Major packaged-food companies lost $4 billion in market share alone last year, as shoppers swerved to fresh and organic alternatives. Can the supermarket giants win you back? ... While consumers have long associated the stuff on the labels they can’t pronounce with Big Food’s products—the endless strip of cans and boxes that primarily populate the center aisles of the grocery store—they now have somewhere else to turn (more on that in a bit). And that has brought the entire colossal, $1-trillion-a-year food retail business to a tipping point. ... Shoppers are still shopping, but they’re often turning to brands they believe can give them less of the ingredients they don’t want—and for the first time, they can find them in their local Safeway, Wegmans, or Wal-Mart. Rather than carry traditional products with stagnant sales, chains like Target are actively giving increasing space on their shelves to a slew of New Age players like yogurt-maker Chobani, Hampton Creek (which sells a popular plant-based mayo), Nature’s Path, Amy’s Kitchen, and Lifeway Foods, which makes a yogurt-like drink called kefir. Retailers are creating their own brands too.
Mathur explains how he and his company, Yulex, hope to break the Asian rubber monopoly using gene sequencing and an unassuming desert plant. ... what he’s trying to do here in the desert, with a plant called guayule. ... Mathur tears a stem from one shrub and peels back the bark, pointing to a thin layer of, well, softness. This is called parenchyma. You can use it to make rubber, and that means you can make wetsuits, condoms, gloves, catheters, angioplasty balloons, and so many other medical devices. But most importantly, you can make tires. Car tires. Truck tires. Aircraft tires. In fact, this sort of natural rubber is essential to making tires. Yes, we now have synthetic rubber, but that isn’t as strong as the natural stuff. Our automobile tires contain about 50 percent natural rubber, and you simply can’t make a truck or aircraft tire without it. ... Today, almost all natural rubber comes from hevea rubber trees grown in Southeast Asia, and that hangs a nightmare scenario over US tire makers and the wider US economy. In the event of war or natural disaster, our supply could vanish, and rather quickly. But guayule can provide an alternative. Since the early 20th century, American researchers, entrepreneurs, and statesmen have eyed the plant as a way of freeing the U.S. economy from this deep dependence on Asia. Rubber trees don’t do well in the US, but guayule does. It’s indigenous to Mexico and the American southwest.
The company is determined to breed the perfect strawberry ... Strawberries grow almost everywhere in the world, though nowhere as bounteously as they do along this particular stretch of the California coast, about 95 miles south of San Francisco, where the Pajaro River empties into Monterey Bay. The Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno, anchoring nearby in 1602, found wild strawberries in December, which was unheard of in Europe. Explorers to other parts of the New World also discovered strawberries with marvelous advantages in color, size, and flavor, and took botanical specimens home. Two of these crossed to yield the modern strawberry, Fragaria x ananassa, in the 18th century. ... Today, California produces almost 29 percent of the world’s strawberries—$2.6 billion worth—a lot of that from the 14,200 acres of fields that surround Watsonville and neighboring Salinas. ... Yield per acre in California has increased almost fivefold since the 1950s. ... The state’s strawberry acreage has dropped about 4,000 acres in the past two years, a decrease of 11 percent, as some growers have abandoned the fruit. ... Driscoll’s breeding program predates the company itself. In 1944 a group of strawberry farmers founded the Strawberry Institute of California, dedicated to the development of new and better varieties. Driscoll Strawberry Associates, formed as a grower’s cooperative in 1953, merged with the institute in 1966, and got out of physical farming. Since then, the company has focused on the two ends of the supply chain. ... Driscoll’s has a staff of 30 scientists devoted solely to strawberries, manipulating evolution at nine research stations in Watsonville, Southern California, Florida, Spain, Mexico, and the U.K. The company provides seedling plants to contracted growers. Then, when the growers harvest the berries, Driscoll’s packs, ships, and markets them to retailers. The growers get 85 percent of the revenue; Driscoll’s keeps the rest.
