Somewhere in St. Louis, teams of scientists and corporate executives are hard at work devising the next generation of food. The crops they create will be more resistant to drought, sweeter, longer-lived, larger, hardier, and more nutritionally dense than their antecedents, and they'll cost the average supermarket shopper less of their take-home pay than the smaller and frailer fruits and vegetables our parents once picked up out of a market bin. They grow in vast fields that have been scientifically optimized to make possible the feeding of 7 billion people each year. Yet much of the developed world hates these crops and what they represent.
Elsewhere, in places ranging from Rock Hill, S.C., to Parma, Italy, teams of scientists and corporate executives are also hard at work devising the next generation of food. From their labs will emerge a range of complex machines, ready to squirt uniquely formulated, -colored, and, -textured pastes out of precision-engineered tubes into shapes that might be more suited for a Lego set than a dinner table. While perfectly edible, these extruded delicacies may look nothing like what you've eaten before -- and that's the point. This food of the future is still a curiosity, and its creation will necessitate the use of additives and chemicals to make its component pastes and goops taste and form up just so for your gastronomic delight. Yet it's already widely heralded as a breakthrough that will soon help feed the world.
Behind the food curtain
Monsanto (NYSE:MON) has been developing and refining genetically modified (GM or GMO) crops at its St. Louis headquarters for more than two decades. While it's not the only GM crop science company, it's the largest and by far the most publicly prominent. It recently has begun to apply its high-tech crop science to a decidedly low-tech process -- Monsanto-developed crossbred fruits and vegetables (no genetic tweaking necessary) now sit on grocery shelves around the world. A Wired feature published earlier this week highlights that effort, which has already drawn significant backlash despite no evidence that eating Monsanto crossbreeds will cause ill health effects. However, Monsanto's bread and butter are still in GM crops. In 2012, the world grew 170 million hectares of GM crops, using anywhere from a tenth to roughly a fifth of all global cropland, depending on whose statistics you prefer.
Last year, two events perfectly captured the divergence between public and scientific attitudes toward Monsanto. Last May, an estimated 2 million protesters took to streets around the world in opposition to GMOs in general and to Monsanto in particular. A month later, the World Food Prize was shared among three GMO pioneers, including both Monsanto chief technology officer Robert Fraley and Mary Dell-Chilton, founder of rival GM seed producer Syngenta's (NYSE:SYT) biotechnology division. While more scientists have begun to speak out in support of GMOs, popular opinion remains vehemently anti-Monsanto despite limited evidence on the purported danger of its creations.
On the other end of the "future food" spectrum, 3-D printing makers such as 3D Systems (NYSE:DDD) and major food producers -- including Hershey (NYSE:HSY) and Italian pasta giant Barilla -- have begun to roll out all manner of specialized 3-D food printers. These machines are still curiosities, aimed at creative confectioners who might want to offer consumers a new twist on the staid old sugar cube. At present, the number of people actually fed by these machines is precisely zero, but that hasn't stopped some boosters from claiming that they could someday feed the whole world.
The developer of one "universal food synthesizer" (read: generalist food 3-D printer) has claimed that we will "eventually have to change our perception of what we see as food." The proponents of most 3-D-printed food are somewhat more modest in their expectations, but the reaction to the notion that we'll all be one day gathered 'round the printer nozzle while it squirts out a tasty protein blend for our pizza-like dough base has been overwhelmingly positive. Virtually no one is asking "is 3-D-printed food safe?" Instead, they ask, "is 3-D-printed food going to taste good?"
Why do we fear what already feeds the world while embracing the promise of a true Frankenfood with far less certain provenance?
As a matter of fact, why should we fear either option?
The first science
Despite the difference in public perception, both the GM crop and the 3-D food printer represent two sides of the same quest: to feed people better and more efficiently than was previously possible. That's been the goal of agriculture since the first Neolithic nomad looked at a field of wild wheat and thought, "That could feed my tribe better than this hunk of mastodon." We've been tinkering with plant and animal genetics ever since for precisely that reason -- and the difference between prehistoric plants and their modern, domestic descendants is telling. Corn, for example, looks nothing like what it came from, a wild seedy grass called teosinte that still grows in Central America.
