The human population has just crossed the threshold of 8 billion. That's four times greater than 100 years ago, and demographers forecast we'll reach 9 billion within the next few decades.
With more and more people, the challenge of meeting basic needs, starting with food, is mounting each year. In fact, the United Nations reports that global food insecurity has "hit new peaks," due to a confluence of crises, and signs point to things getting worse. But thanks to the power of science, particularly new innovations in gene-editing technology, we can mitigate contributing factors such as drought, pestilence and climate change, helping to feed humanity even as our numbers keep increasing.
Some say 9 billion is the upper limit -- the "carrying capacity" of the earth for Homo sapiens. These experts maintain that past that population, the planet's resources simply won't be able to produce enough to keep humanity fed. Yet their straight-line extrapolations from current baselines have consistently underestimated the power of human ingenuity in meeting our challenges.
Consider that in roughly the same hundred years the global population expanded by six billion, global poverty also plummeted. In 1929, 1.35 billion people, two-thirds of all human beings, lived in extreme poverty. By 2015, that number was down in absolute terms to 734 million -- just around 10% of humanity. In 2019, the percentage of the global population classified as undernourished stood at 8.9% -- a figure that, while still too high, represents tremendous progress.
At first blush, these statistics don't seem to make sense. How can a population double twice over on a planet with scarce resources and people end up less hungry and less poor? But that's exactly what happened, and it's thanks to humanity's capacity to get better at what we do.
In the 20th century, inventors and agricultural scientists ushered in a "Green Revolution," a period in which new inventions and processes increased crop yields exponentially. In 1909, two German chemists invented synthetic nitrogen, a chemical key to plant growth. Instead of relying only on manure and dead plants to feed crops nitrogen, farmers now had unlimited access to inexpensive supplies at greater concentration.
Later in the century, Norman Borlaug, an American agronomist, spent years developing new breeds of wheat to control the height of the stem. Better fertilization was causing stems to grow too tall, and heavier grains were toppling the plants before harvest. The new wheat breed has tripled yields since the 1960s. Borlaug also applied his breeding technique to rice -- and won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work.
Right now, the latest installment of the green revolution is already under way. This time, it's not what we add to crops or how we breed them that makes them grow faster and bigger. Instead, it's how we structure their genetic code to select for desirable characteristics.
Gene editing is not a new technique, but it has really taken off in recent years. Many scientists believe it's the key to a well-fed world.
In 2019, two researchers published a paper in Science arguing that gene editing can provide all the benefits of selective breeding, but more quickly and with greater precision. They point to chickpea crops, for example, where scientists could quickly create vast genetic diversity through gene editing and select the most productive, high-yield, or drought-resistant strains.
It's true, we still face grave food challenges. Populations in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, for example, don't have enough. But new and emerging agricultural technologies can help.
Consider drought, especially in the context of a changing climate. Areas without water for extended periods of time won't yield enough crops to feed local populations. But with the gene-editing technology CRISPR, which can "cut and paste" individual genes, scientists have added or removed genes to make such crops as corn and tomatoes require less water and withstand drier conditions.
CRISPR has the potential to speed up the results from selective breeding processes that Borlaug had to spend decades to achieve. For example, snipping just one gene from rice and corn can increase yields by 10%, according to a new Science paper. And it takes just one growing season to reap the benefits.
Scientists have also used CRISPR on livestock. They've experimented with the genetics of cattle to increase muscle mass -- resulting in more meat for less feed. CRISPR can also make cattle more heat-tolerant and disease-resistant.
Eight billion people is a lot. But by harnessing the power of gene editing and other advanced agricultural technologies, we'll be able to ensure everyone on planet Earth has enough to eat.
Beth Ellikidis is vice president of agriculture and environment at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization.