If you want to become more self conscious about your own vocal fillers, sentence fragments and the general nonsense that comes out of your mouth, ask a really good transcriptionist to write out an interview you did.
So I did a thing. For those who don’t want to click the link, it describes the results farmers are seeing in their first year of growing two new varieties of proso millet developed by a company called Dryland Genetics. Many farmers are getting 20% more grain from the same land as they did with the varieties they grew in the past. Since proso millet is grown in close to half a million acres in the USA (two hundred thousand hectares or three million mu (亩) for those of you reading internationally), that means these new varieties have the potential to produce a lot more calories from the same land, using the same water and the same nitrogen.
I helped found Dryland Genetics in 2014. At the beginning that meant reading a lot. Then writing a business plan. Then pitching that business plan. Winning over investors. Wrangling logistics. Hiring a full time breeder. Crunching numbers and datasets. Losing sleep over logistics and seed processing and cleaning and inspections and sales. More recently hiring more people who take over the job of wrangling and lose sleep over logistics and seed processing and cleaning and inspections and sales.
There’s a new episode of BBC’s Discovery: Feeling the World out this morning. It’s only 26 minutes long, and the full piece is definitely worth a listen, but if you don’t have 26 minutes, the meat of the post can be summarized in 8 minutes:
3:20-7:54: Introducing the subject, developing drought tolerant varieties of maize in Africa, and the fact that the researchers working on it as using conventional breeding, marker assisted breeding and a genetically engineered trait Monsanto. When battling starvation, you use any tool that comes to hand.
18:40-21:20: This part is almost hard to listen to. You can hear the raw emotion in the researcher’s voice as the reporter keeps trying to make genetic engineering sound, at best, like a last resort. Couldn’t they just try irrigating more crop land she suggests?
25:10-end. Conclusion. I also thought this part was very powerful.
A few complaints:
MAT_kinase has sparked an interesting discussion about the associations people have with corn of different colors. I’d previously heard that yellow corn (where pre-vitamin A carotenoids are produced in the kernels) isn’t popular in Africa, with the reason usually being given as its association with American food aid.* If yellow corn comes predominantely from food aid, it eventually becomes associated with being poor and/or starving, so that when people have a choice they eat other varieties of corn. I can’t find where I read it, but I vividly remember reading an interview with a woman who talked about the shame of eating yellow food-aid corn, knowing that it had originally been intended to feed livestock in the US, not people.
MAT points out another more pragmatic reason yellow corn may not be favored in Africa that I hadn’t heard of before. Apparently the extra carotenoids make yellow corn more susceptiable to spoilage than white corn varieties, a very pertenent issue in areas without access to the kinds of storage facilities we take for granted in American agriculture.
Jeremy at the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog picked up the torch, highlighting a number of their own previous posts relevant to the discussion, including one by fellow blogger Luigi that relates the reaction of his own wife, originally from Kenya, on ordering polenta** at a restuarant and receiving a yellow dish.
Fortunately breeds of corn that contain even more beta carotene (the carotenoid most easily converted into vitamin A by our bodies) aren’t even yellow all the time. Although I wasn’t able to find a freely available picture, sometimes they’re ORANGE.*** While it turns out the correlation between color and beta carotene content isn’t perfect****, there’s still reason to hope varieties bred for the highest pre-vitamin A content will end up a striking orange color. For a visual examples of how orange corn can get, check out check out Dr. Rocheford’s lab website.
Will the distinction between orange and yellow***** be enough to get over the Africa’s lack of enthusiasm for yellow corn? Will the benefits of a diet with more vitamin A be enough to outweight the issues with yellow corn going “off” if stored improperly? I certainly hope the answers to both these questions are yes, but we won’t know for sure until we try. And there are some hopeful signs. For example this segment in a story from NPR:
First, since I didn’t explicitly state it in my previous post, the paper on the longer lasting tomatoes developed by India’s National Institute for Plant Genome Research didn’t report any data on how the RNAi knock-down tomatoes actually taste.* The tomatoes are nearly twice as firm as tomatoes in which these genes are NOT knocked down, so it’s possible they’d seem unpleasantly crunchy, I don’t know how doubling the firmness of a tomato translates into the feeling when a person bites into one.
