Feeding the world Plants

Biodiversity and Genetic Engineering Aren’t Mutually Exclusive!

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:


How A Piece of Misinformation is Born

For an example of how fast information can be distorted as it is transmitted through the web, check out my previous documentation about how a paper on a GM trait not being in danger of escaping into wild populations was twisted into“Another failure of genetic engineering” in only a week.

Refuting every post across the web that makes false claims about agriculture, genetics, or plant biology would be, firstly impossible, and secondly, incredibly tedious. Once a piece of misinformation escapes into the wild it is far harder to call back than the horrible trans-genes of anti-GMO activists nightmares. A false idea will spread far faster among those who want to believe than it can be refuted (at length and in detail) by those who know better.

But this morning (or afternoon, or evening, or dead of night), I came across a wonderful example of what I believe has the potential to be an entirely new false fact that could float around the web, and obscure corners of the public consciousness for years to come (or be forgotten in a week, it’s hard to pick which facts will escape and thrive in the wild until they actually have.)

agriculture Feeding the world

China’s Approval of Bt Rice Confirmed

Read today’s story from Bloomberg. I’d discussed my own thoughts when it was a story based on anonymous sources last week.

From the article:

China produces 31 percent of the world’s rice and 20 percent of its corn, U.S. Department of Agriculture data show. …[China] uses 7 percent of the world’s arable land to feed a quarter of its population.

China has only 7% of the world’s farmland yet feeds more than 1.3 billion people (and still growing). No wonder they’re investing so heavily in crop/plant science.

Another one I recently read (if it was you, sorry for not attributing it properly, the comparison just stuck in my head) was that India and Argentina are about the same size (India is about a quarter bigger) yet India must feed 30 times as many people!*

*Of course this isn’t quite a fair comparison since Argentina exports so much food to Western Europe, since those countries can afford to buy food abroad instead of focusing on increasing local production, and China and India must

agriculture Feeding the world

Bt Rice in China

Reuters has a story up, based on anonymous sources, that China has just approved a government developed strain of bt rice*. Bt crops express a protein isolated from Bacillus thuringiensis a bacteria used by organic farmers to control insects. The introduction of bt crops (primarily corn and cotton) has lead to substantial reductions in the use of insecticides. China plants more than 100,000 square miles of land with rice each year, so the environmental and economic** impact of being able to reduce insecticide applications would be substantial.

China is also in a unique position when it comes to commercializing any form of genetically engineered rice, as the world’s largest producer of rice, but only a small next exporter*** China stands to benefit from any improvements to rice, and is largely immune to pressure from food importing countries such as the members of the European Union. China has also invested (and continues to invest) billions of dollars in developing their own, publicly-funded, domestic crop research and breeding which has kept their per acre crop yields trending upwards, and now means they’re prepared to make the leap to genetically engineered food crops (they’ve had bt cotton for some time) with home-grown technology, killing any narrative about this being western tech foisted off on the developing world.

Genetics Plants research stories

The Family Tree Of Corn

Branches not to scale. Tree designed in Mesquite.
Branches lengths not remotely to scale. Tree designed in Mesquite.
This family tree shows the relationship of a few of the species in the grass family tree that I think people might be most familiar with. Genomes that were published before today are marked in green (there were only two, sorghum and rice), the maize genome which was just published today is marked in yellow, and brachypodium (which you shouldn’t feel at ALL bad if you haven’t heard of) is marked in grey as its genome project is in the final stages (a draft assembly was released to the public last winter) so it’ll probably be the next grass genome to be published. After that I’m less sure, I know there’s a foxtail millet genome project, but I don’t have any idea how far along the process of genome sequencing, assembly and annotation the genome project is.
What’s important to know about the relationship of the sequenced grasses?

agriculture Crop Profiles

Genetically Engineered Crops: Rice

Rice photo: flickr,毛利人

Scientific name: Orzya sativa

Genetically Engineered Traits: Herbicide tolerance, insect resistance (bt), increased vitamin A content

Details of Genetic Engineering:

Rice genetically engineered to be resistant to glufosinate (developed by Bayer CropScience) has been approved (deregulated) in the US but is not yet for sale commercially as the company attempts to get approval in countries which import rice from the US as well.

As far as I know, no company in the US has produced bt rice, which has less to do with consumer fears than with the small amount of rice production in the US rather than consumer rejection, but that’s just a guess. The Chinese government has developed breeds of bt rice, but doesn’t grow them commercially because of the risk to their export markets, which is primarily to countries that reject genetic engineering (although Chinese rice exports are declining drastically as more and more of their production is needed to feed their own people).

White and Golden Rice Respectively
White and Golden Rice Respectively

Golden rice, which has betacarotene, which human bodies need to make vitamin A, was developed by in Swizerland in the 1990s. Almost all plants produce carotenoids like betacarotene in their leaves as part of the biological machinery that makes photosynthesis possible. Breeders can sometimes identify and propogate natural mutations which lead to the expression of carotenoids in other parts of the plant, two key examples are orange carrots* and orange cauliflower. Vitamin A deficiency is a major issue** in many countries were rice is the primary crop, so breeders have searched for decades for natural mutations at would create orange rice, without success.*** The initial breed of golden rice which used two genes, one from daffodile to promote the expression of carotenoids in the grains of rice was attacked as requiring people to eat more than a dozen bowls of rice a day to get their daily recommended vitamin A intake, new versions that replaced the gene taken from daffodil with a version of the same gene taken from corn have more than twenty times as much beta carotene. Golden rice is also not currently grown commercially as it, like ringspot resistant papaya, doesn’t have a powerful for-profit corporation to shepherd it through the complex approval processes of various nations.

About Rice:

agriculture Feeding the world

Greenpeace offers marker assisted breeding

Greenpeace on Friday called on the International Rice Research Institute to abandon its genetic engineering program as the environmental activist group offers marker assisted breeding as a safe alternative to bioengineering.


Dear Greenpeace,

I would like to call upon you to abandon your campaign against genetic engineering and offer up an alternative priority your organization could focus on to the greater benefit of the world we all share: Fighting man-made global warming.


Now you could argue greenpeace already is opposed to global warming. And you’d be right. They are. I guess my offering it to them looks pretty stupid doesn’t it?

The same could be said of greenpeace offering marker assisted selection to the plant breeding community that pioneered the technique and is taking full advantage of it, and has been for years in both the private and public sectors. Case in point: