What traits would the “perfect plant” have? In Science’s “Sowing the Seeds for the Ideal Crop,” researchers present a wish list of crop improvements needed to increase production and achieve sustainability.
Some of researchers’ “lofty goals” include restructuring root and leaf architecture to increase water use efficiency, improving the nutrient content of seeds and edible plant parts, and adding genes for toxins that will killonly pest insects.
The article also discusses technologies that can make these changes possible, such as artificial chromosomes, RNA interference, targeted gene replacement and robotics. While these techniques are still being developed and refined, it is clear to scientists that they are part of the solution to providing more food for the world.
Science also provides further insight into how to feed the world’s growing population with their video, “Feeding the Future.”
Hawaii’s agricultural biotech industry is thriving. The state’s seed industry has grown at steady clip and is now valued at a record high of $146.3 million according to the Hawaii Ag Statistics Service. That’s an increase of 42% since 2006.
Hawaii’s ag biotech industry is represented by the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, a non-profit trade association founded in 1971 by Dr. James Brewbaker as an offshoot of the Corn Research Program at the University of Hawaii College of Agriculture.
HCIA member companies have farms and facilities on the islands of Oahu, Kauai, Maui, and Molokai and employ more than 1,800 workers. Although Hawaii is the leading producer of seed corn, the papaya crop is perhaps the best-known example of how ag biotech has truly flourished there.
Hawaii’s papaya industry was in the verge of extinction due to the papaya ringspot virus (PRSV) when USDA plant virologist Dr. Dennis Gonsalves and a team of biologists and horticulturalists began efforts to develop transgenic papaya that was resistant to PRSV. One PRSV-resistant line was discovered and farmers began planting the transgenic cultivar in 1999, effectively sparing the industry from disaster.
Since then, growers in Hawaii have been focusing on the role that their state can play in the global economy. “Food, agriculture and growth must be the fundamental and sustained objectives of our state,” said Hawaii Crop Improvement Association President Adolph Helm. “It’s very easy to say ‘no’ to genetically modified food when your stomach is full. It’s time for us to ‘grow locally and feed globally.’”
Helm also responded to ISAAA’s annual report on the global status of commercialized biotech crops, saying, “The report confirms that the research work being conducted by the seed industry in Hawaii is having a profound impact on agriculture worldwide. The increased demand for biotech crops is proof that the technology has become a vital tool for farmers in developing countries who struggle with poverty, malnutrition and resource-poor farmlands. ”
Also, check out the introduction to HCIA’s new video, “Seeds of Promise,” which shares how biotechnology is shaping Hawaii’s future, and features academics, researchers and state policymakers discussing the benefits of agricultural biotechnology.
“Tomorrow’s Table is a real education on the many choices farmers today must make regarding seeds. It’s very good in explaining genetically engineered seed, how it’s used today (mostly to help plants fight off insects and tolerate herbicide) and how it will be used in the future (to increase disease resistance, drought tolerance, vitamin content and crop yields, for example). The book separates out clearly the issues of how to make sure new seeds are safe, how to price them and how to treat them as intellectual property.”
The authors, CBI Expert Dr. Pamela Ronald, and Raoul Adamchak, are a married couple who present two different sides to the organic/biotech debate and how the two systems can complement each other -she is a plant geneticist at UC Davis and he is an organic farmer.
C. Kameswara Rao, Executive Secretary of the Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education in Bangalore, published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about the decision by Indian government officials to impose a moratorium on genetically modified Brinjal (eggplant).
Rao believes this decision by the Indian government is not based on science. He writes that genetically modified crops, including Bt Brinjal, have been thoroughly tested and evaluated. In fact, “about 200 scientists and experts from over 15 public and private-sector institutions” participated in the agronomic and biosecurity evaluation of Bt brinjal from 2000-2009. The group found the crop safe for food and feed use and approved Bt Brinjal for commercialization in October, 2009.
Rao argues that this decision by the Indian government disproportionately hurts Indian farmers, and echoes the sentiments of Rajesh Kumar, an Indian farmer who recently published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal criticizing the government’s decision to restrict biotech crop use. Farmers in India lose between “50-70 percent of their annual marketable eggplant yield to two insects” every year. Through an advanced gene Bt Brinjal can withstand the pests and farmers can produce more yields. The same gene has been inserted successfully into several other biotech crops such as cotton, corn and potatoes.
Despite the proven success of these biotech crops and the relief they can bring by increasing food yields, he believes the Indian government reacted to misleading claims about biotech crops when issuing this decision. Rao believes that this rejection of science will only hinder India’s progress and delay the commercialization of a crop that could benefit millions.