Agchat Twitter Twoubles

There is a weekly meeting of Twitter denizens where they discuss questions about agriculture called Agchat. Run by Michele Payn-Knoper, it meets every Tuesday evening from 8-10 pm Eastern, and all someone has to do to participate is get an account on Twitter, put #agchat in your 140-character posts, and follow the conversation by searching for #agchat. I haven’t participated in one of these before, although I have heard of it and seen other people participating while surveying the tweetscape. So when Agchat approached me to be a special guest to talk about Food Insecurity and Hunger I thought, sure, but this means I’ll have to sign up for twitter! For those of you who know me, I’m not tempted to use a social networking service that tells me that I cannot use grammatically correct sentences and say exactly what I mean. We do have a blog twitter feed, but Frank manages that one pretty well on his own. Well, if genetically engineered ear of corn can do it, why can’t I give it a whirl?

A week before the October 12th agchat was scheduled to begin, I signed up for twitter as @kjhvm, tested out some tweets, and caught the end of the previous agchat to get a feel for it. Later, I wrote a blog post on the topic of Food Insecurity and Hunger for the Agchat site. I started by thinking how would I define and approach this subject, given my training, background, and interests (and in only a few paragraphs)? The result was Breeding Food Security, take a look! Soon enough, it was 7 pm on the 12th in my time zone, and time for the agchat to begin. After people networked, I was asked to introduce myself and so I did. A few minutes later I realized that my tweets were not showing up in the chat. Twitter, I gather, is prone to getting bogged down so I thought it would clear up. It didn’t. I thought that maybe the problem was with Tweetdeck, so I went straight to twitter.com and logged in to try it out. Again it failed. I was completely unable to participate in agchat. Possible reasons included it being a new account not yet included in searches or that someone reported this brand new account as spam. The first seems unlikely as I already successfully participated in a chat. But the second?

Disappointed, I had to relinquish my special guest status to instead be an observer.

Frank, on the other hand, joined in and stole the show. He talked about the ups and downs of trade liberalization, governments funding ag research for their own countries, and posted links to youtube videos from Willy Wonka. I too want to know what schnozberries taste like! The entire evenings chat festivities are available in the agchat archives, for each of the 10 + 1 questions:

Not an unproductive evening, despite my own technological troubles. Still it makes me feel like retreating into my anti-twitter ludditism and yearn for the good ole’ days of internet forums and blog posts.  With the frequency that twitter bogs down, I wonder about the utility of this particular system for communicating? I don’t know how Frank does it.

Forget about my outlier experience. If you are a “tweep”* and like talking about ag, plop yourself in front of your favorite twitter application and take a ride on the next agchat train.**

* I vigorously defend my use of scare quotes for this word. Why does everything related to twitter got to start with tw?
** Or should it be “twain”?

For posterity, here is my agchat post.

Breeding Food Security

This week, the World Food Prize organization is holding its annual Borlaug Dialogue, complete with lectures, prizes, and above all, thoughtful discussion on how to improve food security for people in developing countries. There are many ways that this can be done, through old and new genetic techniques, to improvements in farming practices and soil management, to food storage, distribution, and infrastructure – not to mention social practices and attitudes about food. But as an aspiring plant geneticist, when I think of food security I think first about improving the plants that we grow.

Being a plant breeder is not as easy as it might seem. Each crop species has its own history contained in the genetic code of the seeds that exist today, some more than others. Useful versions of the many thousands of genes that there are in crops are continually being discovered, and plant breeders draw on this variation to cross and select plants that have the right combinations of traits.

What is the right combination – the perfect plant on a genetic level? To answer that question we must consider the environment that they grow in – the intersection of climate, weather, soils, and resources that we call the farm. A variety perfectly suited to a rich soil in a moist climate may not even produce anything in a dry, sandy location, whereas a plant adapted to survive in such arid lands will be woefully inadequate where conditions are ideal. And year to year, weather patterns change, making the task of a breeder even more difficult – and more important.

You cannot talk about things such as food distribution if you do not have the food to distribute. We have witnessed in recent years that droughts and severe weather conditions are enough to cause shortages in some of the more secure of nations. Even the threat of a shortage is enough to close a trade barrier and endanger food supplies elsewhere. As our climate continues to change and these uncommon events that put crops at risk become more frequent, we need to gird ourselves (and our plants) against such possibilities.

Breeders are hard at work trying to bring together genes that will strengthen crops against these conditions, but I worry if it will be enough? I think we will need to draw on genes from outside the gene pool of individual species to bring together traits that are sorely needed. Genetic engineering is one tool among many that can help make food security possible. We will also need improvements in growing practices, which will go hand in hand with genetic improvements.

Drought tolerance is one important trait, but nutritionally improved staples such as golden rice, super cassava, and even conventionally bred high-protein maize are another important step. The ever-present biological threats of insect pests, disease, and parasitic weeds in Africa, demand attention as well. If a region, nation, or planet can first grow crops that will guarantee that enough nourishing food will be always be available for a growing population, then we can have the stable political environment that will make it possible for us to figure out how to get it into everyone’s hands.

Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:

Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.