Close your eyes for a minute (after this paragraph) and think about the technology you have around your house. Maybe your TV, DVD player, your smartphone, your tablet. Maybe you like the way it works. But could it be better? Could it be safer? Could it be more environmentally friendly? Would a new OS provide new features?
What if researchers and engineers worked for years and years on a way to improve your favorite products, but other people tried to keep it away from you? Blocked your upgrade to the new OS. What if the researchers added benefits for you–the consumer–that delivered better features for many things you cared about: saving resources and energy which would be better for the environment. Maybe they reduced one of the chemicals in this product, to reduce the potential to cause cancer. Perhaps it was a feature that would reduce waste. Maybe it’s a product you enjoy now, but would disappear due to forces beyond your control unless engineering is done. Of course, I’m talking about food technology – not your smartphone. But the concept is the same. Continue reading.
A recent story about GMO testing kicked off a conversation with a friend. The researchers tested the biochemicals from crops to suss out variations in food quality and composition due to genetic engineering. The new process allowed researchers to extract 1,000 or so biochemicals from the fruit of tomatoes. *
When the scientists compared the biochemicals of the GM tomato and a wide assortment other non-GM tomatoes, including modern and heirloom varieties, they found no significant differences overall. Thus, although the GM tomato was distinct from its parent, its metabolic profile still fell within the “normal” range of biochemical diversity exhibited by the larger group of varieties.
My friend was unimpressed. He said: Continue reading.
Norm Bourlag. Photo by Glen Stubbe via the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
As I write this, the agricultural community has just finished a week acknowledging and celebrating the work of Norman Borlaug. Borlaug, of course, is widely known as the father of the Green Revolution, having increased the production of staple crops (particularly wheat) around the globe to unprecedented levels. He single-handedly stymied Malthusian predictions of inevitable global starvation, thereby changing the global perspective on agricultural production. While this is due in part to Dr. Borlaug’s untiring and persistent work, it is probably less widely acknowledged that the great accomplishments he achieved were largely made possible by the system he used to deploy them. His work was funded by private grants and he freely gave away his work, even to the point of begging or forcing farmers and politicians to take the seeds he had created. Perhaps to more long-term effect, he actively sought out students from around the world to come and train with him to learn his methods and techniques so they could be applied worldwide. This generosity even extended to the peasant children whose curiosity led them to follow Borlaug around his plots in rural Mexico.
Harry H. Stine. Photo via Forbes list of the world’s billionaires.
I was struck by the stark contrast that I found in a recent article at Forbes.com, outlining the story of Harry H. Stine. Like Borlaug, Stine too had his beginnings on a poor farm in the American Midwest. Early on, he too saw the potential of breeding plants (soybeans) to increase productivity. The methods he chose to leverage this, however, were quite different. Stine sought to protect his genetic creations by contractually preventing growers from reusing his seeds. Breeders could access his work only through licensing agreements giving royalty payments to Stine’s businesses. In a move reminiscent to Bill Gates, he snared a long term licensing arrangement with a large newcomer to the seed industry, Monsanto, thereby ensuring his enterprise would grow to the billion dollar worth it is now [Edit: As Gillian has pointed out below, there were other companies as well such as DuPont, Syngenta, Dow and Bayer]. Like Borlaug, he is not content to rest, however, and has set his sights on doubling corn yields in the near future using breeding and management techniques.
I don’t pose these two together to pass judgment on them, and I anticipate that some would even object to me putting them side by side. I admit that even I have some personal conflict as to the right or wrongs here. There can be no denial, however, that both men have greatly influenced modern agriculture. Both have pushed the expectations of their respective crops beyond what was thought possible. Both have given the world useful products and enhanced the lives of growers who use them. The products of both have also led to some detrimental social and environmental consequences. I suppose one could argue that even Norman Borlaug’s achievements were only possible through the wealth of capitalism (he was largely funded through the Rockefeller Foundation). Yet, I still find the contrast interesting. These two people, with different philosophies, have both influenced the global system of agriculture and the respective lives of so many. In our concerns for the food production system, we tend to spend the majority of our time examining the minutia, the details of certain production systems, techniques or technologies, while in actuality, the path we ultimately end up on may simply come down to the human nature of a few individuals.
Cover crop seed blend of 17 species
In my recent post Don’t mimic nature on the farm, improve it, I argued that we should cast aside the ideas of “balance of nature” and “nature knows best” in designing farming systems. There is no reason to “follow nature’s lead” if nature has not been optimized by any process that we know of, and therefore consists of mostly random mixes of species dictated primarily by natural disturbances. But if we don’t, what are we left with?
We are left with an agriculture based on human ingenuity, consisting of:
- Crop rotations; or better yet, dynamic crop sequences.
- Residue management and no-till planting to keep the soil covered and control erosion;
- Careful use of synthetic fertilizers in conjunction with organic fertilizers;
- Cover crop cocktails (This is where we can study unused and underused species to take advantage of “nature’s wisdom”. Precision crop planting in sequence with cover crops could potentially improve cover cropping benefits by allowing crop roots to advantageously colonize the root channels of the dead cover crops, i.e., sequential root channel colonization.);
- Genetically modified crops, including cover crops someday;
- Integrated pest management, including the use of improved pesticides.
All of these practices could be more widely used and more effectively applied. Continue reading.
Caterpillars that don’t eat Bt protein grow into adults. Adult corn borer. By Tony Morris vis Flickr.
Life, at it’s most basic level is really just a series of chemical reactions. Biochemists and molecular biologists, such as myself, look at how life works at the very most basic level. Unfortunately, this stuff is all very complicated and there are few resources online to explain how this work. Anastasia has a wonderful post about how Bt corn works in transformed plants, titled simply ‘Bt‘. In the post, she focuses on how the protein works from the angle of a plant biologist. In this post, I will be discussing the protein from the angle of an entomologist.
Specifically, I’m gonna answer this question: What happens when a caterpillar eats the Bt protein? Continue reading.