading requirements of the OIE are difficult for countries in the developing world, especially smallholder farmers, to attain, and hence their animal products cannot move into trade. These stringent animal and food safety rules clearly favor large intensive production systems where disease exposure can be minimized through intensive housing systems as compared to extensively raised, smallholder livestock.
Parrott: There can be no food security without food safety. The technology to ensure both is there; public opinion and support is not there. Thus, the largest challenge is public opinion, not science.
Zilberman: Food spoilage is a big problem. It can lead to disease as well as shortages. Food spoilage can be the result of poor storage and management [or] exposure to the elements, and can be addressed both by better storage facilities and treatment by chemicals as well as better management. Another problem is water quality—low water quality may damage both food safety and food security.
Thorp: From my perspective as an agricultural scientist, some of the most important areas of overlap between food safety and security occur around the use of agricultural technologies. This is because the benefits to food safety and food security offered by the incorporation of these technologies into an agricultural production system, be it for crop or animal protection, far outweigh any of the food safety issues that are so often perceived to be associated with them, yet it is these perceptions of safety that are driving restrictions on their use. Those restrictions are not confined to the country where those concerns are raised, but because of the globalization of the food supply, they have a far greater reach. They impact the standards used to judge whether or not a food is acceptable for import, and this in turns sends a strong signal to the producing country as to what technologies may or may not be used if they wish to access high-value markets such as those in the U.S., Japan or EU.
FSM: Will the increasing demand for food over the next few decades exacerbate food safety challenges?
Goodman: Food safety is always a challenge in providing sufficient, nutritious food to consumers, with consideration of different dietary requirements across the population. Age and metabolic or disease status can have special requirements and needs to maintain food safety. Two hundred years ago (and in some cultures), more than one-half of the people produced most of their food directly and it was limited in variety. But there were a lot of spoilage and local food safety problems. Today, fewer than 2% of the population is directly involved in food production on a commercial level in the U.S. and Western Europe. Much of our food is produced on large farms or by the fishing industry, and processed in some way and shipped to consumers. The global food production and distribution system is offering great diversity, but it presents challenges in food traceability and presents increased risks for a broad population when food is contaminated by microbes or cross-contaminated with allergens or glutens.
Issues related to global food supplies could increase risks for some consumers that will expand as the global population grows and as more people depend on others to produce their foods. Educating farmers, food shippers, processors, manufacturers and consumers is a challenge for certain issues like control of allergenic sources and glutens. Some environmental limitations and pressures make cross-contamination more likely. We need to multi-crop more farmland. We need to conserve and reuse containers and water.
At some level, increases in technology lead to better communication that might help reduce risks. Additionally, technical fixes for tracing food sources and segregation can help. But at the same time, the reality of costs of production will always put pressure on the food system to maintain affordable food. And manufacturing in larger facilities can increase chances of larger batch sizes that might have to be recalled in the event of cross-contamination.
Alternatively, as we diversify our food systems to meet demand in quantity and diversity of tastes, the chance of an expanding list of allergenic foods will stretch producers, consumers and allergists to identify risks and provide accurate diagnosis and greater controls and labeling.
The regulatory system in each country and internationally will undoubtedly be stressed and pushed to expand testing and controls to protect consumers. Because we cannot predict (yet) which proteins or food sources may become significant allergens, regulators may overreach the science and end up increasing costs and delaying change without the added benefit of protection. On the other hand, food companies are stretching market diversity to influence consumers and help to produce “healthy” new foods based on “organic” and “natural” that may introduce other health risks.
FSM: Do you feel that the lack of clean water underlies the majority of food security problems globally, and why (or why not)?
Goodman: Yes, contaminated water is a major source of bacterial food contamination in many parts of the world. It is essential for personal hygiene, for meeting drinking water needs, but it is also important for safe food processing. It is a very limited resource. We must protect “clean” sources of water by preventing contamination of ground and surface water.
Van Eenennaam: Man does not live by bread alone, and neither do women, kids or livestock. You can’t grow food without water, and you can’t survive without water or food. Both are wicked problems with no simplistic solutions, especially given climate variability and weather extremes such as the continuing drought in California. Again, we will need a variety of different solutions to meet these challenges. We need to be pragmatic and technology agnostic, and select the best solutions to address problems if we are to solve the need for food security and safety.
Parrott: Yes, in areas where lack of security comes from lack of safe food rather than from lack of food availability. Also, some foods are easier to contaminate with unclean water than others. Having been hospitalized a few times with severe food poisoning, I can attest to the importance of using clean water for crop irrigation.
Zilberman: Not the majority, but a significant amount of these problems are caused by water quality problems, especially in India. Water quality may lead to diseases that reduce productivity and then may result in additional food security problems.
Herring: Yes, assuming people have access to food; that means having sufficient money in a market economy.
