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25th Anniversary series: Biotechnology – The Road to 2040

October 15, 2015

Biotechnology has long been recognised as a major driver of change in the worlds of healthcare and agriculture. The potential applications for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and synthetic biology are so broad that they are likely to have many far-reaching implications, particularly in the field of food safety and security.

Food Map

(Influence map produced by Futurescaper – http://www.futurescaper.com)

This whole area of biotechnology has undergone a dramatic acceleration with the invention of genome editing tools such as CRISPR , which is a more precise way of editing DNA than anything that has come before. CRISPR was classed by Science magazine as one of the top ten scientific breakthroughs of 2013, and has sparked an avalanche of research into manipulating specific genes.

The advent of techniques like CRISPR means that the impacts of bio-technology are likely to be felt far sooner than had previously been expected. In particular:

  • More and faster developments in GM crops and other GM foods could be expected. Some food supplies may become like soya, where non-GM varieties are becoming difficult and more expensive to source. This could increase the economic incentive to introduce GM varieties into Europe.
  • Biotechnology is increasingly used to produce pharmaceuticals: we already have yeasts that have been modified to produce morphine . It is possible that criminals will in future use GM techniques to transfer the genes for illegal drugs into common food plants where they can be more easily disguised.
  • All the other potential advantages of biotechnology, such as salt-tolerant food crops, renewable energy sources like algal biofuels, bioremediation, and climate change mitigation might happen faster than previously envisaged.

Also, CRISPR technology makes it possible to introduce genome modifications which are virtually identical to those introduced by conventional breeding. Consequently some may argue that crops varieties using this technology may be classified as non-GM – how could you tell the difference?

Some researchers are designing new approaches to growing meat “in vitro” that should result in healthier products that taste better as well.  One innovative food design project suggests 3D printing edible substrates for seeds – printing food that grows.

Several Silicon Valley start-ups are developing food products using vegetable proteins to mimic more accurately the meaty, cheesy and creamy flavours of food derived from animal proteins. These products target the majority of meat-eating consumers, not just committed vegetarians. Using gene editing techniques to insert animal protein genes into food plants offers the prospect of more convincing and delicious plant-based substitutes for animal proteins – “better than beef”.

If successful, these companies would create Silicon Valley-style disruptive innovation across the human food chain, with profound consequences. As the ecological footprint of vegetable products is typically one tenth that of animal-based food, these innovations suggest sustainable future paths to feeding a global population exceeding 10 billion.

What implications do these emerging changes have for long-term global food security?

Written by SAMI Principal Huw Williams.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

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