One-tenth of the world’s population – 811 million people – were undernourished in 2020. That’s an increase of 161 million in just a year, as much as the previous five years combined.
The effects of world hunger were felt most keenly in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Africa, where the 2020 increase was most prominent.
No doubt hindered by the COVID-19 pandemic, the dramatic rise means we have veered drastically off course of our 2030 target to end world hunger. If nothing changes, we will fall 660 million people short of this objective.
Of these 660 million, 30 million may be attributed to the effects of the pandemic. But, according to the latest food security report from multiple UN agencies, climate change, conflict, and economic recession are the main drivers of global food insecurity. Poverty and inequality also play their own part in intensifying the crisis.
With the world’s population predicted to grow to almost 10 billion by 2050, the effects of global food insecurity are only going to worsen. Something needs to change. And fast.
Gene editing has the potential to produce higher-yielding, nutrient-rich crops that are resistant to disease, climate change, and pests. It has been heralded as a potential revolutionary of global food production, but could it be the solution to ending world hunger?
What is gene editing?
Gene editing has been around since the backend of the last century but its use has exploded in recent years. It involves cutting DNA at a particular point to facilitate the removal, addition, modification, or replacement of genetic material.
This allows scientists to essentially customize the DNA of living organisms – it can be used to disable target genes, correct mutations, and alter the activity of genes. Its uses stretch far beyond agriculture and include the investigation and treatment of diseases such as cancer, HIV, and COVID-19.
There are several approaches to gene editing, but perhaps the most powerful tool is the CRISPR/Cas9 “genetic scissors”, which has allowed scientists to snip DNA in a much faster, cheaper, and more accurate way. “It has been a real game-changer,” Professor Nigel Halford from Rothamsted Research told IFLScience.
Is gene editing the same as genetically modified?
Gene editing is distinct from genetic modification (GM), although they fall under the same umbrella. Crucially, gene editing does not involve the insertion of foreign genetic material as GM does.
Perhaps the most famous genetically modified organism, or GMO, crop is golden rice – a rice variety with added zinc, iron, and the vitamin A precursor beta-carotene – which was developed to combat malnutrition in parts of the world where rice is a staple of the diet.
Because gene-edited crops contain no added DNA, in many places – including the US – they are not subject to the same stringent regulations as GM crops. It also means that they are not vilified in the same way as GM crops, although the two are often confused, which can give gene editing a bad name.
“Most people do not understand what gene editing really is and does to their food,” Matin Qaim, Professor of Agricultural Economics and Director of the Center for Development Research at the University of Bonn in Germany, told IFLScience.
“Especially in Europe and other rich countries, people want their food to be as natural as possible, and they do not think that gene editing is natural. What most people do not really know is that also traditionally-bred crops today are very different from their wild ancestors several thousand years ago and would never have developed the same way without human interference.”
As for the safety of gene-edited crops, Qaim says they are as safe as those that are traditionally-bred.
“There is no scientific justification for using very different tests, safety standards, and approval procedures for gene-edited and traditionally-bred crops and foods,” he adds.
Gene editing in crops
Just three crops – rice, maize, and wheat – make up nearly 60 percent of the world’s energy intake. That’s a lot of weight on their leafy shoulders, so optimizing each plant is really important in tackling global hunger.
This is where gene editing comes in.
“Gene editing can help develop crop plants that are higher-yielding while needing fewer chemical inputs and being more resilient to pests, diseases, drought, heat, and other environmental stress factors,” Qaim told IFLScience.
And it is already living up to this potential in practice.
A recent study found that gene editing in maize and rice could boost their yields by 10 and 8 percent, respectively.
Disease-resistant crops have also been produced. Basmati rice, for example, has been edited to be immune to bacterial blight.
“[Gene editing] has also led to crops that have improved storage and do not brown so quickly, therefore, reducing food waste,” Professor Wendy Harwood, who leads the Crop Transformation Group at the John Innes Centre, told IFLScience.
In 2016, a common white button mushroom, edited to resist browning, became the first CRISPR gene-edited food to be approved by the US government.
“Other examples include nutritional benefits such as wheat with reduced gluten and edits that affect yield traits such as leading to larger grain size,” Harwood added.
Wheat has been edited to have other nutritional benefits too. A team, lead by Halford, created a variety with less free asparagine – a precursor to a potential carcinogen.
Some other examples of gene editing include an edited canola – which was the first commercial application of gene editing in a plant – and a tomato in Japan that last year became the first CRISPR gene-edited food to go on sale anywhere in the world.
It’s not limited to just plants either: cattle that are edited to be resistant to heat stress were recently approved by the FDA.
Can gene editing end world hunger?
Gene editing certainly has the potential to improve global food production.
Harwood believes “there is a very strong possibility that gene editing will be an important tool in developing improved crops for the future.”
But is it the answer to all our world hunger problems?
“That is too much to hang on any single technology,” Halford told IFLScience. Sentiments that Qaim echoed:
“Gene editing alone will not end world hunger, as hunger can only be overcome through a combination of technological, economic, and social measures. But gene editing can and must be part of a broader hunger-reduction strategy, as it helps to make breeding faster and much more precise.”
In fact, it can cut the length of the breeding process to just a few years, compared to the eight to 15 it currently takes using traditional methods.
“Can it live up to the potential? This depends on us. If we regulate the technology efficiently and work on those traits that can really help sustainable development in a wide variety of different plant species, the potential can be realized. If we ban or overregulate the technology, then the full potential will not be realized,” said Qaim.
What needs to change?
Whether or not we get to a point where gene editing becomes an integral tool in the food production arsenal depends now on the actions of governments.
“The main roadblock is having appropriate regulation for this rapidly developing new technology. Ideally what is needed is consistent regulation that protects the consumer and also allows trade to continue,” Harwood told IFLScience.
“We need efficient and science-based regulation and a broader public discourse to reduce the many prejudices and misunderstands that people have about gene editing technologies,” Qaim added.
“Then we need to ensure that also smallholder farmers in the global south will have affordable access to improved seeds that work well in their particular environments.”
Currently, China, North America, and parts of South America are paving the way in testing gene-edited crops in the field, Qaim told IFLScience. While in Europe, the 2018 ruling that gene-edited crops are GMOs has made this virtually impossible.
“I very much hope that countries in Africa and Asia will not follow the European example,” Qaim said.
Meanwhile, the UK is in the process of relaxing its regulation of gene-edited crops, a step which Harwood describes as “welcome”.
There may be a long way to go but it’s a promising start. With more appropriate universal regulation, the potential of gene editing to play a part in ending world hunger could one day be realized.
“Gene editing is not a panacea, but it has a super-big potential to contribute to sustainable food security and agricultural development,” Qaim concluded.