Food accessibility is a complex problem rooted in culture, political economics, education, and access. Here’s how biotechnology companies can truly feed the world. Image credit: TUAN ANH TRAN on Unsplash
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Why biotech’s goal should not be to feed the world

“It’s a great moment for big food, big ag, and industry to do a self reflection and analysis of, how did we arrive here? How did we arrive to a world where the folks that picked the produce out of the field don’t have access and or make enough to buy the very produce that they’re picking?” — Rolando Perez, graduate student and volunteer at Xinampa

Biotechnology is on the precipice of changing our world forever. Using solutions always there in biology and optimizing them with technology, biotech promises to solve global issues such as carbon emissions, plastic and chemical pollution, and, of course, feeding a booming population. But to really solve the issue of food, the industry needs to revolutionize more than just biology or technology. It needs to revolutionize the way it engages local cultures and economies. It will not be an easy task, a straightforward task, or a quick task. But it can be done — and the people of the world depend on it being done right.

Food deserts are not what you think they are

Climate change and population growth have led to predictions that the global population will reach nearly 10 billion people by 2050. Current food production processes can’t keep pace with that growth. Fearing an existential crisis, several companies have adopted a tag line that goes something like this: we will feed the world through innovative biotechnologies that are more sustainable and make healthy food more accessible. And they’ve got the sustainability beat down: from leveraging microbes to feed plants and reduce toxic nitrogen run-off to improved aquaculture techniques to genetic engineering foods to be more nutritious, the possibilities for producing ever more nutritious food while using less of the Earth’s precious resources are boundless and already in motion.

But what, exactly, does it mean for food to be accessible in today’s world?

“Food desert” — a term used to describe areas with limited access to affordable and nutritious food — is the label by which we’ve come to describe food accessibility today. But the term is a bit of a misnomer, says Garrett Broad, author of More Than Just Food. 

“It suggests there’s nothing there — and if food deserts are the problem, the solution sounds pretty simple: just bring [stuff] to the desert.” 

But is there really nothing there? According to a recent New York Times exposition on the obesity epidemic in Brazil (and in big industry’s role in that), there are now more obese people in the world than underweight people. It’s as if the pendulum has swung the other direction — where hunger was once a very real problem as a result of access to food, period, now obesity, diabetes, and heart disease prevail as a result of access to high calorie, nutrient-poor foods. This has created a new type of malnutrition, write Andrew Jacobs and Matt Richtel, one in which “a growing number of people are both overweight and undernourished.”

So, continues Broad, “the problem isn’t food deserts [per se], the problem is really a legacy and generational disinvestment in and direct discrimination in not just food but in a variety of other arenas. [This] calls for a broader set of solutions.”

Said another way, the issue of food accessibility is multi-faceted and therefore cannot be solved solely through biotechnology — we must come to terms with that fact at the get go. That isn’t to say biotechnology can’t make the food production system as a whole better. With advances in gene editing and other technologies, we can use technology to improve the nutritional profile of food (tackling malnutrition), to enable seasonable crops to be available all year round (increasing accessibility in one sense), to remove undesired characteristics such as cherry pits (increasing accessibility in another sense), and to make food more resistant to drought, one of the biggest factors influencing a significant proportion of the world population’s access to food. But none of this matters if we keep operating under our current system, which, according to Broad, bottom-lines on profit margins, not on feeding people healthily and sustainably. 

The biotechnological revolution can give the food industry and low-income disadvantaged communities a chance to hit the reset button — to learn from the current state of affairs and prevent the inevitable shortfall of the big promises being made by biotechnology today if we don’t change the societal, political, and economic backbone of the way food is made and distributed. And according to Ana Ibarra and Rolando Perez, volunteers at Salinas Valley-based Xinampa (a bio-hub aiming to support equitable economic development, workforce development, small business incubation, and scientific literacy and education), such sea change will come from getting people from all walks of life to sit down together and talk.

Xinampa

From left: Steven Rhyans, Anna Ibarra-Castro, Leo Tejeda, Omar Perez, Matias Kaplan, Rolando Perez. Not pictured: Board Member Corinne Takara. Photo credit: Steven Rhyans

Engaging local cultures across generations

Many of the communities most affected by food inequality are disadvantaged, underrepresented cultural and ethic groups, such as the Hispanic/Latinx and indigenous populations served by Xinampa. Salinas, California, where Xinampa is based, is over 75% Hispanic or Latinx– and it is this population that is the life blood of one of the richest agricultural areas in the world. Xinampa is especially passionate about teaching young people — high school and college students — how they can use biotechnology in their future careers and to bolster their local communities. Ibarra says that young people will be critical for speeding up the development of technologies, a crucial goal “given the issues we have at a global scale to sustain human life in light of climate change, decreasing arable land. The younger generations have the ability and talent to carry this forward,” she says, “and I believe it’s crucial to start engagement at a young age.”

But, Perez is careful to point out, it isn’t just about reaching the young.

“The work here is intergenerational, and that’s really important. There has to be engagement across the whole intergenerational spectrum … the bio belt could be about finding opportunities for retirees to do things in the community — plant gardens that produce nutritious produce for the community, for example. The next generation is like the seventh generation. You can say seven generations in the future, seven generations in the past, or you can strategically place yourself in the middle of those seven generations; something I learned from a close friend and that has helped me understand my role as a community member and citizen of our planet.”