On the other hand, if the tomatoes do turn out to be tasty and delicious, it’s quite possible the trait could be replicated without genetic engineering. And if that turns out to be true, it’s absolutely the approach anyone developing longer lasting farmers to Indian farmers, or farmers anywhere, should take (for why I’m saying this, check out the bit in bold further into this post).
Pam Ronald, writing at Tomorrow’s Table points out an interesting interview with Roger Beachy the new head of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (itself a newly created government organization) in Nature Biotechnology. He talks about everything from restoring support for the, very successful, programs that used to fund the training of plant breeders and plant biologists from around the world* to increasing the number of research grants that have specific money set aside for education and outreach. I’m guessing this is the comment that will get the most play if the interview gets noticed by the popular press:
In the early days of agbiotech, regulations were fairly minimal, which kept development costs low. The safety of a product was judged on the product itself and not the method used to develop it. Regulatory agencies have lost some of that focus in the past ten years. … I am very interested in having a regulatory structure that is science based and gets back to what we originally had.
I continue to be impressed with President Obama’s choice to head up the new agency, as I have been since the appointment of Roger Beachy was first announced. Though I will say I got this part wrong in my original post about Beachy’s appointment:
And on top of that, he’s spent his entire life working in the public and non-profit sectors (places like Cornell, Wash U, the Scripps Institute, and most recently president of the Danforth Plant Science Center). Can you imagine the screaming if Obama had picked someone who’d ever worked in industry to head up the NIFA?
As we’ve seen from the reaction to Roger Beachy’s appointment, finding a respected scientist who has done both basic and applied research, with proven skills as an administrator (plenty of great researchers make horrible administrators) and who’d spent his entire like working in the public and non-profit sectors instead provoked so much screams one might have thought President Obama had appointed Hugh Grant (the CEO of Monsanto, not the actor) to head the NIFA instead of Roger Beachy.
*Such funding contributed to the training of, among others, Gebisa Ejeta, who won the World Food Prize in 2009 for his work developing striga resistant sorghum, and who, from his testimony to the senate foreign relations committee, sounds like he would agree with this goal.
The work of plant breeders and the naturalists who catalog so much of the genetic diversity passed down over 400 generations*, have done far more to feed people than genetic engineering thus far. The reason I spend so much time talking about genetic engineering (and to a lesser extent mutation breeding) isn’t because I think the techniques are more important than breeding using the existing diversity of crop plants and their wild ancestors, it’s because genetic engineering (and once more to a lesser extent mutation breeding) are the techniques that are subject to the most misinformation and opposition. If I had to choose, for the entire world, between marker assisted selection and genetic engineering, I’d choose marker assisted selection in a heartbeat. But we don’t have to chose.
Consider three cases:
Tracked down a paper published just under a year ago in Food Policy (a peer reviewed journal). “The impact of agricultural research on productivity and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa” by Arega Alene and Ousmane Coulibaly.*
CGIAR spending on research targeted at agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa (178 million dollars a year in 2003) provides 1.3 million people with an escape from extreme poverty (living one dollar a day or less) every year. Simple division would indicate the agricultural research of the CGIAR centers is saving human beings from the trap of extreme poverty at a cost of just under 137 dollars per person. Of course it isn’t that simple, there are both economies of scale** and, eventually, diminishing margins of return*** to consider, but it seems the work of the CGIAR centers in Africa are big enough to have achieved those economies of scale, and, given their calculations on the elasticity on poverty to investment in agriculture, Africa is a LONG way from having to worry about diminishing marginal returns on agricultural investment.
Given the elasticity of poverty reduction to agricultural research spending they calculate (-.22) the marginal cost* of reducing poverty by another person in Sub-Saharan Africa through investments in agricultural research is only $71. (i.e. spending one billion dollars more on agricultural research would save an additional 14 million people from poverty.) This doesn’t consider the additional postive effects of improving local agriculture (for example reducing the incidence of famine).
Finally consider this quote from the paper for a sense of the work the CGIAR centers are funding and try not to feel as impressed as I do: