With temporary shortages of some items at the grocery store during the first two years of the COVID pandemic, and now skyrocketing inflation, we’re seeing that we can no longer take groceries for granted.
With every trip to the supermarket, we are seeing our grocery bill grow larger. Prices at the grocery store are up more than 13 percent over the past year, according to the Consumer Price Index. That’s the largest annual increase since 1979.
Our immunity to COVID-19 has been bolstered by the revolutionary vaccines developed and delivered to millions, but we are not immune to the forces shaping our food supply: booming post-pandemic demand, bad weather in major crop growing areas, rising production and transportation costs, and trade disruptions due to the war in Ukraine.
Food security is about both affordability and availability, and the impact of the climate crisis is taking its toll on the latter. At the end of June, nearly half of U.S. winter wheat production (the kind used to make bread) was in areas experiencing drought, according to USDA’s Drought Monitor. Half of the nation’s cattle inventory is in drought areas, as well as 42% of durum wheat production (the kind in pasta), 56% of barley production, 42% of dairy cows, 41% of alfalfa and 35% of hay used for animal feed.
Things are more dire beyond our borders. According to the United Nations report “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World,” global hunger is rising. More than 3 billion people could not afford a healthy diet in 2020 and as many as 828 million were affected by hunger in 2021. Now, a humanitarian crisis is playing out in eastern Africa and parts of the Middle East as severe drought has decimated crops and livestock. Unicef says one child per minute is being pushed into life-threatening malnutrition in 15 countries.
Meanwhile, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization says global agricultural output must increase 28% over the next decade to achieve food security—more than triple the increase in productivity over the last decade. That’s going to take a lot of land and water. It’s also going to require a lot of innovation to increase yields without demanding more from our planet.
The good news is modern science offers hope as well as tangible ways to help agriculture feed our growing world. Scientists are developing drought-tolerant crops, heat-tolerant cattle, more-nutritious foods, and foods with longer shelf life.
Innovative companies like Bayer CropScience are developing corn and rice hybrids that are more resilient to drought and heat stress, reducing the amount of water needed to grow them. Other companies including Corteva Agriscience and BASF are developing the next generation of soybeans resistant to pests—and increased pestilence is a growing concern as our climate warms.
A Minnesota company, Acceligen, has developed heat tolerant cattle, using gene editing to create shorter, or “slick,” coats that help the animals stay cooler.
The J.R. Simplot Co. is using biotechnology to develop potatoes and other crops that do not bruise, reducing food waste and making it easier to deliver fresh foods to stores and consumers in far-flung locations.
Exciting agricultural discoveries are happening every day. But these discoveries will become reality only if we have a clear, science-based, and efficient regulatory system. Unfortunately, the U.S. government has fallen behind in developing policy on biotechnology and gene editing.
FDA’s recent efforts to develop a more functional regulatory system for biotech animals will ensure the health and safety of animals, consumers and the environment while fostering innovation. However, engaging with FDA on further improvements is difficult because a key guidance document appears stalled at the Office of Management and Budget. Moreover, FDA has yet to issue its guidance on new plant varieties produced using the tools of gene editing, while its review of new biotech plant varieties has slowed significantly in recent years. Innovative feed additives and supplements that reduce livestock methane emissions take three to five years to get reviewed by FDA.
While USDA has updated its regulatory frameworks for biotech plants, the agency’s incremental approach to exemptions from regulation is overly stringent for plants that could have been produced using conventional breeding. Further updates are needed to ensure that microbial technologies also have a clear, efficient pathway to market.
Finally, EPA has yet to issue its final rules addressing plant-incorporated protectants developed using newer technologies—products that increase plants’ built-in pest resistance and reduce the need for pesticide applications.
This regulatory uncertainty is not limited to the United States. Mexico is a top market for U.S. farmers and ranchers, but its non-science-based treatment of innovative agricultural biotech products is undermining the development and deployment of agricultural technologies critical to sustainably feeding the world and addressing climate change. This uncertainty has been compounded by a presidential decree calling to ban imports of genetically modified corn for food by 2024, despite the proven safety and benefits of GM corn. If the decree is implemented, prices for corn tortillas in Mexico will rise 30% in the first year of the ban, according to a report by CropLife International and World Perspectives Inc., making life harder for the Mexican people. Such a ban could stifle the very kind of agricultural innovation we need to meet the rising demand for food, today and tomorrow.
Agriculture and science are moving rapidly to meet food demand and adapt to a changing climate. Science is on our side, but time is not. We need practical, workable government regulations, both in the U.S. and abroad, to strengthen food security through innovation.
Michelle McMurry-Heath, Ph.D., is a physician-scientist and president and CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization.For more ag news and opinions, visit www.Agri-Pulse.com.