Emphasizing culture and recognizing that the community as a whole, and in particular indigenous communities, has deep-seeded, critical knowledge about agriculture is a core value of Xinampa. Instead of feeding people the all-too-often heard script of “you guys just don’t know anything, you’re eating unhealthy, and we’re here to change you,” they recognize and encourage the generations of knowledge and cultural richness that will be critical for effectively governing and incorporating biotechnology into our future food systems.

What the most successful groups that work around food at the grassroots level do is they push past those scripts, and they open up some storytelling about people’s cultural histories through food,” says Broad, “and that allows folks to claim knowledge about food and cooking and agriculture, which makes them much more likely to have ownership in this whole conversation.” 

And the whole conversation must also engage policy makers, those involved in the public health care system, industry leaders — essentially anyone that could be affected by biotechnology.

“One of the solutions that we could employ to address these inequities is to look to the expertise of individuals in public health, policy, social welfare, or other disciplines that are exposed to issues through a different lens and can provide a different point of view,” says Ibarra, adding that it’s important to foster interdisciplinary conversation early on. “We don’t want to miss something. We don’t want to invest in a solution that may not be the most effective simply because you forgot to include someone in the conversation. Early engagement is how these nutritious and novel foods will be cultivated from the ground up for the benefit of everyone in society.”

It’s the economy, stupid

One of the reasons early involvement in conversation will enable effective distribution of food to everyone is rooted in money. According to Broad, one of the biggest reasons why mistrust in GMOs — and how GMO foods could solve some big problems — isn’t because companies haven’t been transparent. It’s because people look at the big players, the companies in charge, and see companies that haven’t made their lives substantively better. People recognize that priorities within the biotech industry have not necessarily always been first and foremost about feeding the world equitably and sustainably but instead about who profits from certain biotechnological developments, says Broad. This erodes trust rather than building it.

“A great way to build long standing trust is to have equitable distribution of the material wealth that gets created from these innovations. Essentially, how do we think about the development of these tools in an equitable and inclusive way in terms of economic development and economic opportunity? The best way to do this is to get people involved from early on and give them an economic stake so you develop companies that people are engaged in and involved in. That would be something for entrepreneurs and communities like [SynBioBeta] to be thinking about from an early stage, as opposed to thinking about it as kind of a PR approach that comes at the very end.”

“It’s the economy stupid,” he continues. “It’s that classic line — if people can see that their economic and social life is going to benefit from these new innovations, then they’re much more likely to be interested in supporting them and have less fear,” he says. 

Ibarra agrees.

“There is a lot of fear around automation and AI, including in communities like ours where the fear is ‘robots are going to come in and pick produce and there will be less jobs for our laborers,’” she says. “But I think the opportunities deriving from biotechnology have an even greater potential. In Monterey County we have a very robust economy resulting from direct and indirect agricultural jobs, but also a significant multiplier effect. If we couple new agricultural technologies, such as automation and AI, with biotechnology in parallel, you can see this allowing communities — especially rural ones — to be more resilient. It’s a real opportunity.” 

This is critical for communities like Salinas Valley, where homelessness rates in elementary schools can be as high as 50 percent. According to Ibarra, agricultural communities like Salinas are the perfect place to cultivate regenerative biotechnologies that enrich our food systems and advance public health. She and Perez imagine a future for Salinas Valley completely transformed by biotechnology rooted in racial and class equity and justice. For example, Central Coast residents could create public interest biotechnologies that emphasize community control and governance, with investment in people, infrastructure, automation, and supply-chains that extend into the community and that connect to the Valley’s world-class global supply-chains. Biotechnology can also be leveraged to produce nutritious crop varieties that adapt plant morphology to make harvesting by hand easier or gene drives to combat invasive pests such as the Asian Citrus Psyllid. Animal agriculture could benefit as well, with new veterinary biotechnological tools to better care for livestock and protect them from disease. Water systems could benefit as well, from cleaning the Salinas River through mycoremediation to employing biosensors to monitor city water for pollution, pesticides, and other chemicals. 

In December 2019, Golden Rice was approved for direct use in the Philippines — the first Asian country to grant the controversial food approval. Some expect that the added Vitamin A present in the rice will reduce by up to 50% vitamin A deficiency, the leading cause of child mortality in the country. But, others are skeptical that the rice will be the simple solution Filipinos have been waiting for, pointing out that vitamin A deficiency is a complex problem partially rooted in culture, political economics, education, and access. In essence, Golden Rice is the perfect example of both the promise of biotechnology in agriculture and its shortcomings if we don’t think critically about all sides of the issue. With up and coming companies like Pairwise Plants and others using biotechnology to produce food that is more nutritious and can be available year-round, it is critical that we heed voices like Broad, Ibarra, and Perez so that technologies that can really make a difference in how we feed the world don’t meet the same fate as Golden Rice.

It is possible to feed the world with biotechnology. But it’s only possible if our goal isn’t to feed the world, but to engage local communities, support early, equitable, and inclusive communication, and to ensure that food equity doesn’t just mean that everyone can afford to buy healthy food, but that the communities producing that food have equitable economic stake. Move over, big ag — it’s time to take biotechnology from farm to table.

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Embriette Hyde

Embriette Hyde

A trained microbiologist with over 7 years of experience in microbiome research, Dr. Embriette Hyde is passionate about bringing science to the public. She is currently working as Managing Editor at SynBioBeta and mentors K-12 students through Schmahl Science Workshops, fostering passion for science from a young age.

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