While on his Asia tour in November, President Obama announced that the U.S. and India would create a partnership to “spark a second, more sustainable ‘Evergreen Revolution‘.
This intention to improve global agricultural productivity and extend food security to Africa is welcomed by former U.S. Department of Agriculture Chief Scientist and Undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics Gale A. Buchanan. And if the president’s plan is to have any “real, revolutionary” impact, he said, then it must capitalize on the value of genetically modified (GM) crops.
While activists argue that the ‘precautionary principle’ must guide us in work of this nature, inactivity can potentially have more serious consequences. Good science is required and not scaremongering from the environmental radicals of the middle class. Some areas in impoverished regions still need the basics of modern husbandry skills, along with production infrastructure. However, there is still room for improving the crops themselves with genetic manipulation.
In an article in Scientific American, David Despain reports that there are 7 GM crop strategies that may bolster an Evergreen Revolution:
- bioengineering major food crops to convert the sun’s energy more efficiently. There are three types of photosynthesis, two of which are known as C3 and C4. Most plants rely on the C3 process, which uses carbon dioxide and fixes three-carbon compounds in a photosynthetic cycle, but a few have evolved the more efficient C4 variety, developing a competitive edge by fixing four carbons per cycle. C4 plants, such as corn and sugarcane, are better able to survive hotter, more arid climates. So, enabling C3 crops such as wheat, rice and soy to use C4 pathways could provide similar advantages of less photorespiration, which leads to production of more biomass, yet releases less carbon into the atmosphere.
- bioengineering major crops to fix nitrogen. Nitrogen is plentiful in the atmosphere but as a fertilizer it is expensive, because it is made using fossil fuels. Plus, using it can contaminate waterways. In soy and other legumes nitrogen fixation is an evolved trait allowing them to hold on to the element and return it to the soil. The feat of introducing nitrogen fixation into corn and sorghum—or other genes that allow a crop to require less nitrogen—alone would cut costs and pollution markedly as well as drive higher yields.
- bioengineering grain crops to produce seed without fertilization from pollen may also be an option. A cloning type of reproduction that doesn’t rely on fertilization, called apomixis, introduced to crops would allow farmers to be able to save high-yield hybrid seed without to the necessity of annual interbreeding.
- bioengineering major crops that can withstand heat, drought and salinity. Drought already accounts for about 40 percent of corn crop losses. And irrigation often brings high salt concentrations into soil adding more stress on the plants. GM crops that can tolerate heat, drought and salt would not only allow farmers to use land normally unsuitable for cultivation but also circumvent problems of growing population and climate shifts brought on by global warming.
- bioengineering plants that have greater resistance to pests and diseases has also been proposed because, although not new, the arms race against evolving pests and diseases continues. The introduction of ribonucleic acid interference (RNAi) genes is a promising new development that can lead to new ways of neutralizing viruses or killing insect larva.
- boosting plants’ light-capturing capabilities. Despite millions of years of evolution, plants are still quite inefficient at the job. Most absorb only about 1 to 3 percent of light, whereas solar panels can typically capture 10 to 15 percent. But some plants can capture more photons because of energy-efficient genes, which has led scientists to seek ways of inserting those genes into food crops to increase crop yields exponentially.
- genetic modification offers new ideas for innovations with the latest coming from the study of plant phenotypes, or phenomics as well as floating ocean crops, or ocean farming. These represent another strategy—the most celebrated example of which is bioengineered algae that converts carbon dioxide waste from coal-fired plants to biofuel.
As soon as the mention of GM crops come up, the nay-sayers always point to Monsanto’s business practices, which are a concern to many. However, much genetic research is conducted in universities and is totally unrelated to this type of solely commercial interest. The 7 concepts above, do not have the huge profit making potential that some others do, especially if the plants are able to reproduce. This alone removes the possibility of a monopoly for any company. If Monsanto or another large company is involved, and it proves profitable for them and their customers, the producers, and at the same time, increases protects the environment, it would be difficult to campaign against.