Harvesting the Future: How GMOs Will Sustain a Changing World

Our evolutionary journey across the African continent to every corner of the globe had us start out as hunter-gatherers. This was before we realized we no longer had to strive against the elements — we could tame them — and so change the harsh climates into farmlands, as well as grow crops that could sustain cities and, eventually, nations.

Perhaps nothing like a late-night run to the supermarket reminds us of this centurieslong epic. Even passing the produce section, we are overwhelmed by freshly watered clusters of ripe fruits and vegetables more colorful and nutrient-rich than our distant cave-dwelling relatives could have ever dreamed of.

Not only have centuries of agriculture by means of artificial selection brought us a long way from the nuts and berries that sustained Lucy the Australopithecus, but we have finally found a way to design produce — altering and even patenting its DNA — thanks to a burgeoning technology known as GMO, or genetically modified organism.

Editing genetic material — something that we can now do more rapidly than ever — is not without its detractors. For many countries in the European Union, the sale of GMOs is cautiously restricted, as these modified products are believed to be agents of cancer and birth defects. Even in the United States, there is an ongoing controversy over whether these products should be labeled as such, and many food sellers proudly boast their products to be “Non-GMO.” Our inherent distrust of new and unusual things tends to kick into full gear when we hear that our tomatoes might contain genes from a fish — in moments like these we are thinking with our amygdala, activating the same instincts that once helped us detect and evade predators. But are our fears justified?

The scientific consensus is that GMOs are safe — with any potential harm coming from specific traits that the plants have been given — an opinion reflected by the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: “The studies reviewed present evidence to show that GM plants are nutritionally equivalent to their non-GM counterparts and can be safely used in food and feed.” In other words, the benefits far outweigh the harm. In many ways, the GMOs we plant today may have a substantial impact on the world we live in tomorrow.

The planet’s global temperature has risen an unprecedented 1 degree Celsius in the last 200 years, faster than most life on Earth can adapt to. As world leaders convene to discuss solutions and curb greenhouse gas emissions, researchers are already exploring their options. One of the biggest secrets is hidden away deep in the jungles of Colombia. It’s a bit more unconventional than most covert operations: The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), based in Valle del Cauca and staffed by an international team of 300 scientists, is focusing on the growing concern of world hunger. As temperatures climb, crops will fail, and people will migrate. The organization actually belongs to a food-research consortium called CGIAR, which has been contracted by the United Nations to safeguard staple crops — namely, cassava, rice, and beans, all of which provide basic nutrients in the vast majority of diets throughout the world.

So what do we find inside? CIAT contains a gene bank, where, instead of money, shelves are crammed with different kinds of beans — all different colors, shapes, and sizes — laid out like ingredients of a soup that contains over 36,000 different varieties, stored in an air-conditioned vault. To Belgian scientist Daniel Debouck — who comes off as something like a modern-day Gregor Mendel — it’s his life’s work.

Already, climate change has led to a number of crop failures throughout the world, and many more are expected to occur, as the next century may see an unprecedented increase in temperatures, specifically, more than a 3-degree Celsius temperature rise over the next century (that’s an increase by about 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit). Fortunately, Debouck’s gene bank already has the plant that can withstand these extreme temperatures. The beans developed from CIAT’s earliest experiments in the late 1960s have been successful in feeding up to 30 million people throughout Africa; areas where extreme climates, such as in the sub-Saharan region, may see the greatest devastations in the coming years. Throughout the developing world, the U.N. estimates that over 400 million people rely on beans as a central part of their diets. In Rwanda alone, people consume 132 pounds of legumes every year, which are a primary source of their protein.

CIAT’s team of scientists were pushed to action after having read one of the latest reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which projected that temperatures will increase between 2 to 5 degrees Celsius over the course of the next century. In response, CIAT created a digital model of vegetable plots in order to see how well they would grow with the spiked temperatures. The results were rather horrifying to witness. By the year 2050, the effects of climate change could reduce arable lands by as much as 50 percent.

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