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Biotechnology, Cellular Agriculture, and the Human Right to Food

This article was originally written by New Harvest Dissertation Awardee Mike McLellan for the American Association for the Advancement of Science "Science and Human Rights" 2020 student essay competition. It is republished here in full. 

by Mike McLellan 

Almost every country recognizes the right to food, either by an international treaty or as a constitutional right, however the United States is one of the few countries to not recognize that right (1).The right to food is defined as “the right to have regular, permanent and unrestricted access, either directly or by means of financial purchases, to quantitatively and qualitatively adequate and sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people to which the consumer belongs.”(2)

Food insecurity and poor diet are current global problems which will only be exacerbated by factors like overpopulation and climate change. Biotechnology and cellular agriculture are modern scientific disciplines which, when judiciously applied, have the potential to improve global food production and make healthy food more accessible while simultaneously decreasing the environmental impact of industrial agriculture.

A stable society requires stable access to nutritious food; therefore it is essential for every government to embrace the fundamental human right to food, to pursue scientific innovation to ensure adequate food production in the future, and to engage the needs of disadvantaged groups with this technology to drive food accessibility in local communities.

Currently there are an estimated 820 million people living in chronic hunger or malnourishment globally and nearly 5 percent of the global total, roughly 40 million people, lack access to food in the US (3,4). The highest prevalence of malnourishment occurs in Africa, while the sheer greatest number of people living in hunger reside in Asia.3 By the year 2050, global population is expected to near 10 billion and to accommodate that growth it has been estimated that global food production must increase by 70 percent (5,6). Increasing agricultural production is necessary, but if done without concern for the environment, it may become a significant driver of climate change.

Peatlands, for example, are marshy wetlands where water and biomatter mix, making for a very lush environment which is efficient at storing atmospheric carbon, are not easily farmable and as such must be irrigated and drained before it can be used to produce crops like palm oil. This process releases stored carbon into the atmosphere and every acre of peatland that is repurposed generates as much carbon as burning about 2,400 gallons of gasoline (7).

In some cases, it may be possible to restore the moisture to the peatlands while maintaining crop yields and even reducing atmospheric emissions (8). However, climate change is already negatively impacting agricultural production (9,10,11,12). Some research suggests there is not enough available cropland to keep up with demand (13). In order to produce enough agricultural products in the future, governments need to promote research into innovation centered around efficiency and resiliency in the agricultural system.

Biotechnology is an established research field which leverages modern biological tools for industrial applications. An example of biotechnology in agriculture is the abundance of genetically engineered (GE) crops in the food system. In 1994, The Flavr Savr tomato became the first GE crop approved by the FDA for human consumption (14). This genetic modification is theoretically benign as it introduces nothing unknown to the tomato genome but simply adds an unreadable copy of a gene the tomato already contains.

Various GE seeds became widely commercially available in the 1996 and the most common varieties have been engineered to be tolerant to herbicide treatment (Ht) or to produce insecticide proteins (Bt) to mitigate insect damage. Today, roughly 90% of the total corn, cotton, soybean and canola produced in the US comes from GE crops (15). GE crops are much more efficient to produce, which equates to cheaper production costs and cheaper food for consumers (16,17). Further, more efficient crop production means decreasing environmental stress factors like water consumption and land utilization, which help reduce the impact of large-scale agriculture.

Cellular agriculture (CellAg) is another promising scientific field with the potential to make agriculture more efficient, cheaper, and even more nutritious. By generating agricultural goods in a laboratory setting, it’s possible grow cotton without a field and to grow protein without an animal. Unlike GE crops which are modified plants, cellular agriculture generates a plant product by growing the plant cells and harvesting the desired product directly. For example, Boston-based company Galy aimsto produce cotton in a lab which would be quicker, cheaper, and less impactful for the environment than traditional farming practices (18). 

The concept of growing cells more purposefully can also be applied to animal products. Designed by NASA-funded research in 2002, the Muscle Protein Production System was designed to grow animal protein in the limited environment of space (19). A decade later, a press conference was held which aired a tasting of the first laboratory-grown hamburger (20). Although a remarkable proof-of-concept, that burger was likely the most expensive chunk of meat to ever exist, perhaps worth it; considering that was also the only burger to be guaranteed fecal contamination-free, which currently occurs in about 50% of meat products (21,22).

Although CellAg holds great promise, authors Neil Stephens and team assert these promises come with numerous challenges to be solved before realization; the authors elaborate that the rhetoric around cellular agriculture is reduced to the ethical treatment of animals and social acceptance, and pitches like, “grow protein without harming animals to end world hunger” are commonplace (23). However, the focus on ethical superiority and unbridled efficiency generates an assumption which falsely states that hunger, malnutrition, and starvation arise from a lack of sufficient production or a scarcity in supply.


“Starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there being not enough food to eat.” – Amartya Sen (Poverty and Famines, 1981)


The Bengal famine of 1943 resulted in the starvation of roughly 5% of the 60 million people who lived in the Bengal province and radically shaped the way Amartya Sen (and society by extension) view poverty and famine, for his work in the field he was awarded the 1998 Nobel Prize in economics. Sen observed that the famine occurred during a booming wartime economy and that food existed in sufficient quantity to at least reduce the number of those starving. The pivotal issue, he concluded, was political representation; the Indian population was ruled by British Raj, which largely had no concern for their well-being. During the Second Great War the decision was made to prioritize storing excess Australian grain for later use by European citizens, while denying the existence of famine in British Indian territory (24,25).

Later, Churchill famously said, “the famine was their own fault” (26).

Sen noted that policy failure driving inadequate supply management and inflation meant many Indians could not afford or even access adequate food. Although the specific causes for starvation are still debated, especially during times of agricultural hardship, it has become widely accepted that “...famines are political crises as much as theyare economic shocks or natural disasters” (27).

Although the US Government does not formally acknowledge the human right to food, there are numerous social programs which aim to increase access to food, however many of the deficiencies Sen identified exist in the current US food system and globally. In the US, roughly 30-40% of the total food supply is wasted (28). Globally it is estimated that one-third of all food produced is trashed (29). The major issue is not in production, but in organization and in the supply chain.

Similar issues are occurring now during the COVID-19 pandemic. Animal processing facilities have been forced to shut down, which means a batch of agricultural animals cannot be processed and will become waste (30). This means a lower supply of animal protein for consumers and losses for the farmers who could not sell their product (31,32). The United Nations estimates that 130 million people are at risk for lack of food due to the 2019 coronavirus pandemic, and that global stability and preservation of the global supply chain is critical (33).

Using scientific and agricultural innovation, it is possible to build redundancy into the food system and thereby lessen the impact of future food shortages. But truly solving world hunger will take more than science, as there are numerous levels of responsibility concerning the global food supply.

There is a level of individual responsibility for education concerning proper dietary needs; community-level responsibility in identifying faults and needs within the local food system; and politically, there is a requirement to decentralize food production and to empower local community level agriculture through meaningful political representation. The private sector has a responsibility to pursue need-based innovation by identifying problems within geographic regions which limit agricultural production for that region and to develop various technologies catered to meet those local demands (34). In practice, this could mean GE crops for regions with excess land but poor water supply, or modular cellular agriculture lab space developed within cities. This would allow for geographic independence in food production, meaning less dependence on a global supply chain and resiliency during times of global strife (35).

As economic and innovation journalist Amanda Little succinctly stated, “technology alone can’t save us, but judicious application of technology [and political representation] can" (9).

 

Work Cited

 

  1. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. “The Right to Food around the Globe.” FAO,
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    Cultural Rights, Including the Right to Development.” United Nations General Assembly, January 10th, 2008.
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