Imagine if Golden Corral, the super buffet restaurant, released a report stating that by 2050, their business model would no longer be sustainable.
No longer would they be able to offer an all-you-can-eat buffet with all the fixings of a Thanksgiving feast. Rather, they’d replace it with an all-you-can-drink smoothie bar with tasty protein options.
The reason: massive food shortages.
Clearly Golden Corral didn’t release such a report, but the World Bank did. The organization forecasts that by 2050, we’ll need 50% more food to feed the world’s population.
So here’s the problem. Between now and 2050, they expect the world’s population to grow from seven billion to nine billion. Even given our demographic outlook, which shows most developed countries will have trouble just maintaining their populations, we’re still looking at about 10 billion people before the end of the century.
But the real problem is that due to worsening climate conditions, crop yields will be cut by 25% during that same time frame.
Policymakers and scientists are attacking this issue from the crop-production angle, but it’s not as easy as just turning up the production-volume knob when we need it.
For one, our climate for growing crops is rapidly changing, requiring plants that can withstand harsher, drier, and hotter growing conditions. And secondly, our space for growing crops is shrinking as the population continues to expand.
Major companies in the seed and plant growing industry have been trying to tackle the super plant issue for decades by using techniques that blend multiple species of plants together.
You have probably heard people refer to the seed-industry powerhouse Monsanto Company (NYSE: MON) as “Monsatan” or “Frankenfood.” They’ve led the charge in creating a more climate-resistant crop by combining multiple plant species.
Problem is, the U.S. government considers these hybrid crops to be genetically modified organisms, or GMOs for short, which I’m sure you’ve heard the raging debate back and forth on.
The issue is so complex, GMOs are actually regulated by three separate government agencies: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Well thankfully, now we have another option!
CRISPR, the gene-editing technology that’s currently being used to eradicate cancer and other horrible diseases, is now being applied to plants.
Think of this technology as the find-and-replace function on your computer. CRISPR goes through a string of DNA, finds the problem, then deletes or repairs the issue. In select situations it can even make an addition to make the DNA stronger.
When CRISPR is applied to plants, the possibilities are endless.
Chinese scientists were able to make bread wheat that had a resistance to powdery mildew.
Japanese scientists prolonged a tomato’s life by turning off genes that controlled ripening.
U.K. researchers tweaked a gene in barley that affected grain dormancy. (Leave it to the Brits to make beer more sustainable.)
The best part of applying the CRISPR technology to plants is that the U.S. Government doesn’t consider these genetically modified organisms.
GMOs get their labeling because the underlying plant is a combination of multiple species. But with CRISPR, the plant species stays intact. It just gets a tune-up!
Some companies, namely Caribou Biosciences and DuPont (NYSE: DD) have identified the potential here, and are hoping to bring these products to market in the next five to 10 years.
Still, there’s the issue of where to put all these crops. It’s great if we can get plants to survive, but we still have to figure out where to put them!
To solve the space issue for crops, a new urban agriculture industry is emerging. Last summer, Harry identified a company called AeroFarms in Newark, NJ that actually grows plants within old city buildings using aeroponics.
With aeroponics, sunlight is replaced with LED lighting, and uses a minimal amount of water to spread a mist around the plants. And there’s no need for soil or pesticide.
But this is just the beginning. How we cultivate and grow our food sources over the coming decades is going to radically change as the earth’s population continues to expand and our climate adjusts.
In the meantime, I’m going to hit the all-you-can-eat buffet while it’s still around
The views and opinions expressed herein are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of EconMatters.
© EconMatters All Rights Reserved | Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | Email Digest | Kindle