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FUTURES: Biofortification – Agricultural Engineering Can Change The Way We Eat

by A’liya Spinner

The Lab-Grown Cornucopia


Rows and rows of produce sprawled before her, organized into colorful bins and groupings with identifying signs staked to the backs of each, proclaiming health benefits and drawing the eye. Elin passed her cart past the first few products, which were only non-nutritious novelties like sweet tasting, blue peppers and salty, orange grapes, the sort that her children loved, but that she didn’t understand the appeal of. Having grown up on only natural variants of household foods, the “new” and novel sorts seemed just a little too artificial to comfortably eat.

一排又一排的农产品在她面前铺展开来,被整理成五颜六色的箱子和分组,每个箱子的后面都贴着识别标志,宣称对健康有益,来吸引人的眼球。伊琳推着购物车经过最初的几个产品,这些产品只是一些非营养性的新产品,比如甜味的蓝辣椒和咸味的橙葡萄,她的孩子们就喜欢这种东西,但她不明白这有什么吸引力。她只吃天然的家庭食品长大,这些 “全新”的类别似乎有点太人工化,吃起来不舒服。

Upon reaching the greener, more familiar sections, however, she slowed and began to browse with more intention. She noted with some disappointment that the strawberry bins were empty; a printed sign pinned to the backboard apologized for the inconvenience and cited a recent laboratory mishap with IKR proteins on the latest, “even better” batch of strawberries to come out of the Midwestern greenhouses and vast fields where most new-age crops were grown.

然而,在到达更绿、更熟悉的区域时,她放慢了脚步,开始更用心地浏览。她有些失望地注意到,草莓仓是空的;一个钉在背板上的印刷标志对这种不便表示歉意,并列举了最近在实验室中对最新的、”甚至更好的 “一批来自中西部温室和大片田地的草莓所发生的意外。

As if to apologize for the lack of strawberries, the grocer had marked down the next few bins of produce. Elin gladly began to add a pair of oranges and a few ears of corn to her cart; even with the sale, fresh fruits and vegetables were cheaper today than they’d ever been. With the revolution of the farming industry— particularly the crops of the industry— water was barely even a concern, and nutrient-poor soil now grew as well as any other. Even farmland that had been so poisoned by pesticides and disrupted by tilling could suddenly be used again. After all, the plants of today were resistant to every form of pesticide one could imagine, fashioned their own nutrients out of what Elin could only assume was thin air, and grew healthy with little oversight. She idly wondered what the environmental toll of the corn in her hand had been, as opposed to natural, nutrient-greedy corn like she’d eaten as a kid. No longer were the most passionate eco-warriors against the consumption of meat; now the fight was against the few people left who hadn’t converted to engineered agriculture, choosing instead to continue supporting the archaic ways of domestication and crop dusting. Elin had not been the earliest believer, but now she saw no reason not to eat the engineered foods. They were cheaper, they were better for the environment according to every source she’d seen, and they required less labor. What wasn’t to love?


Thinking briefly of the old debates over “real”, wild-raised meat— which still existed but now in much smaller quantities and far beyond her preferred price range— Elin pulled her cart over to the next aisle. A refrigerated bin of lab-grown, certified-no-animals-were-harmed meat sat next to a display of neatly packaged plant patties that had been engineered with “proteins that tasted indistinguishable” from those found in poultry. Both brands, of course, were made by the same company, hoping to profit off of both those who were nostalgic for their carnivorous days or who were morally opposed to even the implication of an animal on their plate. Elin remembered when lab-grown meat was new and hotly debated, made with cell cultures harmlessly harvested from animals and grown with special molecules derived from engineered plants. Now it was as standard in groceries and their meals as any other formerly exciting innovation. That, of course, was alright with Elin. No one would ever say she wasn’t one to adapt to the times, or to shun a good discount.

