Harvesting the Future: How GMOs Will Sustain a Changing World


Steve Beebe — who heads CIAT’s bean-breeding program — was shocked into action by the results, and so he began searching through their gene bank for a variety of beans grown in warmer climates, ones that required minimal water and withstood harsh temperatures.

“Even if they can only handle a 3-degree [Celsius] rise, that would still limit the land lost to climate change to about 5 percent,” according to Beebe. He tested over a thousand different samples, before finally finding the right one: The tepary bean, cultivated in the New World well before the arrival of Columbus, in portions of what is now northern Mexico and Arizona. In order to preserve the heat-resistant traits of the bean, Beebe tried cross variations with more commonly known beans: pintos, as well as white, black, and kidney beans.

The new crossbreeds were planted by him and his team in plots throughout Colombia’s humid coast overlooking the Caribbean Sea. For a more accurate read on how much heat their new crossbreeds could tolerate, they grew another plot in CIAT’s greenhouses, allowing them to control the climate. The results gave everyone a pleasant surprise. While some of these cross variations were able to withstand rises of 3 degrees Celsius, others showed tolerance against temperatures that were above 4 degrees. Now, not only do they have a variety that can make use of land where climate change is already bringing about crop failures, but also one that can avert potential famines in the near future.

The CIAT was founded during a time in which scientists suspected the world’s food sources were depleting — a reaction to the rapidly climbing population levels. However, their fears were not completely unwarranted. Both India and China had withstood droughts, destroying their harvests of wheat and rice. The American biologist Norman Borlaug led a team of scientists to develop a new, modified crop variety — giving India not only enough of a domestic supply but also plenty of room for a surplus that allowed them to trade with local countries. Borlaug won the Nobel Prize for his effort, which led to Asia becoming an expanding economic power.

The basic techniques that Borlaug employed are still being used by today’s geneticists. With selective breeding, biologists are able to cross-pollinate plants with different desirable traits until they develop a generation that is durable against pests, heat, and dry seasons. Because these manipulations sometimes require the effects of various genes acting together, the process can be a bit more assiduous than any description makes it seem. “It’s a bit like crossing a house cat with a wildcat,” is the favorite analogy of CIAT’s researchers. “You don’t automatically get a big docile pussycat. What you get is a lot of wildness that you probably don’t want lying on your sofa.”

The possibility of a second era of revolution as significant as the one led by Borlaug seems fairly unlikely, as today there is less agricultural biodiversity than there once was. The tepary bean is one of those ancient wild ancestors available on supermarket shelves that we know today. It, and plants like it, keep hidden a wide array of genetic traits, many of which could anticipate the needs of a future crisis, depending on whether gene banks like the one at CIAT continue to be well maintained.

Only around 5 percent of the natural-growing relatives of some of our most important crops are being properly safeguarded. While this sounds reasonable, the truth is a bit more complicated, as are the implications of maintenance. CIAT spends $1 million annually alone on their electricity for keeping genetic material chilled. In that time, the storage bank is also constantly at risk from wars and natural disasters.

Their sister organization is located in Syria and had to send over 80 percent of its collected samples abroad, preventing any damage that might occur during the country’s civil war. A maize-seed bank in Honduras was destroyed back in 1998 by Hurricane Mitch, and in January 2012 a fire destroyed a national seed bank kept by the Philippine government. Therefore, CIAT sends off different seeds in small quantities to banks across the globe for safekeeping.

It may sound like these crops will benefit food industries whose produce is harmed by an ever-changing planet — but what about local farmers? Many of them are the strongest opponents of GMOs, worried about what the change will mean for not only their crops, but their way of life. A study financed by the German Research Foundation followed several families living in rural India who utilized the GMO Bt cotton, which produces an insecticide to keep away bollworms.

The study’s results indicated that households that adopted Bt cotton had a larger degree of calorie absorption than households that used standard domestic strains of cotton plants — this was due in part by the fact that Bt cotton matures more rapidly than its predecessors, and the farmers harvesting it could grow other crops, such as fruits and vegetables, richer in calories and nutrients. The families that did not adopt Bt cotton typically acquired calories from grains and cereals, which they often grew as a source of nutrition, as it was the easiest and most efficient to grow with the least amount of work invested, allowing the individuals to store surplus amounts over time while making sure that their yearly harvest of cotton was safe from floods and droughts.

In fact, Bt cotton, over an extended period of time (as the interviews took place over two-year intervals), has been attributed to a lower staple calorie share. Therefore, families gradually began to rely on other sources of nutrients, which improved their health and calorie intake in the long term as they began to adopt Bt cotton. Although there is relatively little difference between the sizes of farms that have embraced Bt cotton, there is a strong correlation between higher income and adopting Bt, as it is more robust and the crops more reliable, allowing farmers to grow a greater variety of produce and tend to livestock, which provides them with more sufficient sources of calories in the form of eggs, poultry, and dairy.

The abundance and the long operating hours of our supermarkets remind us yet again of how massive the Earth’s population has become — and of the burning question of how, in this postmodern, industrialized age, our planet will continue supporting all of us as that number climbs higher still. Yet, the Earth may have had answers to this issue the whole time, it was just a matter of knowing where to look — and where to plant.

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