USDA Chief Scientist: How biotechnology will help us feed the world

Dr. Roger Beachy says we can't satisfy a hungry and growing planet without using 'every safe tool in the arsenal.'

How do you feed a hungry world, where the population is increasing, diseases are on the rise and the future of the climate is uncertain?

Dr. Roger Beachy, chief scientist of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has some ideas. He is the first director of the USDA’s new National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the federal government’s principal funder of agriculture research conducted at public institutions.

I talked to Dr. Beachy recently about how biotechnology can help put food on the table, how grocery stores of the future may allow us to buy food that match our genetic bar code and why he disagrees with Michael Pollan.

What led to the creation of your new agency?

It’s a restructuring of a former agency---Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES). It was reestablished to focus the research efforts on what we think are more impactful efforts [such as] reseach that impacts the human condition. This is quite a pro-science administration. Our Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is convinced that the answers to the future of agriculture and rural prosperity will come from science and the technology that comes with science.

You mentioned research that impacts the human condition. Tell me more about that.

There are three important issues:

  • To ensure global food to the next 3 or 3.5 billion people by 2050, while eliminating those who are currently underfed;
  • To ensure that healthiness and well-being are part of what we expect as humans; to have sufficient supply of safe and nutritious foods and at the same time providing a change in diet that will lead to a successful life;
  • To ensure we have a sustainable environment in which to live, and one that is not degraded. We have wonderful natural resources in this country, and we must preserve them in the face of a growing population and need for more food in general. These are all linked around food and agriculture.

It’s a different setting than even 20 years ago. It’s a time for change in agriculture and a time for change in the perception of agriculture.

How will technology be used to increase our food supply?

We know we have to use new technologies to understand how soil and its components provide nutrition to the plant so the plant can grow and be productive. At the same time, soil is the catchment area for water that becomes part of our drinking water. So [we need] the tools to understand how soil is used, how it’s rejuvenated by the microflora and how it stores water.

Then we will need a robust monitoring system to help us know what diseases are there now and what might impact our agriculture production with the change in climate. If we grow more biomass, how do we ensure those plants are not susceptible to diseases? It may be more use of biological control mechanisms.

We can expect to see more animal diseases, and we can expect the same for the crops we grow. [This will lead to developing] new plant varieties that can cope with the diseases.

We will need global monitoring and local monitoring of weather changes—that comes from NOAA and the Department of Energy. We need mathematicians. We need a different skill set now. We’d like the medical community to know more about the food we eat. It’s a changing time that now allows, because of the nature of the challenges, far greater integration.

So are you working with institutions like NIH?

Yes. In order to get this work done, we need broader collaboration with the National Science Foundation so we can engage the scientists who work on cell biology and immunology. We have collaborations with the DoE in our challenge of producing an appropriate biomass that can be converted to biofuels. We have a relationship with NIH and the National Cancer Institute and Centers for Disease Control on a program to look at the sociology of healthy eating, while at the same time making sure our programs encourage the establishment of small farms so food can be readily available to places that have been food deserts.

I’m so excited now about some of the new programs. We’re seeing involvement of scientists from higher institutions who have never been involved in agricultural research before. That’s wonderful. We need that breath and that knowledge.

You are known for your groundbreaking research on developing virus-resistant plants through biotechnology. What are some of the ways biotechnology can be used today?

[In the scope of] maximizing food production and reducing the use of agrochemicals, biotechnology is a piece of the toolbox. The bigger question is, how do you fight the challenge if nature doesn’t give you all the diversity you need? If you can’t find the right variety of crops to withstand a drought or to fight a virus, do you stop growing the crop? It’s been largely the purview of the agrochemical companies. At the same time, some scientists are under the conviction that this can be done through genetics.

With a greater number of people, we’re going to have to have more crop yield per acre. If we don’t, we’ll have to expand [agriculture] to our parks, forests and golf courses. When you increase production, plants are closer together and you have to adjust their genetics to be more resistant to diseases or drought or flood. We need to be ready to use safe and effective technologies and genetic engineering.

What industry publications do you follow?

I read Science magazine first. I follow the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. I read the daily clips summaries and a publication called Feedstuffs. Most of what I get is online. I still enjoy reading the science section of the New York Times.

What do you think of Michael Pollan’s work?

I think Mr. Pollan has a view different than mine. We both want sustainability and safety in our food. I’m quite convinced we can’t meet the future of the world’s needs without using every safe tool in the arsenal--and that’s increasingly better seeds and planting methods. While there is a need for growing fresh fruit and vegetables in our urban areas, it’s not enough.

It’s the arrogance of plenty--and I don’t mean to apply that to any single individual, but to a society--to think that the way we do things is the only way to do it. If we have a $150,000 or $250,000-income lifestyle, we act one way, and we have a certain set of rules. If our income is significantly less, we have a different lifestyle and different rules. I’m concerned we consider all parts of society when we make judgments about what’s best for society.

What will grocery stores look like in the future?

I think we’ll still have different kinds of grocery stores. Those that cater to those of us who make more—

Like Whole Foods?

Yes, the Whole Foods sectors, and those in the food deserts, in places that haven’t had grocery stores for decades. I think there will be a further segmentation of the fresh fruit market that’s not just organic or conventional but genetically improved by breeding methods or some biotechnology methods that we don’t even know yet.

I think grocery stores are paying more attention to the science and food of nutrition, and I hope they keep paying attention. That might [pressure] the food manufacturers regarding certain kinds of additives that might best be removed or reduced.

In 40 years we might have a system in which I know my genetic code and my microbial flora in my intestine, so I can go to the grocery store and find the food that matches. I could barcode my genetics. And my doctor knows it and prescribes drugs accordingly.

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