想到以前关于 “真正的”野生肉的争论——这些肉仍然存在,但现在数量少得多,而且远远超出了她倾向的价格范围——伊琳把她的购物车拉到了下一个过道。一个冷藏箱里装着实验室培育的、经过认证的无动物伤害的肉,旁边摆放着包装整齐的植物肉饼,这些肉饼被设计成与家禽中的 “蛋白质味道无异”。当然,这两个品牌都是由同一家公司生产的,希望从那些怀念肉食时代的人或在道德上反对在他们的盘子里出现动物的人那里获得利润。伊琳记得,当时实验室培植的肉是新事物,引起了激烈的争论,它是用从动物身上采集的无害的细胞培养物,用从工程植物中提取的特殊分子进行培植。现在,它就像任何其他以前令人激动的创新一样,成为杂货店和他们的饭菜的标准。当然,这对伊琳来说是件好事。没有人会说她不是一个适应时代的人,也不会说她要回避一个好的折扣。

There were other places in the store to visit— like the pharmaceutical aisle, where medicines made with gene-edited plants lined the shelves, or the furniture section, with barstools and bed frames made from trees whose bark was stronger on a molecular level— so she didn’t linger much longer with the fruits and vegetables. They were different from those she’d been raised on, but somehow they were also just the same. Corn still tasted like corn, even if it was fortified against climate change and insects and weeds. There was still meat on her table, still delicious meals that could be made with the engineered ingredients. Even if a handful of things had been lost in the process, she couldn’t help but feel as though everything had changed for the better— after all, food was food, wasn’t it? Elin put a package of lab-cultivated hamburger meat in her cart and continued on her way.


Modifying Nature


The use of genetic engineering to optimize (or even resurrect) people or animals, though often presented in overly simplistic terms, is a critical element in many popular film and book franchises. Cult classics like Jurassic Park and Gattaca have cemented in our cultural mind the vision of near-future dystopias and mad scientists tampering with nature, a cautionary tale of what could happen when geneticists go too far. But genetic engineering is already taking place on a mass, commercial scale. It’s just not being used to create superhumans or dinosaurs— instead, we’re redefining the limits of everyday agriculture.


Plants that have undergone some sort of genetic editing are usually called “GMOs”, or Genetically Modified Organisms. This term is also applied to microorganisms (such as bacteria modified for use in medicine), animals, or fungi, but we most often hear it when shopping for groceries, and it is with plants that the creation of GMOs is often most heavily debated. Unlike domestication and selective breeding, which amplifies existing genes through generations of careful curation, genetically modified plants have specific traits introduced to them, an artificial but much faster way of creating the desired result.

经过某种基因编辑的植物通常被称为 “GMOs”,即转基因生物体。这个术语也适用于微生物(如为医学用途而改造的细菌)、动物或真菌,但我们最常听到的是在买菜的时候,而对转基因生物的产生往往争论得最厉害的就是植物。与驯化和选择性育种不同,后者通过几代人的精心策划放大了现有的基因,而转基因植物则是将特定的性状引入其中,这是一种人为但更快地创造所需结果的方式。

How is it Done?


Currently, genetically modified plants are created by inserting new segments of DNA into a cell using one of two common methods: exposure to bacterium carrying the desired genetic information, or bombardment by particles coated with the new DNA. This modified cell is then grown into a tissue culture from which a healthy plant can be obtained; the seeds of that plant will inherit the modifications, and a new lineage is created. While artificial, these processes of modification are not inherently unnatural— for example, modern sweet potatoes contain genetic material transferred from Agrobacterium thousands of years ago. It is also worth noting that the average plant cell contains somewhere around 30,000 genes, and the modern process of genetic modification only adds between one and ten. So while the plants are being changed in some way inside of a laboratory, their fundamental genetic makeup is not being altered, destroyed, or rewritten. 


So how might our methods of modifying plants change in the future? With fear of GMOs containing foreign and possibly dangerous DNA rampant in some health communities, one new way is already being implemented: the process of “organic” gene editing. Unlike standard methods of changing an organism’s genome, the so-called organic process does not introduce any different genetic material to the cell. Rather, it uses editing techniques such as CRISPR to slightly modify preexisting genes. This “tweaking” of the available material without introducing foreign DNA into an organism more closely mimics the process of selective breeding, but is significantly faster and much more targeted, eliminating the need for generations of trial and error in order to produce the desired result. Many, including the European Food Safety Authority, believe that this method requires fewer safety assessments, and will allow us to create less controversial crops that are still better suited to meet our nutritional and environmental needs, if not as versatile as their “non-organic” relatives.

