As the world population is predicted to near 10 billion by 2050, the demand for food may rise by 100 to 110%, which requires considerable technological progress to match such growing needs.
Genetically Modified Food. Image Credit: Marcin Balcerzak/Shutterstock.com
The challenges facing modern agriculture
Agricultural science has focused on the implementation of new tools to boost crop development, resilience, and reproduction, to counteract the emerging issues of abiotic modifications and the rising demand for human consumption. Accordingly, new tools and techniques from a range of scientific disciplines, from ecology to microbiology, are being integrated to contribute towards achieving food security.
Indeed, environmental changes are affecting agricultural systems around the world and negatively impacting crop production. Increasing greenhouse gas emissions has directly resulted in the rise of global temperatures, reduced cloud cover, increased storm events, and increased pollution. Indirectly, these abiotic modifications have also led to increased persistence of pests and pathogens, which combined with a demand for greater crop production, have severely affected crop availability.
The current pressures imposed by environmental and socioeconomic changes coincide with the rapid advances in our understanding and application of molecular processes. Accordingly, genetically modified crops may represent a promising candidate solution to secure the future of agricultural systems.
The golden age of molecular science
It is interesting to think that our understanding of the relationship between plants and genes has played a central role in our understanding of heritability, ancestry, and ultimately our knowledge of the evolution of life on earth. From the very beginning of modern scientific theory with the work of Gregor Mendel through to the modern-day research on the developmental biology of Arabidopsis, plant genetics are fundamental to scientific progress as a whole.
More recently, the rapid development of molecular tools and techniques from the 1970s has benefited a range of scientific disciplines and agricultural science in particular. Present-day techniques for genetic modification have revolutionized the outlook of agricultural science as tools have become affordable and standardized.
As a result, increasingly refined methods are being used throughout the agricultural process from food production to consumption. It is also very likely that we are only at the dawn of an era of genetic progress for food science and that the implementation of molecular tools has only just begun.
Genetically modified food and the era of CRISPR fame
Currently, numerous genome-editing tools and techniques have been adopted to compensate for the increased demand for food in the future as well as changing environmental conditions. Zinc-finger nucleases (ZFNs) targeting protein reagents was the first gene-editing technique to be implemented. However, the most popular tool by far has become the use of CRISPR technology.
CRISPR and its associated Cas proteins have transformed molecular biology and have provided a groundbreaking method to manipulate the genome of organisms of interest in a specific and precise way.
The application of CRISPR has been used to resolve many different issues in plants from inducing drought-resistance to forming immunity to harmful pests and pathogens.
Within food science, a crop that frequently experiences CRISPR modifications is the tomato family. Using CRISPR, scientists were able to induce changes such as parthenocarpy, a faster production cycle through earlier ripening as well as increased pigmentation. Most importantly, promising findings in tomatoes indicate that CRISPR-induced changes may be inherited, which would carry the modified traits through generations, although this is a rare instance and scientists have been able to replicate this in very few crops.
Further applications of CRISPR in fruit were also discussed in a 2019 review by Chinese researchers summarising the use of CRISPR. Researchers discussed the use of CRISPR to limit disease susceptibility, alter plant and flower morphology, improve fruit quality traits, and even increase fruit yield.
However, many improvements can further improve the application of CRISPR in agricultural science. For example, refining the transformation methods and delivery of CRISPR/Cas agents to target cells will improve the use of CRISPR in different tissues, such as germline cells, and help increase the compatibility of this method with more plant species.
Additionally, the aforementioned review concluded by highlighting that a central challenge for gene editing development is the need for successful communication channels to be established to explain the science behind genetic modification for the general public.
A promising yet controversial future
Despite the hopeful use of genetic modification to address the challenges of environmental change and growing food demands, a growing societal disagreement has formed in opposition to the production and consumption of genetically modified plants. This viewpoint has formed particularly in European countries such as France among others, which refuse to consider growing or importing genetically modified crops.
More specifically, parties in opposition to the genetic modification of crops argue that genetically modified plants are incompatible with the sustainable, organic, and healthy trajectory that certain populations want to maintain, which has little scientific evidence and originates frequently from a misunderstanding of the process of genetic manipulation.
This conflict requires urgent attention to secure a brighter future for food science. In particular, the responsibility for adequate communication requires efforts from both parties but primarily scientists, as communicating is needed. Implementing and refining new tools will bolster crop growth and production, ultimately aiming for a more sustainable and secure future.
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