New tech might avoid public unease with GMOs
WILLIAM SMITH May 24, 2019
THE NEW ENGLAND life sciences industry has produced an explosion of therapies for small patient populations with rare diseases. Last year, fully half of newly approved drugs were for these smaller populations.
While emerging biotech therapies provide hope for small clusters of human patients with rare diseases, when deployed to the agricultural sector, biotech advances the promise nourishment for tens of millions who may otherwise face food shortages that are increasingly exacerbated by drought and pestilence. When it comes to agriculture, biotech not only provides hope that the many might avoid food scarcity but also represents a promising opportunity for the New England economy.
The problem of future food supplies is a real one. After a decade of decline, the number of undernourished people has risen to 821 million as of last year. Millions are leaving farms and crowding into cities where the food chain cannot keep up. The planet is adding 80 million people every year while arable land is shrinking.
Without biotech breakthroughs to improve the yield of crops and protect them from disease, drought and pests, our ability to feed a growing population is uncertain. When it comes to solutions to the food supply problem, the United Nations has recognized that: “biotechnology can be of significant assistance in meeting the needs of an expanding and increasingly urbanized population.”
While Massachusetts is always on the forefront of human biotech science, it is poised to have a disproportionate role in agricultural science breakthroughs that will help feed the world because of the expertise found here in gene editing techniques. The agricultural science advances most likely to boost crop yields will come from more precise gene editing technologies. As the Scientific American recently wrote of gene editing: “It’s difficult to overstate the importance of this new revolution in plant breeding.”
Gene editing for plants is not only amazing science but it will also likely bring greater consumer acceptance than previous attempts to genetically modify plants. New plant breeds based upon recent advances in gene editing should not create the discomfort among consumers brought on by genetically modified foods (GMOs). While GMO foods have a good safety record, some people have nonetheless been uncomfortable with the fact that such genetic modifications involve bringing foreign genetic material into the plant. At the time GMO foods were invented, the technology simply did not exist to modify the plant’s own genetic material. But recent advances in gene editing will ensure that plants are modified using solely their own genetic material, producing not only highly natural plants, but stronger ones with greater yields. Gene editing of plants is essentially an accelerated form of plant breeding, a process farmers have been using for thousands of years.Meet the Author
Visiting Fellow, Pioneer InstituteBio »Latest Stories »Because the Commonwealth’s companies and academic organizations are exploring some of the most promising gene editing technologies, Massachusetts-born ideas will likely be driving the food revolution. Last year, for example, the Broad Institute in Cambridge, licensed its promising CRISPR gene editing technology to agricultural giant Monsanto (soon to be Bayer Crop Science). Even small fruit and vegetable farmers in Massachusetts will benefit if they can breed heartier crops less susceptible to rot and pestilence.
As with any new technology, there will be potential dangers to avoid. No one, for example, should want to create a new genetically modified tobacco plant that is more addictive for humans. Yet the upside of this food revolution could be staggering, with dramatic advances for farmers in developing countries who will be capable of growing robust and resilient crops for local populations. Massachusetts should take pride in the potentially revolutionary benefits of this hometown science.
Curious about what gene editing is? Watch this video to learn how CRISPR is helping farmers grow better crops to feed our growing population.
April 22, 2019
What U.S. dairy farmers of today are doing to preserve our environment
I’ve had the honor of working with dairy farmers for years, and a lot of what you think about them is true. They’re modest. They’re connected to the earth. And they work incredibly hard. Every day, they’re up before dawn, working 12 and 14-hour days, whether it’s 90 degrees out or 50 degrees below zero.
They choose this hard work because they believe in the importance of providing nutritious, great-tasting food, like the milk in your child’s glass or the slice of cheese on her favorite sandwich.
What you might not know is that dairy farmers are working just as hard to ensure our children inherit a healthy planet. They know it’s the right thing to do. And when 95% of dairy farms are family-owned, they do it to ensure the land is there for their children.
But the issues facing our planet require more than just individual action, which is why the U.S. dairy community has made sustainability an industry-wide priority. Years’ worth of investments, research — and, yes, hard work — have allowed us to address critical environmental issues, like climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.
Dairy farmer and environmental scientist Tara Vander Dussen with her family on their farm, Rajen Dairy. (Photo: Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy)
Ten years ago, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy — created by dairy farmers to identify best practices and unite around common goals — established a voluntary yet aggressive goal for the industry. The U.S. dairy community would reduce greenhouse gas emissions intensity 25% by 2020.
Today, we are on track to meet that goal.
In making the investments necessary to meet the goal set, U.S. dairy farmers have become global leaders in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. According to a report earlier this year from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Climate Change and the Global Dairy Cattle Sector, North American dairy farmers are the only ones who have reduced both total GHG emissions and intensity over the last decade.
Dairy farmer and nutritionist Rosemarie Burgos-Zimbelman, who has dedicated her life to dairy nutrition. (Photo: Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy)
It’s not just greenhouse gas emissions. U.S. dairy farmers work more closely with animals than just about anyone, and they know that while they are taking care of the cows, the cows are taking care of them. That’s why they created the National Dairy FARM (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) Program, the first internationally-certified animal welfare program in the world.
The U.S. dairy community’s commitment to sustainability isn’t new. It has been going on for generations. Indeed, producing milk now uses fewer natural resources than it ever has before. Over the course of the lifetime of today’s average dairy farmer, producing a gallon of milk now requires 65% less water, 90% less land and 63% less carbon emissions.
While progress has been made, there is still a lot to be done. That’s why the U.S. dairy community and dairy farmers are committed to identifying new solutions, technologies and partnerships that will continue to advance our commitment to sustainability.
So why do America’s dairy farmers work so hard to farm more sustainably? Why spend countless hours looking for innovative ways to be more efficient when they’ve already put in a 14-hour day?
It’s not because anyone told them to, or because regulation forced them to. It’s because so many of them are farming land their families have been farming for generations. They know they’re just the latest people entrusted as stewards of the earth. Farmers came before them, and farmers will come after them. Sure, they have more information than any of their predecessors did, and they are now tackling challenges, from climate change to global trade, that their forefathers could scarcely dream of. But the responsibility of today’s dairy farmer — leaving the planet better than they found it — is no different.
This Earth Day, and every day, America’s dairy farmers are living up to that responsibility. May they never tire.
Vilsack is the former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and the current president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council.