Human Ingenuity and the Future of Food

A recent article in Business Insider showing what the ancestors of modern fruits and vegetables looked like painted a bleak picture. A carrot was indistinguishable from any skinny brown root yanked up from the earth at random. Corn looked nearly as thin and insubstantial as a blade of grass. Peaches were once tiny berries with more pit than flesh. Bananas were the least recognizable of all, lacking the best features associated with their modern counterparts: the convenient peel and the seedless interior. How did these barely edible plants transform into the appetizing fruits and vegetables we know today? The answer is human ingenuity and millennia of genetic modification.

(Photo Credit: Genetic Literacy Project and Shutterstock via Business Insider).

Humanity is continuously innovating to produce more food with less land, less water, and fewer emissions. As a result, food is not only more plentiful, but it is also coming down in price.

The pace of technological advancement can be, if you will pardon the pun, difficult to digest. Lab-grown meat created without the need to kill an animal is already a reality. The first lab-grown burger debuted in 2013, costing over $300,000, but the price of a lab-grown burger patty has since plummeted, and the innovation’s creator “expects to be able to produce the patties on a large enough scale to sell them for under $10 a piece in a matter of five years.”

People who eschew meat are a growing demographic, and lab-grown meat is great news for those who avoid meat solely for ethical reasons. It currently takes more land, energy, and water to produce a pound of beef than it does to produce equivalent calories in the form of chickens, but also grains. So, cultured meat could also lead to huge gains in food production efficiency.

Another beautiful example of human progress in the realm of food is golden rice. The World Health Organization estimates that between 250,000 and 500,000 children become blind every year as a result of vitamin A deficiency, and about half of them die within a year of losing their sight. Golden rice, largely a brainchild of the private Rockefeller Foundation, is genetically engineered to produce beta carotene, which the human body can convert into vitamin A. Golden rice holds the potential to protect hundreds of thousands of children in the developing world from vitamin A deficiency, preserving their sight and, in many cases, saving their lives.

Humans have been modifying food for millennia, and today we’re modifying it in many exciting ways, from cultured meat to golden rice. Sadly, it has become fashionable to fear modern genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), even though scientists overwhelmingly agree that GMOs are safe.

Anti-GMO hysteria motivated the popular restaurant chain Chipotle to proclaim itself “GMO-free” earlier this year (a dubious claim), prompted a political movement calling for the labeling of GM foods (a needless regulation implying to consumers that GMOs are hazardous), and even fueled opposition to golden rice. HumanProgress.org advisory board member Matt Ridley summarized the problem in his recent Wall Street Journal op-ed:

After 20 years and billions of meals, there is still no evidence that [GMOs] harm human health, and ample evidence of their environmental and humanitarian benefits. Vitamin-enhanced GM “golden rice” has been ready to save lives for years, but opposed at every step by Greenpeace. Bangladeshi eggplant growers spray their crops with insecticides up to 140 times in a season, risking their own health, because the insect-resistant GMO version of the plant is fiercely opposed by environmentalists. Opposition to GMOs has certainly cost lives.

Besides, what did GMOs replace? Before transgenic crop improvement was invented, the main way to breed new varieties was “mutation breeding”: to scramble a plant’s DNA randomly, using gamma rays or chemical mutagens, in the hope that some of the monsters thus produced would have better yields or novel characteristics. Golden Promise barley, for example, a favorite of organic brewers, was produced this way. This method still faces no special regulation, whereas precise transfer of single well known genes, which could not possibly be less safe, does.

Fortunately, while regulations motivated by anti-GMO sentiment may slow down progress, they probably cannot do so indefinitely. For those who wish to avoid modern GM foods, the market will always provide more traditional alternatives, and for the rest of us, human ingenuity will likely continue to increase agricultural efficiency and improve food in ways we cannot even imagine. Learn more about the progress we have already made by visiting HumanProgress.org and selecting the “Food” category under “Browse Data.”