I’ve spent much of the past year digging into the evidence. Here’s what I’ve learned. First, it’s true that the issue is complicated. But the deeper you dig, the more fraud you find in the case against GMOs. It’s full of errors, fallacies, misconceptions, misrepresentations, and lies. The people who tell you that Monsanto is hiding the truth are themselves hiding evidence that their own allegations about GMOs are false. They’re counting on you to feel overwhelmed by the science and to accept, as a gut presumption, their message of distrust. ... Second, the central argument of the anti-GMO movement—that prudence and caution are reasons to avoid genetically engineered, or GE, food—is a sham. Activists who tell you to play it safe around GMOs take no such care in evaluating the alternatives. They denounce proteins in GE crops as toxic, even as they defend drugs, pesticides, and non-GMO crops that are loaded with the same proteins. They portray genetic engineering as chaotic and unpredictable, even when studies indicate that other crop improvement methods, including those favored by the same activists, are more disruptive to plant genomes. ... Third, there are valid concerns about some aspects of GE agriculture, such as herbicides, monocultures, and patents. But none of these concerns is fundamentally about genetic engineering. Genetic engineering isn’t a thing. It’s a process that can be used in different ways to create different things. To think clearly about GMOs, you have to distinguish among the applications and focus on the substance of each case. If you’re concerned about pesticides and transparency, you need to know about the toxins to which your food has been exposed. A GMO label won’t tell you that. And it can lull you into buying a non-GMO product even when the GE alternative is safer.
The farm-by-farm fight between China and the United States to dominate the global food supply. ... If China hopes to feed (and pacify) its growing population while also loosening the very real stranglehold that America has on its national food supply, its farmers have to start producing a lot more corn—not just enough to meet their domestic demand in good years but enough to maintain a stockpile to offset their global market impact during bad ones. For decades, China has increased corn yields by putting more acres into production, but they’re running out of arable land, and the USDA now estimates that Chinese corn consumption will rise by 41 percent by 2023, far outpacing production increases. The only tenable way for China to meet its own demand, then, is by planting high-performance hybrids, which can single-handedly double or potentially even triple per-acre corn production. Chinese scientists haven’t developed a significant corn hybrid in years. But Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer, the two American seed giants, have produced so many successful hybrids that they now control 45 percent of all the seed sold in the world. ... The Department of Justice maintains that China is quietly permitting and even encouraging companies to steal American agricultural secrets right out of the ground. Acquiring the technology behind these next-generation hybrids could save companies like DBN Group—and the country—as much as a decade, and many millions of dollars, in research.
Everyone at the Napa meeting had access to a gene-editing technique called Crispr-Cas9. The first term is an acronym for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” a description of the genetic basis of the method; Cas9 is the name of a protein that makes it work. Technical details aside, Crispr-Cas9 makes it easy, cheap, and fast to move genes around—any genes, in any living thing, from bacteria to people. ... Using the three-year-old technique, researchers have already reversed mutations that cause blindness, stopped cancer cells from multiplying, and made cells impervious to the virus that causes AIDS. Agronomists have rendered wheat invulnerable to killer fungi like powdery mildew, hinting at engineered staple crops that can feed a population of 9 billion on an ever-warmer planet. Bioengineers have used Crispr to alter the DNA of yeast so that it consumes plant matter and excretes ethanol, promising an end to reliance on petrochemicals. Startups devoted to Crispr have launched. International pharmaceutical and agricultural companies have spun up Crispr R&D. Two of the most powerful universities in the US are engaged in a vicious war over the basic patent. Depending on what kind of person you are, Crispr makes you see a gleaming world of the future, a Nobel medallion, or dollar signs. ... It brings with it all-new rules for the practice of research in the life sciences. But no one knows what the rules are—or who will be the first to break them. ... As it happened, the people who found it weren't genome engineers at all. They were basic researchers, trying to unravel the origin of life by sequencing the genomes of ancient bacteria and microbes called Archaea (as in archaic), descendants of the first life on Earth. Deep amid the bases, the As, Ts, Gs, and Cs that made up those DNA sequences, microbiologists noticed recurring segments that were the same back to front and front to back—palindromes. The researchers didn't know what these segments did, but they knew they were weird. In a branding exercise only scientists could love, they named these clusters of repeating palindromes Crispr. ... Pick your creature, pick your gene, and you can bet someone somewhere is giving it a go.