In fact, the difference between GM corn and "organic" corn is negligible compared with the difference between modern corn and teosinte. See if you can tell which is which:
The middle picture is teosinte, which has perhaps a dozen tough kernels at most. The corn on the left is one of four varieties in Monsanto subsidiary Seminis' "Performance Series" line of sweet corn for human consumption, tweaked for better pest-control traits and for resistance to the company's signature line of Roundup herbicides. The corn on the right is organic. Even a trained eye would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the left and right ears of corn, and that's one of the major reasons so many people are terrified of GM food. But they shouldn't be.
Technologist and author Ramez Naam (his latest book, The Infinite Resource, covers the GMO controversy as part of a larger set of future challenges) has highlighted on more than one occasion just how broad scientific support for GM crops actually is. On his blog, he lists some of the major scientific (and political) bodies that have found genetically modified food to be safe.
- The U.S. National Academy of Sciences
- The American Association for the Advancement of Science
- The American Medical Association
- The European Commission
- The Royal Society of Medicine
- The French Supreme Court
- The World Health Organization (mentioned by Dr. Marc Van Montagu)
Naam points out hundreds of studies that have found no evidence that GM crops have caused any harm to hundreds of millions of consumers around the world. Van Montagu, a GMO pioneer who shared last year's World Food Prize with Monsanto and Sygenta executives, notes that roughly two-thirds of all processed food contains GM ingredients.
Both Naam and Montagu take issue with the same flawed study so stridently championed by GMO opponents, the so-called "Monsanto corn causes cancer in rats" study that used a breed of highly tumor-prone rats, and which was found to be so flawed in its research methodology that it was withdrawn by the scientific journal in which it first appeared. Claims that GMOs are more toxic and can cause cancer in humans appear unfounded when we consider that most Americans have been eating at least some GMOs for well over a decade, amounting to billions of cumulative meals, and public health statistics for the United States show a decline in cancer incidence, particularly in the digestive tract, since the introduction of GM crops in the 1990s.
It's possible, if not inevitable, that modern crop science will eventually develop GMOs that look as different from today's crops as today's corn does from teosinte. But without a change in public attitude, tomorrow's crops will only perpetuate the problem many GMO opponents fear most, the problem for which GMOs themselves often serve as a proxy: corporate control of the food chain. These advocates typically fail to understand that by opposing GM crops in such a monolithic way they make it harder to develop newer and safer varieties, because, as Van Montagu points out: "extreme opposition to genetic modification has led to hyper-regulation of GM crops, which has raised the cost of bringing them to market. Now only multinational companies and large research entities can afford to comply with the rules." This isn't a case of corporations willfully poisoning their customers for fun and profit, either -- Monsanto's business would be effectively destroyed if readily replicable studies could be performed that showed an incontrovertible link between GMOs and human health problems.
GM crops could be more than they are today, if not for the widespread, generally poorly informed backlash against them. We can already see one area of food science in which relative regulatory freedom leads to an explosion of small-scale tests, one that offers a more radical reimagining of "food" than any Monsanto geneticist could imagine: 3-D-printed delicacies. Yet none of these tests has reached widespread commercial use, because 3-D-printed food still operates under similar constraints as all other food, including GMOs. No one's going to eat it if it doesn't taste good and if it isn't safe.
How to feed the world
GM crops and 3-D-printed food both purport to solve the pressing issue of how to feed a world where each mouth is demanding more resource-intensive calories. The world's population is now expected to grow a third larger by 2050, from about 7.2 billion people to roughly 9.6 billion, but thanks to rising global standards of living -- which tends to increase demand for meat -- we'll need to grow more than two-thirds more food than we do today to meet everyone's needs. But while GM crops aim to solve this problem by tweaking or inserting desirable genetic traits into staple crops (most GMOs now planted are used to feed livestock) to better pack more calories into each acre of farmland, 3-D-printed food wants to skip the middleman and simply make a better meat.