Thorp: Food security is a complex mix of components and interactions, and this is a significant component. The UN’s International Decade for Action “Water for Life” speaks of access to water as critical to ensuring food security, stating, “Water is key to food security. Crops and livestock need water to grow. Agriculture requires large quantities of water for irrigation and of good quality for various production processes. While feeding the world and producing a diverse range of non-food crops such as cotton, rubber and industrial oils in an increasingly productive way, agriculture also confirmed its position as the biggest user of water on the globe. Irrigation now claims close to 70% of all freshwater appropriated for human use.” Water has many uses—drinking, sanitation, irrigation and food processing—and the importance of whether or not it is clean depends on that use.
FSM: What are the highest-priority needs for addressing food insecurity?
Goodman: We need to produce more with less: less fertilizer, less water, less energy. Some of the improvements can come about through contributions of biotechnology. Many require other advances.
Many of the things have little or nothing to do with GE. Whether GE crops can feed the world isn’t even a useful question. Rather, we have to be developing alternative protein, vitamin and other critical nutrient sources as alternatives to beef and dairy. We don’t need to stop eating beef and milk products, but we could/should cut back if we replace them with other nutritious and appetizing foods and ingredients.
No matter what we do, we cannot continue to increase the population density and total numbers/size and expect to be able to live as we do in the more developed nations.
Van Eenennaam: That is a big question! There are many; for sure, GE crops are nowhere near at the top of the list! Access to water, markets, infrastructure, food storage and transportation are all huge. Improving the education and training of women farmers in developing countries is huge. Even provision of simple concepts like an effective agricultural Extension Service that teaches well-established agricultural principles similar to the field days that Cooperative Extension coordinated in the 20th century would be helpful. Tools to enable precision agriculture and market access using cellphones have a lot of potential. No idea that could help should be verboten on ideological grounds.
Thorp: This is a massive question and depends very much on the country/region of the world in question! However, my answer to this is to ensure farmers not only have access to all forms of agricultural technology, but that they have the knowledge to understand which will work best and are most appropriate for their circumstances, and the knowledge or support system to ensure they can apply them effectively. Thus, agricultural research and education is critical to food security.
So too are government policies which respect international trade agreements, are science and risk based, and which do not ban technologies outright but examine their costs and benefits as they relate to the circumstances under which they are used. Thus, de facto bans on crop biotechnology, or ensuring certain pesticides are impossible to use because the maximum threshold levels on food are impossibly low, should be reexamined for this reason, particularly where these technologies have already undergone extensive regulatory review and can be used safely.
Finally, because I see one of the most significant challenges to food security is how developed countries perceive their food and how it is produced, and that this perception influences food production in other countries and global trade in agricultural commodities, mature democracies have an obligation to ensure their public consultation processes are balanced and reflect the facts and data.
FSM: Are there major political challenges to improving global food security and food safety over the next three decades?
Herring: Yes; political sins of omission and commission are highly probable.
Water is among the most obvious threats. As water tables drop, poorer farmers lose out to farmers with deep pockets who can drill deeper, get credit more easily and drop the water table below the level accessible by poor farmers. Food security among small farmers is then threatened.
Farmers will also need new cultivars, developed quickly, to adapt to a more volatile climate with less predictability. Agricultural research already has high returns to society; with climate change, it will become even more critical to food security. Bringing crops from research to market is a long and complicated process. Though the science on which regulatory approvals of new cultivars [is based] does not vary from nation to nation, politics does, making for asynchronicity in trade and both uncertainty and depressed investment just when it is most needed. Especially pernicious is opposition to GE; the politics of demonizing GMOs enter this equation in unpredictable and detrimental ways.
Thorp: Some of the major challenges are population growth, weed and pest pressure, land and soil conservation (limited resources impact food security), environmental challenges (e.g., climate change, increased salinity and depletion of water resources in currently cropped areas) and public perceptions of food production in affluent societies.
It is not that food shouldn’t be safe—it should—the prevention of foodborne illness has contributed to an overall more healthy population and increased GDP per capita by reducing the loss of workdays due to illness. However, there are agricultural technologies which have made significant contributions to ensuring food security in the greatest sense of the word, and yet consumer perception has severely restricted their use, often in societies where the lack of these technologies has a far greater impact on the well-being of the population by directly impacting their already precarious food security.
FSM: Any last thoughts?
Goodman: There are many opportunities to improve food quality, security and reduce environmental damage if we do not limit options artificially, with prejudice and ignorance.
Approved GE crops are as safe as any similar non-GE crop and there is no need to segregate and discriminate based on false claims.
Organic foods are not safer: GE foods are not less safe. GE applications can dramatically reduce pesticide applications as seen in India, where farmers have adopted the technology and reduced application of some very toxic and persistent insecticides for cotton.
Misinformation used to promote products is not useful. For example, Chipotle reported to be avoiding GMOs to increase food safety, claiming that bovine somatotropin was an unsafe hormone (it is exactly like natural somatotropin, without which there would be no cows).