To help feed billions of people, scientists braved the snake-infested and croc-filled swamps of northern Australia in search of rice. ... Musgrave is one of a few pit stops along the rutted, mostly dirt road that traverses Cape York, Australia, and ends at the northeasternmost tip of the continent, just 100 miles from Papua New Guinea. The peninsula is part of the world’s greatest concentration of free-flowing rivers and its most extensive network of intact tropical savannas, which stretches across the country’s north for hundreds of miles. Even in a country where open spaces rule the landscape, this place looms in the national mind as an uncharted, prehistoric mystery. This year alone, scientists discovered 13 new spider species on the peninsula. Cape York is roughly the size of Nebraska but with only 17,000 residents, most of whom are indigenous and clustered in a few towns along the coast. ... Grown on six continents and in 117 countries, rice is the world’s most important food. There are 144 million farms that grow rice, more than for any other crop. The vast majority of these are in developing countries, and virtually all of them are small, averaging just over 2 acres apiece. Simply put, the crop is the daily sustenance of the world’s poor. The primary reason is its remarkable biology. Rice is naturally prolific, each plant generating perhaps 25 times as many grains as a single wheat plant. When grown in water, its microbiome regenerates the soil’s nutrition, making fertilizer unnecessary. ... In recent decades, an increasing number of geneticists and plant breeders have realized that crops’ wild relatives hold immense value because they have not been domesticated. Instead of being narrowed and homogenized by humans, these crops have produced immeasurable genetic diversity as a result of their natural adaptation to pests, diseases, and climatic fluctuation. Their genes have already begun to help agriculture tackle the enormous challenges it faces today.
Industrial production destroyed both the taste and the nutritional value of wheat. One scientist believes he can undo the damage. ... Commodity wheats are defined in just three ways: hard (high in protein, which is good for bread) or soft (better for pastries); red (dark color and strong flavor) or white (pale and more delicate-tasting); and winter or spring, depending on when they are planted. ‘‘Hard red spring,’’ for example, is often used for bread; ‘‘soft white winter’’ is better for pastries. A vast majority of America’s 56 million acres of wheat grow in a belt stretching more than 1,000 miles from the Canadian border to Central Texas. Around half of the crop is exported, and most of what remains is funneled to feedlots for cattle or to giant mills and bread factories, which churn out all those bags of generic white flour and limp sandwich bread sleeved twice in plastic. This industrial system forces plant breeders to prioritize wheat kernels of highly specific sizes, colors and hardness. ... What would happen, Jones wondered, if he developed unique varieties of wheat adapted to the Skagit’s cool, wet climate and extremely fertile soil? What if he could interest local millers and bakers in dealing primarily with Washington wheat? What if wheat, like wine, had terroir? After all, it used to. ... A grain of wheat has three main components: a fibrous and nutrient-rich outer coating called the bran; the flavorful and aromatic germ, a living embryo that eventually develops into the adult plant; and a pouch of starch known as the endosperm, which makes up the bulk of the grain. Before roller mills, all three parts were mashed together when processed. As a result, flour was not the inert white powder most of us are familiar with today ... Roller mills solved this problem. Their immense spinning cylinders denuded the endosperm and discarded the germ and bran, producing virtually unspoilable alabaster flour composed entirely of endosperm. It was a boon for the growing flour industry: Mills could now source wheat from all over, blend it to achieve consistency and transport it across the nation without worrying about shelf life. That newfound durability came at a huge cost, however, sacrificing much of the grain’s flavor and nutrition.
