Tag Archives: crops

Essential response to anti-GM from Mark Lynas

No full length post here, just a suggestion that you all go to read Mark Lynas*’ fantastic deconstruction of various anti-GMO arguments. Obviously none of the arguments mean ‘go grow GM across the world immediately!’ but he gives some lovely detailed responses to the inconsistency in various people’s thinking (e.g. how objecting to Monsanto creating a monopoly on corn should not lead to trashing open source disease tolerant papaya in Africa) and explanations of how environmental groups are doing things that simply aren’t good for the environment.

It’s long, but a very good read.

Following a decade and a half of scientific and field research, I think we can now say with very high confidence that the key tenets of the anti-GMO case were not just wrong in points of fact but in large parts the precise opposite of the truth.

This is why I use the term conspiracy theory. Populist ideas about conspiracies do not arise spontaneously in a political and historic vacuum. They result when powerful ideological narratives collide with major world events, rare occasions where even a tiny number of dedicated activists can create a lasting change in public consciousness.

The anti-GMO campaign has also undoubtedly led to unnecessary deaths. The best documented example, which is laid out in detail by Robert Paarlberg in his book ‘Starved for Science’, is the refusal of the Zambian government to allow its starving population to eat imported GMO corn during a severe famine in 2002.

Full link is here

*Mark Lynas as in the authors of Six Degrees, a pop science book about how the world would change as average global temperature increased by 1 degree, 2 degrees, 3 degrees etc… It’s basically a huge meta study of primary literature and very enjoyable. Apparently he’s good at writing about GM too – who knew?

Salvaging the salty small holdings

When people interested in food security aren’t busy worrying about plateauing crop yields, they tend to be worrying about how much agricultural land we’re losing. We already use so much of the world for growing food crops (around a third) that there’s very little spare land left, and some of the techniques we use for growing crops lead to the land we already have being lost. When crops are grown in an area with insufficient rainfall they must be irrigated (i.e. watered). But all standing water, even if it doesn’t come from the sea, contains small traces of salts: just look at the label on a bottle of Evian. This means that over time, the land becomes saltier or salinised and since plants don’t like salty soil they struggle to grow there.  Continue reading

Molecular Biology 101: Synteny, Conservation and two wheat genomes

Somehow between going to the Netherlands, the Easter break, a week-long lab course and a conference talk to write I managed to miss not just one, but two really interesting, exciting and useful papers in Nature (Incidentally, I try not to write too much on here related to my PhD: I’m always a little scared that I’ll end up saying similar things about papers in my literature review and then being pulled up for plagiarism or something, but these are two interesting to miss.) But I digress.

Sequencing the wheat A and D genomes

Two weeks ago a consortium of Chinese and American scientists published two papers about sequencing both the A and the D genome progenitors for bread wheat. (Quick re-cap for the un-initiated. Wheat is a hexaploid i.e. instead of having one maternal and one paternal copy of each chromosome – that is, 2 in total, it has 3 pairs of each, making its genotype AABBDD). This is pretty big news for a couple of reasons: Continue reading

Molecular Biology 101: A map from here to there (and the barley genome)

Barley and Wheat are pretty similar. After all they’re sisters… No really. In a flash of food-security related brilliance I named my guinea pigs Wheat and Barley. Let it never be said that I don’t take my PhD seriously…

But seriously: wheat and barley are both cereals; important food crops, important feed crops, vital for producing my two favourite beverages (20% of the worldwide narley yield goes for malting), not to mention bread… Wheat tends to get a lot more coverage though: the world grows around a quarter of the amount of barley that it does of wheat and the amount spent on barley-related science is therefore always likely to be a bit lower.  Continue reading

Gates Foundation to fund UK GM Research

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the world’s largest charitable funds, aim to “help all people lead healthy, productive lives”. This is brought about by astronomic sized donations ($2.6 billion in 2010) to a variety of healthcare interventions, educational initiatives, scientific projects, and help for those in extreme poverty.

One of their latest funding projects is a $9,872,613 research grant, designed to last 5 years and a month, awarded to the John Innes Centre. (That’s about £6.34 million at today’s exchange rate). The JIC is another of the BBSRCs ‘research institutes’, like Rothamsted. This essentially means that they can do all the research that universities do, without any pesky undergrads running around wanting to be taught how to hold a pipette.

The project will research the feasibility of producing cereal crops (probably wheat and barley) that are capable of fixing their own nitrogen. Plants need nitrogen in order to produce amino acids, and therefore protein: including chlorophyll, which is what makes plants green and allows them to photosynthesise. Without nitrogen, plants are yellow and stunted – because they can’t harness the sun’s energy as sugar. They’re essentially a bit useless. During the Green Revolution, when industrial fertilisers (as opposed to cow manure) came into common usage, yields became up to three times what they originally were. But the sort of small scale farmers that the JIC project is designed to help (specifically those in sub-Saharan Africa) are not able to afford the huge quantities of fertiliser that their crops need.

This is where the idea of crop rotations arose. Certain plants such as the legumes (peas and beans) are able to survive without the application of any external nitrogen-rich fertiliser. This is because they have a symbiotic relationhip with a ‘nitrogen-fixing’ bacterium called Rhizobiawhich can capture nitrogen from the air and turn it into compounds like ammonia, which are solid and can dissolve in soil water.

If nitrogen-fixing maize could be produced, this would allow maize farmers in sub-Saharan Africa to grow higher yielding crops without needing to spend so much money on external fertiliser, or leave fields to fallow every few years.

It will be a long project. The aim is to get the same bacteria that populate legume plants to form an association with the cereal. Step 1 is in getting the cereal to even recognise the presence of the bacteria! If the maize plant can sense that the bacteria are there, it can begin to produce a simple swelling in which the bacteria can ‘live’. From there, evolution should theoretically do the rest…

Friday Roundup

Here are a few odds and ends that have caught my eye over the last day or two to finish the week with.

The 523Mb draft genome for banana, Musa acuminata, has been released (more on that later) in a paper in Nature by D’Hont et al  and with it this awesome Venn Diagram comparing the genes that are homologous between banana and some other important plants. (Arabidopsis is the model species for all plants – the equivalent of a lab mouse; Brachypodium is the model for grasses; Oryza is rice).

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Molecular Biology 101: QTL mapping, and salt-tolerant chick peas

At the time of writing, the world population clock shows the total number of people on Earth as 7, 052, 499, 082. A smidge over 7 billion. And according to the FAO around 1 billion of those people are starving. The current prediction is that by 2050 the world population will have increased to around 9 billion people, and in order to feed all of those people we will need to produce at least 70% more food than we currently do. (We’re also eating more meat, which is more energetically expensive, because not all of the energy in a bowl of corn goes into the meat of the chicken who eats it, which is why it’s so much higher than 2/7.)

Continue reading