Genetically Enhanced Agriculture: Utilizing Nature’s Best Chemists
Originally published in Maximum Yield (April 2005)
If you live in the United States, then chances are you consume genetically modified foods on a weekly basis from one source or another.
In a technologically advanced society, genetic techniques have influenced industries, from dairy, to fruits and vegetables, to plant-derived therapeutic compounds. When in pursuit of better tasting wine and cheese it seemed only proper to culture the best bacteria and yeast. Over time, scientists learned how to identify and clone desirable traits in many organisms, effectively enhancing a process beyond its original potential.
Ethical and economic issues have certainly taken its toll on GM food acceptance, fueled by an uncertainty of its consequences. In a vastly expanding world, agricultural production must be maximized for quality, quantity, and efficiency. Agriculture has been the backbone of civilization since the dawn of time.
These days, farmers and scientists have teamed up to engineer the best of what nature can produce in many different ways. Three quarters of all cheese is produced by a GM enzyme. One third of corn, one half of soybean and one half of cotton production are also from GM strains. By cloning a gene encoding a specific protein, a beneficial trait can be expressed in almost any organism.
Genetically modified organisms in everything you eat
In this manner, rice and corn have been engineered to have a greater nutritional value; potatoes have increased disease resistance; tomatoes have enhanced flavor and contain higher levels of the antioxidant lycopene, soybeans have increased omega- three fatty acids, and GM cotton requires far less pesticide.
The United States is home to more than 50 million hectares (one hectare =100 acres) of genetically enhanced crops, representing 60% globally. It seems that accepting genetically modified organisms is no longer an option, but a necessity.
GM foods provide additional nutrition in everyday foods. Soybean is the most abundant and common source of protein for cattle feed and processed ‘fast foods’. Everyone can imagine how vital the world’s corn, wheat, rice, and fruit production is.
Not only in the US
For instance, China represents 21% of the world’s population with only 7% of its arable land and unfortunately the latter number is decreasing while the former is increasing (2005). Conventional rice has low nutritional value and is more susceptible to disease and nutrient deficiencies.
Recently, there have been advancements in the rice genome project that allow for an increased Vitamin A content and also make it easier to grow in a more diverse environment. This is good news for many countries, although everyone is not as equally excited about GMO’s. Now that biotechnology has expanded to agriculture, corporations have the right to patent new plant strains and related technology. Private farmers are forced to make a decision between growing their own crops to collect seed for the following year or buying GM seeds with favorable properties.
Designer strains have been engineered to produce sterile pollen so that farmers can’t replant these crops without buying a fresh seed stock. This has many small business farmers in an uproar claiming that GM pollen has the potential to contaminate surrounding natural strains, making them unviable, as well as submitting themselves to the mercy of large corporations.
Since its introduction in 1996, GM canola has grossly contaminated organic/ conventional crops in Saskatchewan, Canada. Ninety-nine percent of wild pollen is not carried further than 300 yards, but the remaining one percent is carried up to 10 miles away. Other mechanisms have been perfected where a GM strain will only successfully pollinate an identical strain, something like a double negative resulting in a positive outcome.
What about the environment?
Environmental concerns are under intense scrutiny and multiple safety mechanisms have been developed. An upcoming solution for global agriculture is a farming method known as Controlled Environment Agriculture or CEA for short. This methodology combines the best of mechanical engineering with biotechnology to hydroponically grow any type of plant in a greenhouse setting with substantial yields as compared to fi eld cultivation. CEA primarily offers the grower more options to customizing the growing environment to best suit their plant’s specific needs. Secondly, a modern greenhouse closely resembles a laboratory where growers can asexually propagate delicate clones of their best plants, ensuring the strongest next generation crop.
In 2000, two of Europe’s largest pharmaceutical firms, Novartis and AstraZeneca, merged their agricultural biotech divisions under the name Syngenta and posted nearly $7 billion in sales of seeds and farm chemicals their first year.
Based out of Switzerland, Syngenta finds themselves behind enemy lines since a July ’04 European Union moratorium initiating a limited ban on GM foods. Syngenta’s R&D, as well Europe’s leading genetic researchers, have been forced to conduct nearly 70% of their field tests in the United States.
The EU ban on GM foods is doing more harm than good by hampering scientific advancement and popular access to beneficial foods. Interestingly, the EU ban does not include GM yeast or enzymes.
New Zealand is setting an example for countries with smaller populations
Popular opinion of biotechnology is fragile at best. The fear of uncertainty is overwhelming, especially when discussing pioneer advancements with global consequences. New Zealand prides itself on producing clean, green, organic clean, green, organic products for export and is now faced with a decision to embrace technology or preserve a naturalistic market image. Half of its annual export income, roughly $16 billion, is from primary production including 95% of their dairy products. Despite the potential economic gains from GM products, New Zealand is not about to risk entering a GM market with sanctions already against it. In countries with larger populations, however, their options are not so forgiving when having to provide a sustainable food source.
Potential help for world hunger and decease control
It is an obvious assumption that GM foods likely hold the key to ending world hunger. A common generalization is that all GM foods have cross species proteins or residual DNA that are potentially dangerous to certain individuals. In the past decade, huge advancements have been made mapping the genome of rice, corn, and potatoes in an attempt to fine tune a strain from within its own genetic potential. Slight alterations in a genetic mechanism can have an enormous impact.
