Most of us have heard the oft-quoted U.N. statistic that in order to feed a growing global population in 2050, we’ll have to double food production. That’s a daunting challenge.
Some hold up genetically modified (GM) and genetically engineered (GE) crops as the answer to the impending food crisis. By changing the DNA of a crop, scientists can make them resistant to pests, weeds, and drought. In short: they can reduce harvest losses and preserve yield.
Yield10 Bioscience, an agricultural bioscience company, claims that it is developing crops that will not only reduce crop losses but will actively boost yield potential, allowing farmers to grow more plants with fewer inputs (e.g. fertilizer).
The Woburn, MA-based company grew out of a renewable bioplastics company, which began applying its tech in crop science before shifting its focus in 2015 to focus solely on new ways to engineer higher-yield crops resistant to common pests and weeds. “We started using our technology to answer the question: How do we make crops more efficient?” Yield10’s CEO Dr. Oliver Peoples told me over the phone.
The answer: genetic editing (you’ve probably heard of CRISPR, a gene editing technology).
Companies like Yield10 are basically trying to do what farmers have been doing since the dawn of agriculture: breed crops for more desirable outcomes, like sweeter fruit or bigger yields. Only instead of selecting the best crops from each harvest over years and years, they’re going straight to the source. “We’re like a genetic app developer,” explained Peoples.
Once Yield10 develops an app — er, seed — it plans to license the technology to large seed companies like Bayer/Monsanto and others to bring them to market. Peoples didn’t disclose prices, but said that the business model is to make money both from licensing the original product and get a percentage of revenue from the partners’ sales to farmers.
Yield10 hasn’t actually brought any of its seeds to market yet. Last month, the company announced that it is developing a new breed of corn that’s drought resistant and will produce larger yields. It expects the seed will be ready for field testing in 2020.
Though Peoples and I started out discussing Yield10’s technology, we quickly went down the rabbit hole of varied public perception of genetically modified foods. A significant number of Americans think that GM foods are worse for our health — roughly 49 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. This despite the fact that U.S. regulatory bodies have unequivocally declared that genetically modified foods are safe to eat.
The question of whether GMO crops are “good” for us and our planet is a sticky one. On one hand, genetically modified crops that are inherently resistant to weeds and pests mean that farmers can use less fertilizer and pesticides, which translates fewer chemicals washed into local water sources. On the other hand, relying on only a few super-seeds means less biodiversity, which is critical for soil health. Plus the GE crop market is controlled by mega-corporations like Bayer-Monsanto, who don’t exactly have the best ethical or environmental track record.
Regardless of how you feel about GM foods, odds are, you’re already eating them. The FDA reported that in 2012, GE soybeans accounted for 93 percent of all soybeans planted, and GE corn accounted for 88 percent of corn planted, most of which was used for animal feed. And it doesn’t seem like farmers are going to stop using genetically modified crops anytime soon.
Peoples isn’t the only one trying to change our tune about genetically engineered foods. Just last month, a nonprofit of pro-GMO farmers launched Ethos Chocolate, a line of chocolate bars out to convince people that GMO’s weren’t evil — in fact, they might be the best way to save beloved ingredients like cacao, oranges, and apples.
Down the road, Peoples is optimistic that GMOs will follow the same trajectory as vaccines: At first people were skeptical, but eventually they became accepted as safe and, in fact, necessary.
“GMO traits benefit the farmer,” said Peoples. “It’s difficult for consumers who live in cities and have never really seen a farm. They don’t recognize it.” Maybe it’s up to farmers themselves to change the minds of the half of Americans who don’t want genetically modified foods on their plates.