那么,我们修改植物的方法在未来会有什么变化呢?随着对含有外来的、可能是危险的DNA的转基因生物的恐惧在一些健康团体中猖獗,一种新的方法已经在实施:”有机”基因编辑的过程。与改变生物体基因组的标准方法不同,所谓的有机过程并没有向细胞引入任何不同的遗传物质。相反,它使用CRISPR等编辑技术来稍微修改预先存在的基因。这种对现有材料的 “调整 “而不将外来DNA引入生物体的做法更接近于模仿选择性育种的过程,但速度明显更快,而且更有针对性,消除了为了产生预期结果而进行几代人的试验和错误。包括欧洲食品安全局在内的许多人认为,这种方法需要更少的安全评估,并将使我们能够创造出争议较少的作物,这些作物仍能更好地满足我们的营养和环境需求,即使不能像其 “非有机 “亲属那样用途广泛。

Why is it Done?


Growth Modified Organisms are relatively common, both in labs and in our grocery stores. But while engineering plants in a lab to study their properties seems reasonable, why do we eat the results, too? With all of the negative press and civil unease surrounding GMOs, what is the purpose for making, selling, and consuming them?


Currently, consumption of genetically engineered fruits and vegetables is largely a byproduct, and not the intention. This is because GMOs are mostly used to make agriculture easier and more efficient for modern farmers. Plants modified with a trait that’s unappealing to common pests, for example, requires less pesticides to keep healthy, reducing cost and the amount of pesticides that inevitably end up in the environment or in our bodies. In a similar vein, many GMO crops are herbicide resistant, so that weeds can be controlled without constant tilling of the soil, a process that causes soil erosion and produces carbon dioxide. Using gene editing to make plants virus-resistant is also common among farmers looking to keep more sustainable and safer crops. Finally, while agricultural efficiency has little effect on the average person other than perhaps a cheaper price tag, GMOs are nowadays often used to create medicines that safely replace components formerly extracted from other, non-modified organisms.


The Changing World


If GMOs are only for the benefit of farmers and pharmaceutical companies— and therefore ultimately limited in potential— the fuss about their usage may seem like an ultimately moot point. But to many scientists and opportunists, this current limitation is exactly why we should continue to invest in the creation of growth modified organisms, even despite the ongoing controversy on their use and legality. With innovation underway, these gene-edited crops won’t remain simply a farmer-friendly alternative to pesticides and soil-tilling for long. Rather, they will soon be better for the environment, for sustainability, and, hopefully, for you.


One such creative prospect is currently being researched in Iceland, where scientists are devising a theory that will allow them to derive meat proteins from genetically engineered barley. The hope is to take “growth-factor” proteins from these plants and then cultivate them in lab-grown meat using stem cells gathered from living animals, a process that doesn’t permanently harm or kill the animals nor require heavy reliance on living animals once begun, already a step up from some current lab-grown meat start-ups. Anna Runarsdottir, director of the ORF Genetics company behind the research, cited the nutrient needs of the rising global population as an important motivation behind her team’s work. And regardless of moral opinion on the consumption of meat, it is undeniable that mass production of livestock can lead to environmental distress and a loss of resources (although animal husbandry has its share of positives, as well.) Growth modified barley plants aiding in the cultivation of lab-grown meat makes protein sources more readily available to those with few financial or natural resources, and reduces the need for unsustainable “mega-farming” of animals to meet our dietary needs.

冰岛目前正在研究这样一个创造性的前景,那里的科学家正在设计一种理论,来使他们能够从转基因大麦中获得肉类蛋白质。他们希望从这些植物中获取 “生长因子”蛋白质,然后利用从活体动物身上收集的干细胞在实验室培育的肉类中培养这些蛋白质,这一过程不会永久伤害或杀死动物,一旦开始也不需要严重依赖活体动物,已经比目前一些实验室培育的肉类初创企业更进一步。这项研究背后的ORF基因公司的主管Anna Runarsdottir指出,全球人口增长的营养需求是其团队工作的一个重要动机。无论对肉类消费的道德观点如何,不可否认的是,大规模生产牲畜会导致环境问题和资源损失(尽管畜牧业也有其积极的一面)。 协助种植实验室种植的肉类的改性大麦植物的生长使那些没有多少财政或自然资源的人更容易获得蛋白质来源,并减少对不可持续的 “巨型养殖 “动物的需求以满足我们的饮食需求。

Furthering the idea of making healthier food more available, especially to those in developing countries or who have very limited options for their diet, many visionaries want to make nutritional improvements to the crops that we eat daily. This process, known as biofortification, is not yet common, but preliminary experiments show promising results. It involves heightening the production of micronutrients— necessary substances such as vitamins, iron, and zinc— already found in plants, or adding genes that cause their production or accumulation on a molecular level. GMO crops such as these increase nutrient consumption in populations that are traditionally and chronically not receiving the proper span of nutrients from their calories.