We need to maintain and judiciously use modern plant genetics, including marker-assisted selection-breeding, GE technology, RNAi, minimum tillage and efficient irrigation, and we need to maintain a system of producing insecticides and fungicides and use them judiciously.
Van Eenennaam: This might sound simplistic, but I think it is important to emphasize that all agricultural production systems face pests, be they microbial, plant or animal in origin. One role of farmers is to prevent pests from destroying their products so that they can produce as much food and feed as possible within the confines of their chosen production system on a given amount of land. Therefore, pest control is an important part of farm management. Any time that management strategies are implemented to control pests, a selection pressure is placed on the pest to evolve an approach to work around that management strategy. This is true of all production systems. That is why “integrated pest management” is recommended to delay this evolution and mix up the modes of pest control to delay this resistance.
Several California (and Oregon) counties have banned GE crops. As a result, conventional farmers there transitioned from Roundup®-ready crops (mostly corn and alfalfa) to non-GE crops and are now controlling weeds with herbicides that are considerably more toxic, persistent and environmentally damaging than the glyphosate herbicide that they replaced. I do believe that was the intent of the voters in those counties where there seemed to be a belief that banning GMOs would reduce the use of herbicides.
I hope for a more nuanced discussion about agriculture—one that considers the trade-offs associated with all production systems and how to control pests and balance the three pillars of sustainability (economics, environmental, social), while honestly weighing the pros and cons associated with different production systems. There is no silver bullet, nor one production system that is uniquely “sustainable.”
Parrott: Although food shortages have been predicted as far back as Malthus in 1798, human ingenuity has always found technological fixes that have circumvented predicted shortages. The necessary ingenuity and technology is in place to continue the trend toward increased food production and sustainability. What is different this time around is the social reluctance to use the enabling technologies.
It has been pointed out that while most people all want the latest tablet, smartphone, television and medical technology, society has not shaken off its nostalgia for a romanticized agriculture, even if such an agricultural system never existed. The result is growing social pressure to limit food production to pre-World War II technology. Sooner or later, society must determine if it can really meet the coming challenges in food safety and security while limiting food production to the old-fashioned way.
Zilberman: Increased productivity and reduced prices are still the main challenges. When there are shortages, the poorest suffer first. One advantage of GE technology is that it can increase productivity across the board, and the poor will benefit most. Improved transportation is another challenge, but at the same time, improved productivity, especially in poor areas, is important. Finally, lack of protein and minerals and vitamins in many poor diets as well as problems of obesity have become major food security challenges.
Herring: First is conceptual. We need to stop talking about big data and nation-states. The research that is most important is that connecting bioavailability of critical nutrients to crops and public health. Once this relationship is understood in specific terms for specific nutrients and specific settings, we need all the tools in the toolbox to be available to plant breeders on the one hand and public health officials on the other. This outcome presupposes that the politics of ideological opposition to rDNA and other forms of GE will not prevail and that spending priorities of governments and international agencies will look to the needs of the food insecure first, not last.
FSM: The dimensions of food insecurity and hunger are dauting: about 805 million of the 7.3 billion people in the world, or one in nine, suffer from chronic undernourishment. Almost all live in developing countries, representing 13.5%, or one in eight, of the population of developing countries. Hunger is not simply caused by poverty. It is more directly linked to the amount of food being produced and the ability to get the nutritional calories to the people who need it the most (basic infrastructure needs). It is an unfortunate truth that more than 60% of the world’s hungry are rural subsistence farmers for whom the world’s calorie supply is irrelevant. As the panelists point out, there’s no reason why it needs to be this way.
Food Safety Magazine thanks all the panelists for sharing their expertise. A special thank you goes to Bruce M. Chassy, Ph.D., for helping frame the discussion and assemble the panel.
Bruce M. Chassy, Ph.D., professor emeritus, food science and human nutrition, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Richard E. Goodman, Ph.D., research professor, food science and technology, University of Nebraska,
Alison Van Eenennaam, Ph.D., Cooperative Extension specialist, animal genomics and biotechnology,
University of California, Davis.
Wayne Parrott, Ph.D., professor, department of crop & soil sciences at the University of Georgia.
David Zilberman, Ph.D., professor and Robinson chair, department of agricultural and resource economics, University of California, Berkeley.
Ronald J. Herring, Ph.D., professor of government and international professor of agriculture and rural
development, Cornell University.
Clare Thorp, Ph.D., managing director at the Biotechnology Industries Organization.
5. Goodman, RE. 2014. Biosafety: Evaluation and regulation of genetically modified (GM) crops in the United States. J Hauzhong Agric Univ 33(6):85–114.
6. Goodman, RE, et al. 2008. Allergenicity assessment of genetically modified crops—What makes sense? Nature Biotechnol 26(1):73–81.
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