This apple had been carefully grown somewhere in Washington state, the result of millions of dollars and two decades of labor. Break apart its unremarkable surface to reveal its flesh, wait long enough, and you’ll see what’s different: It remains pure white. It doesn’t start to brown right after you take a bite and leave it on the kitchen counter. In fact, it doesn’t start to brown until it molds or rots. It doesn’t bruise, either. Through a feat of genetic engineering, Carter’s apples hold on indefinitely to the pearly-white insides that inspired their name — the Arctic. ... The Arctic was conceived by Carter’s company, Okanagan Specialty Fruits, which he runs with his wife, Louisa, and four other full-time employees, newly under the umbrella of a large biotech company that bought it this year. It’s an intended solution to what Carter sees as two interrelated problems: First, millions of pounds of perfectly good apples get dumped every year because they look a little too bruised or brown, the victims of an instinctive human aversion to fruits and vegetables that aren’t smooth, shiny, and symmetrical. And at the same time, North American consumers, accustomed to 100-calorie packs and grab-and-go everything, have developed an impatience for food that can’t be quickly eaten. ... Taken together, these two trends mean that while apple consumption has flatlined in the United States for decades, a staggering amount of apples go wasted. ... Apples in particular have been transformed dramatically by commercial cultivation and serendipitous acts of nature over the last two millennia. The apples grocery store shoppers pluck off shelves in 2015 are vastly different from the ones first discovered in Kazakhstan, or even the ones grown by Johnny Appleseed in the 19th century. ... A study in the Journal of Consumer Affairs estimated that $15 billion in fresh and processed fruit was lost from the U.S. food supply in 2008 — about $9 billion at the consumer level and the rest at the retail level.
The race is on to breed better birds as chicken emerges as the protein of the masses ... Unlike the roughly 60 billion chickens world-wide now slaughtered for meat each year, these birds are raised for their DNA. Paul Siegel, professor emeritus of animal and poultry sciences, studies how their genes influence the way they pack on pounds and fight off disease. The research helps companies seeking to breed chickens that will grow faster on less feed and require fewer drugs to stay healthy. ... Food producers face a monumental task. At current consumption rates, the world would need to generate 455 million metric tons of meat annually by 2050, when the global population is expected to reach 9.7 billion, from 7.3 billion today. Given today’s agricultural productivity, growing the crops to feed all of that poultry, beef and other livestock would require every acre of the planet’s cropland, according to research firm FarmEcon LLC—leaving no room for raising the grains, fruits and vegetables that humans also need. ... Chicken’s rise already is changing time-honored habits. In Argentina, where grass-fed beef has long been central to daily life, per-capita poultry consumption is projected to climb 7.5% this year to a record level, while beef consumption is expected to decline 6.3%. Even in pork-loving China, the government has subsidized large-scale poultry farms and breeding operations over the past decade to increase output.
For a long time, smug worked pretty well for Chipotle Mexican Grill. It’s grown into a chain of more than 1,900 locations, thanks in part to marketing—including short animated films about the evils of industrial agriculture—that reminds customers that its fresh ingredients and naturally raised meat are better than rivals’ and better for the world. The implication: If you eat Chipotle, you’re doing the right thing, and maybe you’re better, too. It helped the company, charging about $7 for a burrito, reach a market valuation of nearly $24 billion. Its executives seemed to have done the impossible and made a national fast-food chain feel healthy. ... Almost 500 people around the country have become sick from Chipotle food since July, according to public-health officials. And those are just the ones who went to a doctor, gave a stool sample, and were properly diagnosed. Food-safety experts say they believe with any outbreak the total number of people affected is at least 10 times the reported number. The CDC estimates that 48 million Americans get sick from contaminated food every year. ... Whatever its provenance, if food is contaminated it can still make us sick—or even kill. Millennials may discriminate when they eat, but bacteria are agnostic. ... Chipotle has said it will shift more food preparation out of restaurants and into centralized kitchens—that is, it will do things more like the fast-food chains it’s long mocked. Ells’s company has always urged customers to think about its supply chain. Well, now they are. ... It has about 100 suppliers for its 64 ingredients. That doesn’t include local farms—those within 350 miles of a restaurant—which at peak season supply only 10 percent of its produce.
