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Gene Editing, Microbiome Replication and the Future of Food Security

Recent scientific advances could revolutionize food production, according to the head of Bayer’s crop science division. Seizing those opportunities will take more than technology, though.

Written by Andrew Green Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A farmer in Andhra Pradesh prepares a field for planting. NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images

The world produces more than enough food to feed everyone, but major gaps in production and distribution mean millions of people are not getting enough to eat. While activists push for better access to existing resources, researchers are increasingly looking to bio-innovations for solutions.

They are hoping science can help smallholder farmers grow more food on less land and ensure the crops they produce last longer.

Those advances alone won’t be enough, though, experts have cautioned. Policies need to be implemented at national and international levels. And scientists need to work with farmers and consumers to ensure that any advances are actually accepted on a local level, Liam Condon, who heads Bayer’s crop-science division, told Malnutrition Deeply.

Condon spoke to Malnutrition Deeply after the end of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, about some of the bio-innovations he finds most exciting and the challenges he sees to their success.

Malnutrition Deeply: Nutrition came in for a lot of attention at this year’s World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos. What were the big takeaways for you?

Liam Condon: There’s a lot of focus on innovation and disruption technology at events like Davos. Many people are very excited about their ideas and the technology and their innovations, but sometimes it’s not exactly clear what the benefits are for consumers.

Particularly in the area of food and agriculture, there was a strong consensus that we need to do a much better job of explaining what the benefits are for consumers, and not only explaining what the benefits are for farmers. And the benefits for consumers can be either related to nutrition, nutritional density, avoiding malnutrition, or can be related to environmental sustainability, biodiversity and topics that will indirectly impact their health, as well. So that was a key point: To focus first and foremost on consumer benefits and then explain how technology and innovation can get there and can deliver something.

So, a very specific example. There is a lot of hype around CRISPR Cas9 gene editing right now. You can use it in plants, you can use it in animals, you can use it in humans. There are multiple possibilities. But how could this be used in a way that there’s a translatable benefit for the consumer?

An example would be breeding a crop, adapting the genes in a manner that the food lasts longer. So, a tomato: If it can last five days longer on the shelf, that prevents a tremendous amount of waste at the consumer level. That saves the retailer money because they’re not constantly throwing away food that they’ve acquired. That has a tremendous environmental impact, because if you’re avoiding all that waste, you don’t have to grow as much.

Malnutrition Deeply: What about the possibility Davos offers to form alliances across sectors? Were there any specific partnerships that emerged?

Condon: Oh, absolutely. Because we’re all sitting in the same room discussing the same topics. And then in breakout groups talking to each other, how can we work closer together to solve these issues, because we all basically want to go in the same direction. And I think the challenge sometimes is that different people have different ideas about how to best get to the end line. But usually there’s a pretty strong consensus about the direction that we want to go. And having that as a basis for a constructive discussion is tremendously powerful. And multiple alliances are forged on the spot.

At the end of the day, it takes people willing to step up, take the responsibility of playing a leadership role and then going back to their organizations and making sure that their organizations follow up on commitments. And I think that works very well in Davos.

One [example] is in India … The chief minister [of Andhra Pradesh], the head of that state … he has a vision to completely transform agriculture. From a political point of view, he’s completely committed to making sure that this happens and ensuring that policy is in place to support it. And now he basically wants an alliance to tell him what needs to happen so that we can introduce quality inputs, seeds, crop protection, get access to finance. And he is willing to create the infrastructure that will allow that to happen in his state because he wants his state to be a role model for the rest of India. And he’s convinced that the rest of India – and we’re talking millions of farmers here – the rest of India will then follow.

I’ll be visiting him this year and we’ll be putting an alliance on the ground in place. And we expect to be discussing tangible progress next year. I’m not talking about concepts, but how far we’ve come.

Malnutrition Deeply: Bayer is also strongly involved in bio-innovations. Can you talk about some of the most exciting advances you’re seeing in that area?

Condon: If I was to frame the three biggest bio-innovation topics, I’d say one is clearly gene editing, the CRISPR Cas9 and other technologies. This is simply a technology that has very wide application possibilities and could be used by a multitude of people. I think there’s great potential here.

The second big one is the microbiome. The whole topic of microbes, particularly soil microbes, and using them to enhance plant fertility or plant vigor or to protect plants in a better manner. We’re only at the tip of the iceberg in understanding what role microbes play in plant health. Clearly, they play a very important role. With the great advances now in sequencing technology, it’s more and more possible to understand what role the microbiome plays. With advances in synthetic biology, it’s also possible not only to use whatever is available in the soil today, but to actually replicate what’s in the soil and to produce it artificially, but have the same positive effect that nature would have. So, I think there are tremendous opportunities again that they’re only starting to evolve.

And the third one is everything around digitalization. There’s a tremendous amount of data on the farm. Whether it’s through sensors or satellite technology, field data that’s collected, weather data, it’s endless, and I think we’re only starting to see comprehensive data models being put together that really allow farmers to make smarter decisions. Those smarter decisions will inevitably lead to much more precise and effective and sustainable farming than what we currently have, which is still heavily based on intuition and experience.

The answers have been edited for length and clarity.

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