Scientists have identified a small number of genes responsible for flower structure development. By over-expressing or deleting specific genes, scientists have been able to grow flowers with larger and more abundant sepals, petals and carpels.
While Brandon studied at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, he had the pleasure of working with Artemisia annua, a wormwood plant that contains the malaria drug, artemisinin. This chemical compound is found primarily in the leaves at low concentrations, too low for the plant to be an economically viable source. Since whole plants grow too slowly for research purposes, his experiments focused on root tissue with exceptionally low artemisinin levels in normal plants.
Root stock had been transfected with a bacteria vector to induce a ‘hairy root’ morphological response that dramatically increased artemisinin concentration. Without enhancing our root stock, artemisinin levels would have been below the limit of quantitative measurements, effectively preventing analysis of the respective metabolic pathways. Plants are the world’s most talented and efficient chemists. Artemisinin is a terpene comprised of three, five-Carbon ring structures with a peroxide bridge spanning the molecule.
It is believed that this peroxide bridge serves as the active mechanism responsible for killing malaria’s infectious parasite, Plasmodium fl aciparum. Interestingly, artemisinin is produced via two thoroughly studied biochemical pathways.
These conserved reaction pathways are also responsible for making more than 30,000 similar terpenoid compounds like turpentine, menthol, rubber, and the breast cancer menthol, rubber, and the breast cancer chemotherapy drug, paclitaxel. Each molecule is formed by sequentially combining these five-Carbon units, combining these five-Carbon units, followed by plant specifi c rearrangement followed by plant specific rearrangement mechanisms.
To date, over 50% of all therapeutic compounds contain plant derived ingredients. It has become fairly simple to program the genome of bacteria and yeast, utilizing their original metabolic machinery to produce a specific protein specific protein or enzyme. The field of bioprocess concerns the mass culture of designer bacteria or yeast to produce a desired compound in large quantities. Such processes are used to make the majority of pharmaceutical compounds, high protein feed stock, and alcoholic beverages.
Bioprocess simply controls many variables to target the ideal growing conditions for their organism to efficiently produce the specified compound.
In the world of hydroponics
In parallel, hydroponics is the strategic cultivation of plants by maximizing water and nutrient uptake for optimal plant growth and fruit production. Hydroponically growing a genetically superior plant in a controlled environment greenhouse will allow unforeseen capabilities. Controlled environment agriculture offers a wide range of benefits mainly by providing a physical barrier to the outside environment.
This allows the grower to better control temperature, humidity, pests, water use, nutrient application, and next generation propagation. This barrier also allows plants to be grown in areas unsuitable for outdoor farming.
Millions of acres of greenhouse agriculture are sprouting up around the world. In the past 20 years, China has expanded CEA from a few thousand to over five million acres. Orgil International, a global greenhouse solutions firm, has installations from the slopes of Patagonia in Argentina, to wine country in Spain, the hills of southern China, to Australia, central Mexico, the Middle East, and the United States.
A traditional tomato farm may yield up to 10 tons/acre/year or 50 tons/year/acre at best when located in the United States. Grown hydroponically in a greenhouse, tomato yields at the University of Arizona Controlled Environment Agriculture Center can reach 300 tons/acre/year on 35 foot vines. Additionally, certain strains of GM cotton have been shown to require 60% less pesticides, increasing profits by $150 per hectare.
Growing in a controlled greenhouse environment reduces water use and runoff contamination, lowers operating costs through better chemical management, and generates a healthier, more abundant fruit. The world has already felt widespread benefits of genetically engineered organisms without even knowing it. Now that government regulations require labeling of GM foods in some countries, it is expected that alternative, organic production methods will be preferred unless the popular acceptance changes.
Small growers are producing organic fruits and vegetables on the platform of health or taste. Realistically, an organic tomato is not as nutritionally valuable as a GM strain with increased lycopene content, nor is a traditional soybean as valuable as a GM strain with higher levels of omega-three fatty acids.
Often times organic foods are no more organic than recycled fish parts or dredged river beds, which in some cases can contain heavy metals and high levels of pollutants. The public at large really needs to educate themselves on just what the term “Organic” really means.
The fact of the matter is that any carefully cultivated crop of a quality strain will taste good. However, on a global scale, CEA and GM efforts are efficiently providing more abundant and nutritious produce per acre than do traditional farming techniques. In a world where land is at a premium, rooftop and backyard greenhouses could maximize space while providing a locally grown, fresh and nutritious, sustainable food source.
Alexander, Tom. “Hydroponic Visionary: Merle Jensen”. The Growing Edge. Volume 15, No. 6. 2004: p 15-19. Meacher, Michael. “Less Clean and Less Green”. New Statesman. Vol. 132. 2003. Daunis-Allen, Laurel. “Taking the Fear out of ‘Genetically Modifi ed’”. Business Week. July 5, 2004. Weintraub, Arlene, Gogoi, Pallavi. “The Outcry Over ‘Terminator Genes’”. Business Week. July 14, 2003. “A Kinder, Gentler Frankenfood”. The Economist. Dec. 6, 2003. “Ripe for Research”. The Economist. July 26, 2003. http://www.monsanto.com Matthews, Brandon, Weather, P.J. “Artemisinin is Produced by both the Mevalonate and Non-mevalonate Branches of the Terpenoid Biosynthetic Pathway in Artemisia annua Hairy Roots”. Unoffi cial publication of Worcester Polytechnic Institute. 2003. Roberto, Keith. “Garden With Ease” radio program with Gary Trudeau. January 2004.