Genetics and food doesn't have to be just about GM: genetic markers

The most interesting article in the Economist special report on ‘Feeding the World’, reviewed here yesterday, was on the question of new technologies. Quote: ‘The only reliable way to produce more food is to use better technology’. Some excerpts here:

“There will not be big gains in food production from taking in new land, using more irrigation or putting more fertiliser on existing fields. Cutting waste could make a difference, but there are limits. The main gains will have to come in three ways: from narrowing the gap between the worst and best producers; from spreading the so-called “livestock revolution” [i.e. battery farming]; and—above all—from taking advantage of new plant technologies.”

“The change likely to generate the biggest yield gains in the food business—perhaps 1.5-2% a year—is the development of “marker-assisted breeding”—in other words, genetic marking and selection in plants, which includes genetically modifying them but also involves a range of other techniques. This is the third and most important source of growth….

The public debate on plant genetics focuses almost entirely on the pros and cons (mostly cons) of genetic modification—putting a gene from one species into another. A gene from a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, for example, when spliced into maize, makes the plant resistant to herbicides; this enables farmers to plant maize, spray the crop with a weedkiller and end up with a field of nothing but maize. In Europe it is illegal to plant such maize. The biggest advantage of genetic selection, however, is probably not that it makes it possible to grow transgenic crops (“Frankenfoods”), but that it allows faster and more precise breeding.

Imagine the genetic material of plants as a vast library, with billions of books. This library has no catalogue, and none of the books has an index or table of contents. It is still possible to discover what is in the library by reading every volume. That is roughly what plant breeders have done in the past, painstakingly planting hundreds of varieties of a single species and discovering traits by breeding numerous generations from them.

Genetic marking is the equivalent of giving every book a title, table of contents and index—and with much greater speed and accuracy than any librarian could manage. Monsanto has a “corn chipper” which takes a small amount of genetic material and generates a DNA profile of hundreds of maize seeds simultaneously in seconds. It leaves the seed alive, so breeders, having mined the computer data from this and every other seed in Monsanto’s vast library, can go back to a seed they like and breed from it. It is possible literally to find one plant in a billion.”

Nice to see the discussion getting away from the normal trench warfare over GM, and to look at a wider range of technologies. However, the usual issues that dog the ‘nice v nasty technology’ debate still apply – who controls the R&D budget and agenda? Who benefits from implementation? Do poor producers benefit or lose out? See previous post for more on this.

GM crops

But before you conclude that GM isn’t a big deal, here (from a different section of the paper) is the latest data on GM use, which is booming in several developing countries. “Over 15m farmers planted GM crops in 2010; 94% of them come from developing countries, which include 19 of the 29 countries where GM technology is used.”

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2 Responses to “Genetics and food doesn't have to be just about GM: genetic markers”
  1. P Baker

    GM is a big deal, but over-reliance on high tech is silly. It’s been around for 20 years now and we have a food problem.

    At some point it might really get interesting (e.g. maize that fixes nitrogen) but the likelihood is that this is going to take a long time.

    And that’s the point, we’ve run out of time, we have a major problem for the next few years, so we have to concentrate on present best practice – there’s a huge amount that can be done, especially in SSA. The cash should go on that and not be given to the agribiz blowhards that The Economist loves so much, who are touting for business through their columns.

  2. I agree with P Baker – we have to move much faster than we are towards truly sustainable agricultural systems (and by sustainable I mean able to produce crops with minimal use of fossil fuels).

    I also think that biotechnology has a role to play in speeding up the conventional breeding process.It is transgenic crops that we need to be very cautious about.

    But there is much more that could be done immediately if farmers could embrace a different paradigm than the Roundup Ready way of doing things (the worst example of GM technology there is).

    Holistic management, biodynamics, permaculture, intercropping etc. – all of these could offer huge potential for restoring the health of the land (we have lost over half our organic soil matter in just 125 years here in Canada), which by default makes crops healthier and more productive.

    The problem is twofold as I see it: the mindset of many of those growing our food and the manipulative marketing practices of agribusiness that keep it that way.

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