3D Systems' new food printers, which Hershey has already picked up as a sweet marketing gimmick, are simply another example of the gimmickry of 3-D printing obscuring its promise. The world isn't going to be fed with custom-designed chocolate or rainbow-colored sugar shapes. What it will be fed with, what it demands to be fed with, is meat -- or at least something sensorially indistinguishable from meat. We may have to change our perception of what "food" is in the future, but that doesn't mean our mouths will.
The most prominent example of this effort is the Peter Thiel-funded start-up Modern Meadow, a company founded by bioprinting pioneers and Organovo (NASDAQ:ONVO) co-founders Gabor and Andras Forgacs. The company made waves in the press two years ago with Thiel's investment, which arrived several months after Gabor Forgacs, during a TED talk, ate a lump of 3-D-printed "meat" loosely resembling a flattened slug. Technology being what it is, it's certainly conceivable that we'll wind up eating 3-D-printed meat-like constructs that look and taste like our favorite steaks and hamburgers. Costs must decline drastically as well, if the $330,000 lab-grown hamburger (Modern Meadow uses a similar but less comprehensive process) cooked up in a lab and eaten as a publicity stunt in London last year is any indication. That's also distinctly probable, as the scientific and engineering techniques for creating 3-D-printed meat continue to improve.
There is nothing natural at all about the notion of 3-D printed meat. Culturing cells in vats and then squirting them out of precision-engineered tubes until they form up into a facsimile of filet mignon is as far removed from the farm as Monsanto's high-tech seed engineering work is from the earliest fumbling Neolithic efforts at crop hybridization. There's still time for activists to somehow whip themselves into a lather over the artificiality of 3-D-printed meat, but since this technology ticks off many of the "sustainable agriculture" check boxes that they leave blank when discussing Monsanto, the fury may never form up at all. This is a strange incongruity, as GM crops are first and foremost tailored to be better users of farming resources than their unmodified relatives.
It's true that meat is the least efficient form of food by total resource input, but it's also true that GMOs have already shown themselves to be better than conventional crops in terms of resource use, and handily trounce organic crops on resource use as well. In the United States, where the most advanced farming techniques are widely available, organic corn and soybeans (the two most common GM crops) yield only 70% and 65% as much as their conventionally grown relatives, respectively. Other staple crops yield even less under organic farming techniques than under conventional ones. It's a testament to the insulating effect of the Western world's wealth that many of its citizens can so wholeheartedly support a clearly inferior farming technique and call it "sustainable" when a billion people in poor countries are chronically underfed.
The taste of tomorrow
If fire was the first technology, then farming was the first applied science. For thousands of years, farmers and inventors have struggled to make each acre produce more calories with every planting. Thanks to biotechnology, the farming tool set is now far more precise than our Neolithic ancestors could have imagined, but the goal today is the same as it ever was: to feed the world better, safely. It does no farmer any good to grow deadly crops.
Society plays a valuable oversight role in the adoption of any new technology, but it must do so responsibly, without succumbing to uninformed hysteria. The public's easy embrace of 3-D-printed food is just as troubling as its unnecessary outrage over GMOs -- in each case, rigorous studies must be undertaken to verify that what we're about to eat is safe. GMOs already have that track record, but many ignore or distort it beyond recognition. Meanwhile, 3-D-printed food has no such track record, but it seems to not matter so long as what's printed can be made to taste like the real thing.
In time, both the GMO and the 3-D-printed meal can play a vital role in feeding the world. We should neither hate them nor embrace them, but accept the fact that both of these technologies represent just another step forward in the 10,000-year human quest to optimize our environment to support ever more of us at the same time. If either GMOs or 3-D-printed food is proved to be irredeemably dangerous to human health, then we should certainly abandon them -- but if the scientific consensus deems them safe, we shouldn't turn away before examining the evidence for ourselves. Science questions everything, but it always looks for proof.