'How do scientists modify a plant so that it makes more food?'
On the occasional clear-frost autumn night, my dog takes the opportunity to remind me that she is not a dog. Bewitched by sounds that I cannot hear and by smells that I cannot imagine, she plants her four feet stolidly apart and raises her head up toward the treetops. Through her slack jaw she emanates a long, low, warbling bellow that echoes across the empty wood. After the last note fades, she is herself again and comes tripping back to my side. I rub her head and continue hiking through the dark forest with my GMO wolf.
Yes, my best friend is a genetically modified organism; deliberate selection has produced the blunt-toothed, small-pawed wonder that walks by my side. Millennia passed as the most trusting puppy was selected from the litter born of a mother who herself had been the most trusting puppy, forever changing the original pattern of genes within the DNA. Now I live with a Canis species that sees food as a gift and can’t hunt to save her life but has somehow retained the ability to howl.
Our world is changing rapidly. In my 47 years of life, global population has fully doubled, with 3.7 billion hungry mouths added to our planet. During this same time span, the amount of land suitable for agriculture has increased by only 5%. Miraculously, this did not result in the great global famine one might have predicted—and we have farmers, agriculturalists and genetic engineers to thank for that. Simply put, we produce many times more food per acre of land than we did in 1969, especially for staple grains. Rice yields per acre have doubled since then, and corn yields and wheat yields have more than doubled.
How do scientists modify a plant so that it makes more food than its parents did? We could treat each harvest like a litter of wolf pups and select only plants bearing the fattest, richest seeds for the next season. This was the method our ancestors used to engineer rice, corn and wheat from the wild grasses they encountered. During my childhood, advances in genetic technologies allowed scientists to identify and clone the mutant genes responsible for repressing stem growth, leading to shorter, stronger stalks that could bear more seed—the high-yield cultivars that feed us today. The 21st century has brought with it a marvelous new suite of high-tech tools with which to further accelerate the process of artificial selection. Plant geneticists can now directly edit out or edit in sections of DNA using molecular scissors. We can minimize a plant’s weaknesses while adding to its strengths, and we don’t have to wait for seasons to pass to test the result.
It is the transformative potential of these techniques to quickly supply the next-generation crops required for impending climate change that led me to add my name to the Cornell Alliance for Science’s petition asserting the safety and efficacy of GMO plants in agricultural products, a stance supported by the American Society of Plant Biologists, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academies. It is these groups’ consensus that early research claiming to link genetically modified foods to cancer (specifically tumor formation) was scientifically unsound, key examples of which have since been retracted. The ability of a few corporations to own and thus control the sale and use of GMO varieties remains troublesome. It could perhaps be alleviated by a policy of expiring patents on new cultivars, similar to the way a pharmaceutical company is allowed to recoup expenditures made in research and development for a limited time, until the drug becomes generically available.
Regardless of politics, our world will continue to change rapidly. The U.N. issued a report that projects the global population will reach 9.7 billion by 2050: yet another 2.4 billion hungry mouths to feed. And this time around, we will be tilling soils under rising temperatures, increased drought and shifting populations of pests. The crop cultivars that we plant today are not equal to the task of feeding the new world that we are creating. We need more GMO research.
I love the quiet forest that stands between my lab and my home. But I know that as a scientist, I am responsible first to humanity. We must feed, shelter and nurture one another as our first priority, and to do so, we must avail ourselves of our best technologies, which have always included some type of genetic modification. We must continue as in millennia past, nourishing the future as we feed ourselves, and each year plant only the very best of what we have collectively engineered. I keep the faith of my ancestors each night when I walk through the forest to my lab, and my GMO wolf does the same when she guards my way home.
Jahren is a scientist and the author of Lab Girl, a memoir.
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