Let us say it plainly: Monsanto is almost surely the most vilified company on the planet. To its diehard critics it embodies all that is wrong with big, industrial agriculture—the corporatization of farming, the decline of smallholders, the excessive use of chemicals, a lack of transparency, and, of course, the big one: the entry of genetically modified organisms into our food supply. The tri-letter acronym GMO has become a four-letter word to millions of people, from earnest middle-schoolers to purist Whole Foods shoppers. ... The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that we must double the current level of food production to adequately feed a population predicted to hit 9.7 billion by 2050—and we’ll have to do it on less land (much of it scarce of water), using fewer resources. ... Historically, Monsanto has tried to increase farm yields through advancements in seed technology alone. Grant calls this “hubris”: “Twenty years ago,” he says, “we thought biotech was going to be the panacea.” In the past half-decade the company has begun to look beyond seed for answers. ... Breeding better seed has contributed to a more than 1% annual increase in corn yields, experts say. Biologists, for instance, have created corn plants that can be clustered closer together, meaning there can be more stalks per acre. Still, that yearly growth rate would leave the U.S. average below 200 bushels by the end of the decade—far from Hula’s corn bonanza and nowhere near enough to feed the planet. ... Combined, those seeds now fill some 400 million acres around the globe. That’s a fraction of the nearly 4 billion acres of land the UN estimates is being cultivated. Climate Corp.’s chief technology officer Mark Young doubts that that Monsanto could ever get to a billion-acre footprint just by being a seed company, “but as a decision-based company, it seems to have a really good shot.” Monsanto, for example, doesn’t sell grape seeds, but it could some day advise grape growers on how to increase their yields.
Farms, then, are becoming more like factories: tightly controlled operations for turning out reliable products, immune as far as possible from the vagaries of nature. Thanks to better understanding of DNA, the plants and animals raised on a farm are also tightly controlled. Precise genetic manipulation, known as “genome editing”, makes it possible to change a crop or stock animal’s genome down to the level of a single genetic “letter”. This technology, it is hoped, will be more acceptable to consumers than the shifting of whole genes between species that underpinned early genetic engineering, because it simply imitates the process of mutation on which crop breeding has always depended, but in a far more controllable way. ... Understanding a crop’s DNA sequence also means that breeding itself can be made more precise. You do not need to grow a plant to maturity to find out whether it will have the characteristics you want. A quick look at its genome beforehand will tell you. ... Such technological changes, in hardware, software and “liveware”, are reaching beyond field, orchard and byre. Fish farming will also get a boost from them. And indoor horticulture, already the most controlled and precise type of agriculture, is about to become yet more so. ... In the short run, these improvements will boost farmers’ profits, by cutting costs and increasing yields, and should also benefit consumers (meaning everyone who eats food) in the form of lower prices. In the longer run, though, they may help provide the answer to an increasingly urgent question: how can the world be fed in future without putting irreparable strain on the Earth’s soils and oceans?
Oxitec is trying to leverage this mating instinct to help wipe out one particular species of mosquito: Aedes aegypti, carrier and spreader of some of the worst insect-borne diseases known to medicine—dengue, malaria, and Zika. The A. aegypti mosquito has evolved to survive even the most effective pesticides. It can lay 500 eggs in just a bottle cap’s worth of water, and it prefers to bite humans over animals, so it lives in places where no one thinks to spray, like under the couch. ... The idea behind Oxitec’s experiment is that if enough genetically modified male A. aegypti mosquitoes are released into the wild, they’ll track down large numbers of females in those hard-to-find places and mate with them. The eggs that result from any union with an Oxitec mosquito will carry a fatal genetic trait engineered into the father—a “kill switch,” geneticists call it. The next generation of A. aegypti mosquitoes will never survive past the larval stage, never fly, never bite, and never spread disease. No mosquitoes, no Zika. ... Oxitec is far from the first company or research team that’s tried to sterilize an entire insect population. Scientists have been going after A. aegypti in this way since the 1970s, usually by irradiating them. The problem with radiation is that it makes the mosquitoes too weak to get out and breed. The great innovation of the Oxitec method is that it cleverly achieves the same result as sterilization, while leaving mosquitoes able to do what mosquitoes do. ... Oxitec charges about $7.50 per person per year in each area it treats.