Carrots weren’t always orange – until about 400 years ago, they were either purple or white. Dutch farmers bred the orange carrot in tribute to the king, William of Orange, and this has been the popular variety ever since.
Scientists have recently been trying to gain similar popularity for a new type of rice. “Golden rice”, named for its yellow colour, has been enriched with a chemical important to the body, to ensure that people in developing countries get more vitamin A: essential for good eye sight and a healthy immune system.
In developing countries that rely on a largely rice-based diet, it is often difficult for people to get the nutrients they need, such as vitamin A, to keep them healthy. By growing rice that contains the chemical required to deliver vitamin A directly, malnutrition, and the diseases associated with it, will be reduced.
The major advantage of introducing extra nutrients while a plant is growing, rather than adding them when the final product is finished, is that it will reach more people, and is more efficient than adding the nutrients later on.
Nutrients can be added during the growing stage in a couple of ways. Conventional breeding, as with the orange carrots, requires searching for varieties of crop already naturally high in the required nutrient and cross-breeding them with high-yielding varieties of crops.
Another way is genetic engineering, which involves specifically introducing a gene rich in a certain nutrient. Genes are the instructions in DNA that tell living things how to grow, so the new gene tells the plant to grow with more of that specific nutrient. Golden rice is an example of a genetically modified crop that has been developed for its nutritional value. Genetic modification has met opposition and criticism, and has not been widely adopted as an alternative farming method in Europe.
It will be important in the future to make sure that the global food supply is safe, environmentally-friendly, diverse and affordable. Current farming methods rely on large areas of land, and transporting food around the world requires a lot of energy. As the population grows and becomes richer, there will be greater competition for land, energy, and all the natural resources we need to keep our supermarkets well-stocked.
Chemists and engineers are being called upon to match the energy and food demand with the limited supply of natural resources, and come up with new ways of producing more food more efficiently. By 2050 we will need to produce twice as much food as we do now.
Historically, food production has been increased by finding improved crop varieties that are higher yielding. Better farming methods and using new technology, for example the introduction of farm machinery, has also greatly improved food production. Existing and new technologies, in part provided by the chemical sciences, will need to be applied to farming to meet our future needs.