James and the Giant Corn Rotating Header Image

October, 2009:

Putting Prejudice over Science

I read this when it came out, but it was before I’d restarted the site full time, and Pamela Ronald restarted the discussion over on scienceblogs today. Back in May the USDA posted a report on their website about how allowing genetically engineered crops to be certified as organic would have positive environmental effects.

Needless to say the organic movement was not pleased, and the report has since been pulled from the website. Now I previously celebrated the idea that the Obama administration was going to let organic and biotech go head to head and take the best parts of both. I’m confident in the benefits of genetic engineering when people judge the technology based on the data instead of preconceived opinions.

Making reports disappear because they step on the toes of well connected interest groups is not letting the data speak for itself.

h/t’s to Tomorrows Table and Biofortified.

And hey, if you’re willing to spend 10 minutes you can register and vote for Biofortified in the Ashoka Changemakers Contest. There’s a good chance you’ll help win $1500 to support a website fighting the good fight to correct the misinformation about genetic engineering, but even more importantly from my perspective, winning this contest means the guy on the left (yes he’s wearing a corn cob patterned t-shirt) will get a chance to meet with Michael Pollen. There’s also a stuffed corn cob with glasses in the picture.

Agriculture in Popular Culture: CSI Miami

Sorry for missing my daily post yesterday. Still trying to get over whatever I caught last week.

Last week, 13.3 million people watched CSI Miami in prime-time. That’s more people than live in the state Illinois. It doesn’t consider reruns, Tivo recordings, or piracy.** So to the untrained eye (mine), it seems likely the show is making enough money to hire a scientific consultant or two. Clearly the untrained eye is wrong and budgets are so tight that that the expense of finding someone who’d taken intro biology anytime in the past fifteen years was far too much. As demonstrated in this weeks episode “Bad Seed.”

Before I continue, let me say first of all I’m not one of CSI:Miami’s regular viewers. They don’t have to worry about losing me as a fan. I never was one. Second, I don’t get angry when shows like Fringe or the SyFy (<–that’s really how they spell their name now) Channel’s disaster and/or monster movie of the week completely mangle science. They are, and acknowledge themselves to be, science fiction. Shows based on fictional science. On the other hand, shows such as the CSI and Law&Order families set fictional stories in what, we are supposed to believe is, the  real world. As such, the burden on them to get their facts straight is much stronger.

A burden the writers of CSI Miami clearly can’t be bothered to live up to. (Oh, if it wasn’t obvious already, spoilers ahead). (more…)


Grafted Apple Tree

Grafted Apple Tree

Imagine if all it took to replace a lost leg was to put another leg against the amputation site, tie up the wound and let the two grow together. We can do that with plants! We’ve been doing it for thousands of years and it is an important part of crops production for woody plants (think fruit trees).

The technique is called grafting and it really is almost that simple. A branch or stalk* from one plant is cut and attached to another plant of the same or a related species**, making sure to line up the vascular tissue*** of the cut branch and host plant. That connection is covered with grafting wax or grafting compound which keeps the exposed ends of the cuts from drying out which would stress or kill the cells. (more…)

Welcome PATSP readers

If you’re hitting the site for the first time welcome. Look around and make yourself at home. I’ve been meaning to highlight a couple of my more popular posts and I figured your visit was a good occasion to do so:

GM tomatoes don’t taste bad

Why Wheat is Losing Out in the Era of Modern Crop Breeding


A Defense of Hybrids


Fortunately xkcd has an even more genius comic than usual today.

Bill Gates at the World Food Prize

If you have a few minutes, take the time to either watch or read the speech Bill Gates delivered at the World Food Prize in Des Moines. While I don’t care for the operating system that made him a multi-multi-billionaire, I don’t think anyone can argue that he is doing more good with his wealth than any other member of the superwealthy.

Africa is the only place where per capita cereal yields have been flat over the last 25 years. The average farmer in sub-Saharan Africa gets just over half a ton of cereal per acre. An Indian farmer gets twice that; a Chinese farmer, four times that; an American farmer; five times that. (more…)

World Food Prize

Iowa sorghum field.

Iowa sorghum field.

The World Food Prize, an award set up by Norman Borlaug to honor others who fought against hunger, was held in Des Moines this week.* The prize went to Gebisa Ejeta, an Ethopian-American plant breeder and geneticist, who developed new breeds of sorghum that increase yields as much as fourfold.

