Around 854 million people experienced malnourishment in 2022, according to the United Nations (U.N.). That means a population that’s almost 2.5 times the size of the U.S. population and around 12.6% of the total world population is experiencing hunger and incurring greater risks of injury, disease, and early death due to preventable nutritional deficiencies. The impacts of global malnutrition are “serious and long lasting” for children, families, and communities, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Innovative engineering solutions have the potential to help solve these issues. For example, agricultural biotechnology can contribute to greater food security through foods that are bioengineered to increase yields, boost nutrition levels, and enhance crops’ resistance to diseases and pests.
Agricultural engineers are vital to the development of this technology. An advanced engineering education can prepare aspiring agricultural engineers to support the fight against world hunger.
Global Hunger Problems
Based on 2022 data, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the U.N. estimates that every day in the U.S., 2.4 million people may not eat due to severe food insecurity.
Understanding global hunger issues starts with becoming familiar with the terms that experts use to describe the problem:
- Food insecurity refers to the lack of consistent access to healthy, nutritious food. It can be caused by financial barriers to affording sufficient food or nutritious foods as well as environmental and social barriers to accessing such food with regularity.
- Malnutrition refers to unhealthy nutrient intake, whether due to deficiencies or excesses of particular nutrients. The WHO classifies malnutrition into four categories: wasting (having low body weight for one’s height), stunting (having low height for one’s age), underweight (having low weight for one’s age), and micronutrient deficiencies (lacking the essential vitamins and minerals required to maintain healthy bodily functioning).
- Food systems refer to the complex network of organizations and activities related to growing food, consuming food, and everything in between. Food systems involve the production, processing, safe handling, transport, and purchasing of everything people eat — all of which are influenced by policymakers, farmers, scientists, engineers, businesses, and consumers.
How can agricultural biotechnology address food insecurity, reduce malnutrition, and improve the efficiency and resiliency of food systems? The answer involves an array of innovative technologies and approaches to this complex issue.
What Is Agricultural Biotechnology?
Agricultural biotechnology, or agritech, refers to the application and development of scientific tools and techniques to improve agriculture. It is applied in numerous ways in farming and food sciences to engineer better systems related to the animals, plants, fungi, and microorganisms used for human consumption.
Agricultural biotechnology has many different applications and approaches. Agricultural engineers use biotechnology to promote:
- Disease resistance
- Pest resistance
- Drought resistance
- Crop fortification (e.g., golden rice)
- Taste enhancement
- Agricultural soil cultivation
- Yield improvement
- Shelf-life extension
- Fermentation and enzyme development
- Biofuel development
What Is Bioengineered Food?
Bioengineered food is a form of agricultural biotechnology. What is bioengineered food? Under federal law, the term describes food that has “detectable genetic material that could not be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are a result of various biotechnological interventions. Consumers and media outlets tend to use the term GMOs to refer to any organism (including plants and animals) that has been created or altered at the genetic level (its DNA) through genetic engineering (GE).
While there is plenty of public skepticism about the safety of GMO foods — 38% of Americans believe they are generally unsafe to eat, according to a 2020 poll by Pew Research Center — the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes that they are as safe as non-GMO foods. This is in part because GMO food safety, as well as the environmental impact of GMOs, are monitored by the FDA, the USDA, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Agricultural Biotechnology Examples
Agricultural biotechnology has numerous applications, which can help minimize food insecurity. Some prominent examples of agricultural biotechnology that engineers have developed to address hunger include herbicide-tolerant and pest-resistant crops, nutritiously dense crops, and conservation tillage.
New seed technologies have helped to increase crop production in several ways.
Engineers have developed “stacked” corn varieties genetically engineered to offer multiple protective traits, such as herbicide tolerance, pest resistance, and drought tolerance.
- Herbicide-tolerant corn varieties are engineered to tolerate specific broad-spectrum weed-killing chemicals — reducing the economically and ecologically costly need for soil tilling.
- Pest-resistant varieties, such as corn enhanced with Bacillus thuringiensis, can ward off insects — reducing farmers’ reliance on pesticides when these varieties are grown using other pest management practices.
- Drought-tolerant corn varieties can enable farmers to produce crops on previously challenging land — slightly reducing corn crop irrigation needs, according to the USDA.
Engineered crops with multiple resiliencies are becoming increasingly common in the U.S. In 1996, two years after the U.S. federal government approved the usage of bioengineered crops, only 3% of corn farm acreage included herbicide-tolerant varieties. That rose to 84% by 2016, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service report “Amber Waves: 2022 Year in Review.” The same report found that 91% of corn farms use “some form of genetically engineered seed.”
Golden rice (Oryza sativa) is a genetically enhanced variety of rice with genes from daffodils and a bacterium that enable it to produce provitamin A (beta-carotene) — a nutrient not available in other common commercially grown rice.
Provitamin A supports healthy skin, vision, and immune system functioning, making it an important nutrient that many people experiencing food insecurity lack. Provitamin A deficiency is one of the primary causes of preventable blindness and early death in young children, according to the U.N. Since its introduction in 2000, golden rice has offered the possibility of addressing nutrient deficiencies across the globe.
Land degradation presents a pressing challenge for farmers around the world. Intensive soil tillage strips farms of nutrient-dense soil and beneficial organisms, such as worms. With many conventional tillage systems, farmers must use plows to turn over the majority of the soil before planting.
In contrast, conservation tillage — a method that conserves soil, water, and energy resources by reducing tillage intensity and retaining crop residue (leftovers from previous crops) — reduces the disturbance of the soil in which crops can grow, thereby minimizing the risk of soil erosion and nutrient runoff. Plus, because conservation tillage requires less labor, it is also associated with reduced fuel consumption and labor costs.
Soybeans and canola grown in the U.S. using conservation tillage methods have resulted in healthier soils that need less plowing, as reported by the USDA.
Engineer Biotechnology for the Future
Agricultural biotechnology can provide food that is more healthy and produced with greater efficiency and sustainability than traditional methods. Earning an engineering degree can prepare professionals with the necessary tools to use this advanced technology to tackle hunger.
The University of California, Riverside’s online Master of Science in Engineering (MSE) program offers a bioengineering concentration that explores high-level concepts such as computational biology, genetics, and biological and physiological systems. In as few as 13 months, you can earn an MSE from a top-ranked program while completing coursework 100% online. Find out how UC Riverside’s engineering program can help you take the next step in your career.