Every year, around 1.3 billion tonnes of much needed food, perfectly fit for consumption and worth approximately US$ 1 trillion, fails to feed people. Reasons vary: in developed countries, a staggering 90–115 kilos of food per person is thrown out each year, while in the developing world, waste is more generally the result of crop disease and loss during storage, before it ever gets to a consumer.
Genetic modification (GM) is still controversial; some fear that when people start ‘playing God’ an apocalypse will follow. However, bioscientists believe that by making the most of progress in our understanding of crop chemistry and coupling this with what is now known about GM technology, not only can we begin to tackle the issue of mass food waste, we can do it safely and with little or no risk to the environment.
Prolonging useful life
Genetic manipulation of enzymes – proteins that carry out specific tasks in biological processes – is one way in which bioscientists hope to reduce the amount of food going bad before it reaches consumers. An enzyme that can extend the shelf life of fresh bread, for example, has recently been manufactured. There’s a bonus, too: for every 1,000 tonnes of bread produced using this enzyme, 50 tonnes of CO2 equivalents are saved thanks to waste reduction.
Poor crop yields can be the difference between life and death for many. Diseases such as bacterial leaf blight in rice are responsible for yield losses of 20–80 per cent: in India alone, this disease damages 6–7 million hectares of growing rice each year. By introducing bacterial- or insect-resistance genes into crops, scientists have demonstrated how to combat these devastating and wasteful losses.
Upping nutritional content
Can less be more? Could bioscience save lives? Golden rice has been designed to produce up to 23 times the amount of beta-carotene usually found in rice; beta-carotene is an essential precursor of vitamin A, and vitamin A deficiency kills almost three quarters of a million children under five each year. Trials are also under way to increase the mineral and antioxidant content of fruit and vegetables, with studies suggesting that consumers might be willing to pay a little more for such nutritionally enhanced foods. These developments could allow more people worldwide to receive all the nutrients they need to live healthy lives, without the need to increase the area of agricultural land.
Particularly in more affluent regions, people are picky about the food they buy and eat. Bananas must be curved just-so, carrots straight, and apples must have no brown blemishes. Around the world, farmers who supply major international supermarkets throw away many tonnes of food just because it lacks good looks. Now, however, techniques such as RNA interference or ‘gene silencing’ are being mobilized to ‘switch off’ genes that cause browning, promising to maximize the number of ‘attractive’ apples and thus reduce loss.
We will all have to change our attitudes to what we eat and the way food is produced if we are to conserve our planet and protect and expand our resources. An acceptance of biotechnology, including GM, as an everyday part of our lives is likely to be critical in this. After all, most of us would be more than happy to receive stem-cell therapy if we became ill enough to need it.