His sorghum breeds deal better with drought, a trait that will become only more important around the world as competition for fresh water increases. Perhaps even more importantly though, they are resistant to striga**, a parasitic weed that attaches to the roots of crops, drawing off nutrients and severely decreasing yield (20-80% less than uninfected fields). Each plant produces tens of thousands of tiny seeds than can lie dormant in the soil for up to twenty years waiting for the best moment to strike, so once a field is infected with striga, it isn’t going away. The common name for striga is witchweed which fits the species perfectly. Striga resistant sorghum is a very good thing.

My appreciation and congratulations go out to Gebisa Ejeta.

*This is the first time the prize has been awarded since Dr. Borlaug passed away.

**On the more basic research side, the study of striga lead to the discovery of a new class of plant signaling molecules strigolactones.

Pictures of an Extinct Flower

The people over at plant-talk have a post up with gorgeous pictures taken in 1982 of a Ghost Orchid, a English wildflower that hasn’t been seen in 23 years and was recently declared extinct.

Spoiled with Perfect Produce

From teddlerus on flickr

From teddleruss on flickr

Matt over at The Scientist Gardener put up an important post a couple of days ago where he related his own experiences touring a lettuce field:

The crop wasn’t in great shape, but we anticipated a decent harvest. We were shocked to learn that the field had already been harvested! Hundreds of perfectly edible heads lay all around us, left unpicked because they didn’t meet stringent appearance standards for consumer acceptance.

How big an issue imperfection is varies from crop to crop. For a crop like oranges it isn’t one at all, since there’s plenty of demand for orange juice, a use that don’t require visually attractive fruit. Now when it comes to something like cauliflower, or as Matt was talking about lettuce, there’s very little demand for anything other than fresh, whole produce. The rest just goes to waste rotting in fields.

In America it is an issue of consumer preference, and I couldn’t find any statistics on wastage to imperfect fruit. In the European Union it was until recently a matter of government policy. Twenty percent of produce was being thrown away for not meeting government size and shape criteria. This summer the restrictions were removed from 26 type of fruit and vegetables which was expected to cause price drops of up to 40% for some kinds of fresh produce. You could imagine something similar would happen in the US if we as consumers didn’t demand perfect fruits and vegetables, making healthy (if odd looking) food more affordable for everyone.

I’m not sure if there’s a call to action here. Just something to be aware of.

Potato Breeding

Unfortunately the purple potatoes aren't a Cornell Breed

Unfortunately these purple potatoes aren't one of the Cornell breeds

A lot of people may not share my enthusiasm for the potato genome, hopefully you all enjoy eating potatoes. The stereotype of potatoes is lots of boring sameness one identical to the next.* Reality, as usual, is much more complicated. Tens of thousands of cultivars can still be found in the South American regions where potatoes were first domesticated. In America, breeders are constantly working to bring in desirable traits from those (often really cool looking) breeds and even wild relatives of the potato. They face both genetic barriers (species barriers are bad enough normally, but trying to introgress genes across a tetraploidy can be a mess) and consumer acceptance ones.

This was driven home in a story at the NYtimes about Cornell potato breeders who have developed breeds which grow much better in upstate New York, but run into problems because the potatoes look and taste different than the couple of varieties of potatoes consumers and restaurants are used to (most notably Idaho grown Russet Burbanks**). Cornell Extension has been working on overcoming that barrier providing the potatoes to restaurants and, in what I think is a genius move, culinary schools throughout the region.

If you happen to visit New York farmers markets take a moment to ask sellers about the breeds of potatoes they have for sale.*** The potatoes covered in the story are Salem, Eva (both white potatoes), Lehigh, Keuka Gold (yellow breeds), Adirondack Blue and Adirondack Red (both of which are just the color you’d expect from the name.) Purple potatoes in particular just look really cool, see image above.

*There was a saying about accepting differences that I vaguely remember from a childhood TV show, something along the lines of “People aren’t the same like potatoes, and that’s a good thing because potatoes are boring.”

**The Russett Burbank was developed by a truck gardener outside of New York City called Luther Burbank in the 1800s who was initially inspired to become involved in plant breeding by Charles Darwin’s 1868 The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. He later moved to California where he became famous plant breeder and, among other things championed the practice of grafting (connecting a cutting from one plant (usually a tree) to the stem of another, which, if done properly grows the two together and the cutting will grow flower and produce fruit like it would normally) a practice at the time condemned as unnatural. <– This info from Mendel in the Kitchen by Nina Fedoroff and Nancy Brown a great resource

***In fact, whenever you’re buying directly from a farmer, if you get a chance, ask about the breed of whatever you’re buying. More often than you’d expect there’s an interesting story about why he or she is growing that particular breed and where it came from.