"Frankenfoods" and Other Breeding Breakthroughs

August 28, 2009 - 13:08

New GMA Corn Not for the Food Chain

Since their inception, genetically modified crops were targeted toward farmers producing the world’s food supply. Soybeans that can be sprayed with herbicides, corn that resists insects and fungi, and grains that grow in drought-ridden areas are but a few of the successes of genetically engineered crops. A side benefit: The fear of creating indestructible weeds and bugs resistant to control measures has largely been unrealized. These lab-created crops have quickly been adopted by U.S. farmers and dominate the fields and grocery aisles of North America.

Now, biotechnology has produced the first crop targeted for the “grown–for-fuel” market. Developed by Syngenta, corn amylase is a genetically modified crop that provides a direct advantage for ethanol producers: The new corn borrows a heat-resistant protein from deep-sea bacteria that produces kernels that are easily converted to ethanol without the addition of expensive enzymes. Potential benefits include increased profits for farmers and lower cost of the gasoline substitute. The corn’s alpha-amylase allows the starch to be converted more easily into sugar and eventually ethanol, reducing the cost of producing the biofuel by about 10 percent.

As with almost all GMAs, there are some detractors. The starch in corn allows it to be heated and formed into many processed snacks and thickening agents. Starch is actually what conventional corn producers sell. Food processors are worried that the modified corn could slip in among conventional corn, but the FDA and EPA have approved the production and use of GMA corn, and Syngenta has promised that it will be produced in a closed-loop setting, which would prohibit it from entering commodity grain supplies.

Traditional Breeding Battles Biotechnology

Having already deployed genetic science to ward off disease, increase yields and make food more nutritious, the world’s biggest biotech corporations are experiencing much less criticism over “Frankenfoods” than one might expect. But Europe, Asia and Africa still actively resist producing GMA crops to supplement traditional food crops regardless of the perceived advantages. Realizing that this attitude probably won’t change, crop scientists and seed companies are reinventing traditional breeding techniques. Instead of “lifting” DNA from species to species, scientists work to discover and unlock the secrets bundled inside each plant itself. Some of the success is because traditional breeding can still do some things extremely well.

Gene manipulation techniques are great at isolating a particularly useful piece of DNA and transferring it to a plant that does not possess those traits. The most recognizable example of this is the transfer of the herbicide-resistant gene from a grass species to soybeans so farmers can treat their soybean crops with herbicides without killing them. Conventional breeding techniques are better at building up qualities that require a suite of genes, such as those that can fight off insects or help build drought resistance. Researchers have recently developed soybeans that ward off sucking aphids and wheat that resists fungus and drought — without resorting to gene modification. Using recent advances in genomics, scientists have been able to realize considerable savings in time and cost in traditional crossbreeding. The new techniques have cut the time to produce a new corn variety from 10 years to four. Avoiding gene modification and splicing also saves money that would be spent on patents, testing and navigating the regulatory requirements of health and safety agencies, which often accounts for 90 percent of the costs of developing a genetically modified variety.

The battle of GMO versus traditional breeding is sure to continue, but thanks to cutting-edge science, traditional methods of farming still have a brilliant future.

Organic Agriculture’s Growth Sparks New Issues

After gaining critical mass in the 1990s, organic agricultural production has continued to increase in prevalence, rising from $3.6 billion in 1997 to more than $18.9 billion in 2007. Recent data suggests that two-thirds of U.S. consumers buy organic products occasionally, and 28 percent buy them weekly.

The increase in demand has resulted in an inadequate domestically produced supply and increased imports. As of 2007, there were about 27,000 accredited organic producers and handlers in the United States and approximately 11,000 in foreign countries. Even with a weaker U.S. economy, sales of organic products have increased.

The potential for products that are insulated from the effects of a weak economy has fostered the development of new competitors, many of which are based on marketing rather than production protocol. The two most widespread are “naturally grown or produced” and “locally grown.” A recent consumer survey posed the question, “If you were purchasing a particular product and had the choice of either a locally produced product (within an hour drive) or a nonlocal-produced organic product, which would you choose assuming the quality and cost were equal?” Thirty-five percent chose local, 22 percent chose organic and 41 percent rated both categories as equal.

Further, a study by a large Midwestern university found that 24 percent of consumers were willing to pay a premium for “locally produced” products. Little has been done in floriculture to leverage these consumer trends to increase retail price points and take advantage of the “green” aspects of the product. Will consumers respond the same to products that are used aesthetically rather than consumed? No one knows for sure, but it is probably time to find out.

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