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BBC on drought tolerant maize/corn

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: (more…)

By The Numbers 12/19/09

In no way should any of the following statistics be taken as a dig against the people who study wheat. Wheat breeders have done so much with far few resources than have been invested in maize (corn) breeding. Ya’ll are amazing.
  • Year in with the largest wheat harvest in the US: 1981-1982 (2.8 billion bushels)
  • Year in with the largest wheat corn harvest in the US: 2007-2008(13 billion bushels)
  • The US’s share of global wheat exports in 1973-1974: 50%
  • The US’s share of global wheat exports today: 20%
  • Percentage increase in yield per acre of wheat 1969-present: 45%
  • Percentage increase in yield per acre of corn 1969-present: 90%
  • Estimated earliest year a program to develop genetically engineered wheat, launched today, would be able to win regulatory approval for any variety of GM wheat: 2018
  • Year in which Monsanto’s patent on their first generation Round-up Ready Soybeans expires: 2014
  • Number of lawsuits filed by Monsanto against individual farmers it claims infringed on its seed patents in the past decade: 125 (same source as above)
  • Number people threatened with legal action to force a settlement/sued by the RIAA in the same time period: more than 28,000
  • Amount the RIAA sued the russian website allofmp3.com for in 2006: $1.65 trillion
  • The gross domestic product of India in 2008: $1.2 trillion
  • First time the world knew what the far side of the moon looked like: 1959

Check out the article in The Guardian about wheat farming and the future of genetically engineered wheat.

You Think I’m Evil… What Next?

I’m a public sector plant biologist. Your tax dollars at work for better or worse. But even I have had similar encounters to the one Janice so accurately describes in this post I was pointed to on twitter*:

I asked what she does and she says mostly volunteer work now.  She asks me and I reply that I work in the cotton business for a company that improves seeds… its Monsanto & the seeds are called Deltapine.

There was an audible gasp, and her eyes opened so much it startled me. She said “Monsanto is evil.” This is where the stress came in. I have read this before, but the fact that I was hearing it today since I’d been making a lot of effort to stay positive seemed like a test. Really. And to have the person, who I’ve pleasantly visited with for five minutes, looking right at me like I’m evil,having just said that heard I am part of Monsanto. It was certainly a test…a test of the Janice-response system.

Seriously, how often do you call someone evil & mean it? She was dead serious.

But the moral of this post isn’t that it sucks to be a plant biologist, it’s that, as painful as it is to have someone look to in the face, and call you evil, there’s still the chance for engagement. At this point I probably would have either changed the subject or put in my iPhone earbuds and hoped the flight would be over soon, but Janice didn’t get mad, didn’t drop the subject, and it sounds like she actually managed to get the other woman to reconsider her categorical opposition to biotechnology. I highly recommend reading her whole post.

*Thanks @MikeHowie and @cornguy

Genetically Engineered Crops: Canola

Field of Canola in Bloom. Photo: Joe Shlabotnik, flickr (click photo to view Joe's photostream)

Field of Canola in Bloom. Photo: Joe Shlabotnik, flickr (click photo to view Joe's photostream)

Scientific name: Brassica napus

Genetically Engineered Traits: Herbicide Resistance.

Details of Genetic Engineering:

Two companies have produced canola that is resistant to different herbicides.
Monsanto sells canola (Roundup Ready canola) that is resistant to glyphosate, an herbicide monsanto sells under the brand name Roundup and lots of other companies sell under lots of other brand names since the herbicide itself recently came off patent (the resistance trait is still under patent.)
Bayer sells canola (Liberty Link canola) that resists the completely different, if similar sounding herbicide, glufosinate. Glufosinate is sold under a number of brand names (including, you guessed it, Liberty), but I wasn’t able to figure out whether or not it is still under patent.
About Canola:
Derived from the name “Canadian Oil” canola is an oilseed plant also known as rapeseed. The name change came in the 1970s when conventional breeding (this was approx. two decades before the first genetically engineered plants hit the market) created plants with healthier oil and without the bitter taste , and presumably someone to majored in advertising suggested that selling “Rape Oil” would be a good way to go bankrupt.

Two companies have produced canola that is resistant to different herbicides.

Monsanto sells canola (Roundup Ready canola) that is resistant to glyphosate, an herbicide Monsanto sells under the brand name Roundup and lots of other companies sell under lots of other brand names since the herbicide itself recently came off patent (the resistance trait is still under patent.)

Bayer sells canola (Liberty Link canola) that resists the completely different, if similar sounding herbicide, glufosinate. Glufosinate is sold under a number of brand names (including, you guessed it, Liberty), but I wasn’t able to figure out whether or not it is still under patent.

About Canola:

Derived from the name “Canadian Oil” canola is breed of the oilseed crop rapeseed. The name change came in the 1970s when conventional breeding (this was approx. two decades before the first genetically engineered plants hit the market) created plants with healthier oil and without the bitter taste people associated with rapeseed oil, and presumably someone to majored in advertising suggested that selling “Rape Oil” would be a good way to go bankrupt.

Close up of Canola Flowers. Photo: Pollobarca2, flickr (click photo to see pollobarca2's photostream)

Close up of Canola Flowers. Photo: Pollobarca2, flickr (click photo to see pollobarca2's photostream)

Rapeseed (the USDA doesn’t break out separate statistics for Canola) was the third biggest source of vegetable oils around the world in 2008-2009 at 20.5 million metric tons, coming in behind only soybeans and oil palms.

Canola is the main oil I use in my own cooking. Canola is apparently one of the healthier sources of vegetable oils, but the two things I most appreciate about it are the high smoke point (it’s harder to burn the oil itself*), and low cost. Last time I checked I was able to find a 48 oz bottle of canola oil for 2.99 which was better than local prices for peanut or corn oil. (Olive oil of course comes in much smaller containers that cost $10 or more, not at all suitable for graduate students.)

*Good for someone who is both as indifferent a cook, and as easily distracted as I am.