为了进一步实现使更多的健康食品,特别是为发展中国家或饮食选择非常有限的人提供健康食品的想法,许多有远见的人希望对我们日常食用的作物进行营养改进。 这一过程被称为生物强化,还不普遍,但初步实验显示出有希望的结果。它涉及到提高植物中已经存在的微量营养素——诸如维生素、铁和锌等必要物质的产量,或者添加导致其在分子水平上生产或积累的基因。像这样的转基因作物可以增加那些传统上长期无法从热量中获得适当营养的人群的营养消耗。

Lastly, and of everything perhaps the most realistically, GMOs are intended to be more sustainable. They are more resilient than modern crops, requiring less water and pesticides and resisting the stresses of climate change. Stable crops support farmers and communities by guaranteeing successful yields, and the lower levels of maintenance required to keep them growing also preserves the nutrients and integrity of the soil, keeping it healthy for future planting and preventing erosion of farmland. In a world threatened by increasingly unpredictable weather, temperature, and natural disasters, a food source that requires less resources, provides more valuable nutrition upon consumption, and can feed a growing population may be a life-saving innovation worth supporting.


Proceeding with Caution


Those familiar with GMOs may know that there is fierce debate about the safety of creating and consuming GMOs, and may therefore be hesitant about the idea of integrating these gene-edited plants into every aspect of our agricultural system. But while nervousness around organisms modified in a lab is only natural, these fears are also, in the eyes of science, almost all completely unfounded. For example, a major source of fear is that GMOs contain many more allergens than organic foods, because allergenic proteins can hypothetically be transferred into the genomes of previously “safe” plants. However, all GMOs are rigorously tested for allergens before being cleared for public consumption, and all genes are confirmed to produce only safe, non-allergenic products. Even concerns supposedly supported by scientific studies, like GMOs being linked to tumors, cancer, autism, and gluten disorders, have all been disproven, either as being improper science or blatant misinterpretations of the data presented. 

熟悉转基因生物的人可能知道,对创造和消费转基因生物的安全性存在激烈的争论,因此可能对将这些基因编辑的植物整合到我们农业系统的各个方面的想法感到犹豫。但是,尽管对在实验室中改造的生物体感到紧张是很自然的,但在科学看来,这些恐惧也几乎都是完全没有根据的。例如,恐惧的一个主要来源是,转基因生物比有机食品含有更多的过敏原,因为假设过敏性蛋白质可以转移到以前 “安全 “的植物的基因组中。然而,所有的转基因生物在被批准供公众消费之前都经过了严格的过敏原测试,所有的基因都被确认只产生安全的、非过敏性的产品。即使是所谓有科学研究支持的担忧,如转基因生物与肿瘤、癌症、自闭症和麸质紊乱有关,也都被推翻了,要么是不恰当的科学,要么是对提出的数据的公然曲解。 

Fringe theories notwithstanding, the lack of understanding of the process of GMO creation and what “genetic modification” means is most likely the leading cause of public fear (as well the funding of misinformation by organic companies who stand to profit from distrust of GMOs.) Therefore, the best way forward for growth modified organisms and their supporters is to better educate everyday people about the safety of these gene-edited crops, especially as our methods of making and implementing them evolve to become easier and more widespread.

尽管有边缘理论,但对转基因生物的产生过程和 “转基因 “的含义缺乏了解,很可能是造成公众恐惧的主要原因(还有那些从对转基因生物的不信任中获利的有机公司对错误信息的资助)。因此,对转基因生物及其支持者来说,最好的办法是更好地教育普通人了解这些基因编辑作物的安全性,特别是当我们制造和实施这些作物的方法逐渐变得更容易和更广泛的时候。


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