It is an intriguing question, and some potential answers come readily to mind: discovering the New World, landing a man on the moon, conquering cancer, preventing nuclear war—all are great trials we have faced or are facing.
To me, however, the single greatest challenge in human history is whether we can sustainably feed the 9 to 10 billion people who will inhabit our planet by the year 2050, an estimate that is exponentially higher than the 1.6 billion people who lived on Earth just 100 years ago. And the most significant and controversial issue related to this question is what role biotechnology will play in confronting this challenge.
The other day, I saw the trailer for Rampage, a new movie about giant animals that attack a city. The fantastic special effects, though impressive, were not what caught my attention, however. My ears perked up when an actress playing a scientist asked, “Have you heard of genetic editing?”
Many of the people that will go to see Rampage in the theaters will not have heard yet of genetic editing and all the things it can do, but the presence of that line in a popular action movie shows that it’s starting to come into the public consciousness. Far from creating monster-sized animals like the ones depicted in the film though, gene editing technology is being used in many fields, from agriculture to healthcare, to solve problems and do things that would have been considered nigh impossible just a decade ago.
I heard about an example of one of these “impossible” solutions at my regular visit to my ophthalmologist, of all places. My doctor and I somehow got to chatting about Dr. Norman Borlaug and plant breeding, and I mentioned CRISPR, a gene editing technology that agricultural scientists are now using to develop new plant varieties that are resistant to diseases and drought. When he heard that, the doctor said, “CRISPR! We use that too, to cure patients that are blind.”
I was incredulous at this, so he told me that at the University of Iowa they have one of the most high-tech CRISPR labs in the U.S. They are able to take cells from the retina of a person who is blind due to a genetic defect, edit the DNA of those cells using CRISPR, and then put them back in the retina of the patient. As the cells propagate, the patient eventually develops their sight.
This was breathtaking to me. Making the blind see—that’s like a miracle straight out of the Bible. I had to know more, so I turned to Dr. George Church of Harvard’s Wyss Institute for answers. “Is this true?” I asked him. “Are you really able to make blind people see?” He confirmed that this is indeed something that is now able to be done with the great technological advancements that have been made in the field of gene editing.
This, for me, raised the question: What is the agricultural equivalent of making a blind person see? What is the “miracle” that we need in food production to feed the over nine billion people that will populate the Earth by 2050?
It was the desire to see this question answered that led one of the world’s greatest innovators Dr. Norman Borlaug, the Father of the Green Revolution, to create the World Food Prize. After receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his efforts in feeding the world and preventing widespread famine, Dr. Borlaug believed there should be a “Nobel Prize for Agriculture” in order to honor and inspire achievements in improving the quantity, quality, and accessibility of food for those in need. In 1986, Dr. Borlaug made that vision a reality by awarding the first World Food Prize to Dr. M.S. Swaminathan of India.
Now, more than 30 years later, the World Food Prize is recognized as the foremost international award recognizing individuals who have advanced human development through improved food security. Referred to as the “Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture,” it has been presented to 45 more laureates from 18 countries and the United Nations. The award ceremony is held in Des Moines, Iowa, at the beautiful Iowa State Capitol building and televised live on Iowa Public Television.
More than a thousand people from over 50 countries flock to the Borlaug Dialogue International Symposium as well, held every year in conjunction with the awarding of the Prize, to engage in discussion about the most current issues regarding agriculture and food systems. Last year, Dr. Feng Zhang, a molecular biologist and Core Member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, came back to his old hometown of Des Moines to join the Dialogue. He participated in a panel of other experts to talk about how CRISPR-Cas technology, of which he pioneered the development, could best be used to assist smallholder farmers.
“There’s a lot of exciting opportunity to apply this technology in both human health and also in agriculture,” Dr. Zhang said. “We’re really excited to make…the CRISPR technology openly accessible to any agricultural application, so that as many people as possible can benefit from the positive use and also the broad potential of the technology.”
These are the kinds of conversations that the World Food Prize wants to facilitate, and innovation in technology is always a part of those conversations.
On the same panel as Dr. Zhang, DuPont Pioneer’s Vice President of Research and Development Neal Gutterson talked about his company’s plans for using the CRISPR-Cas technology in their breeding program in ways that will benefit farmers, especially those most vulnerable to food insecurity. For the last five years, DuPont Pioneer has sponsored the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in formulating their annual Global Food Security Index, which is a measure of which countries are the most and least vulnerable to food insecurity.
I watched the presentation of the findings of the latest Global Food Security Index at Expo Milano in 2015. As he wrapped up his presentation, Managing Director of the EIU Robin Bew said, “There is still a long way to go before we are in a position to say that the world is, in any sense, food secure.” When I asked him if we were on course to meet the challenge of feeding 9 billion people, his reply was simple: “No, not without innovation.” Then Jim Borel, then Executive Vice President of DuPont, took the stage and highlighted four key areas that needed proper investment. You guessed it—one of those areas was innovation in agriculture.
Agriculture is a field that has greatly benefitted from innovations in technology, of which synthetic biology and CRISPR-Cas are only a part. Among the technological advancements that are now on the horizon are livestock biometrics collars that can relay vital information about animals in real time, crop sensors on drones that can prescribe precise fertilizer treatments, in vitro meat that is grown in a petri dish, closed agroecosystems that can convert waste products into energy and water, and vertical farming that can bring agriculture to urban areas, to name a few. Now more than ever, it’s vitally important for engineers and agriculturalists to come together to bring cutting-edge technology to bear on the problem of feeding a world that is projected to exceed 9 billion people in just a few decades.
At the World Food Prize, our annual prize is intended to recognize these innovations and inspire new ones. We turn to you, the readers of Enterprise Tech Success, and encourage you to do two things:
- Suggest topics for the Borlaug Dialogue. What ideas or innovations in the field of technology can be leveraged to improve the lives of millions that you want to hear more about? For more information, visit https://www.worldfoodprize.org/en/borlaug_dialogue.
- Nominate individuals that are making these breakthrough achievements for the World Food Prize by May 1. For more information about nominations, please go to www.worldfoodprize.org/nominate.
In the coming decades, we need to have innovators like Dr. Borlaug, women and men that address the issue of food security and bring science and technology to bear on this most fundamental, greatest challenge that humans will ever face. A Biblical miracle can be made possible with scientific innovation and cross-disciplinary cooperation.