In 1798, Thomas Malthus published An Essay on the Principle of Population, surmising that population growth would always outrun food production. At that time, about five acres of land as required to produce food for each of the Earth’s approximately one billion people. Today, more than six billion people eat from about ½ acre each1. How did this tenfold increase in production happen?
Among the many steps taken to keep food available, were a few giant steps. One of these was the introduction of hybrid vigor in plant breeding. Another was discovery of a process for capturing nitrogen from air to make ammonia, including that used in nitrogen fertilizer. The biggest single leap forward was the Green Revolution of the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Genes bred into cereal crops by laboriously crossbreeding thousands of plant varieties from around the world made it possible to save over one billion people from starvation.
The image is a block of features on a spotted oligonucleotide microarray hybridized with fluorescently-labeled samples from breast cancer cells and human reference RNA. Each feature (spot) is made of probes for a specific transcript in the human genome. The entire array contains approximately 19,000 features for as many human genes. [from Dr. Chin-Yo Lin, Department of Microbiology & and Molecular Biology]
Another revolution has begun that will dwarf those that preceded it. With the ability to map and understand genes, now we can give specific desired characteristics to plants, animals and microorganisms. Instead of long, hit-and-miss, trial-and-error processes, we can select specific genes and insert them where they are needed. We can even use more than one copy of a gene and we can turn genes on and off to suit our needs. These powerful tools make it possible to protect against diseases, insects and drought and to improve the nutritional content of food.
Unlike the Green Revolution, the Gene Revolution goes far beyond food and agriculture. We now have a complete map of the human genome. This is more information than we have ever had about our own genetic makeup. A string of research results based on this information is now moving toward everyday application, including information describing how to cure and how to prevent diseases previously out of our reach.
Recently Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, commented in the Wall Street Journal on the Gene Revolution. Among other things he said, "Since 1996, the planting of genetically modified crops developed through biotechnology has spread to about 250 million acres…around the world…"
"In each of the last six years, biotech cotton saved U.S. farmers from using 93 million gallons of water in water-scarce areas, 2.4 million gallons of fuel and 41,000 person-days to apply the pesticides…"
"Agricultural science and technology, including the indispensable tools of biotechnology, will be critical to meeting the growing demands for food, feed, fiber and biofuels… This flourishing new branch of science extends to food crops, fuels, fibers, livestock and even forest products…"
Modern wheat harvesting combines can process grain thousands of times faster than the horsedrawn implements used a century ago. Today’s genetic technology is processing genetic information thousands of times faster than approaches used just a generation ago, and with unprecedented accuracy.
This is just the beginning. The Gene Revolution still has a long way to go, but it is off to a great start. This year, U.S. farmers used genetically modified seeds for 73% of the corn, 87% of the cotton and 91% of the soybeans planted4.
Milk is coagulated to make cheese by an enzyme originally extracted from the stomachs of young calves, but now raised in yeast cells containing calf genes. The rest of the world is beginning now to share in the benefits of this new revolution.
Science and technology have allowed us to keep up with population growth, and to improve diets beyond anything imaginable 200 years ago. If applied everywhere, we now have the technology to feed everyone on Earth very well. However, even today’s technology will not be enough by 2050, when there will be approximately nine billion people to feed. It is incumbent upon us to make sure that available technology is employed to feed those living now and to continue the work that will provide the necessary science and technology to feed those who come after us.