New NUE stuff

Matt Ridley, author of an upcoming book on science called The Rational Optimist, wrote an article for The Economist called The new NUE thing. NUE stands for Nitrogen Use Efficiency, a trait that can maintain yields with lower applications of costly fertilizer. Nitrogen Use Efficiency has got him, well, rationally optimistic about the environmental benefits of some GE traits.

Imagine you could wave a magic wand and boost the yield of the world’s crops, cut their cost, use fewer-fossil fuels to grow them and reduce the pollution that results from farming. Imagine, too, that you could both eliminate some hunger and return some land to rain forest. This is the scale of the prize that many in the biotechnology industry now suddenly believe is within their grasp in 2010 and the years that follow. They are in effect hoping to boost the miles-per-gallon of agriculture, except that the fuel in question is nitrogen.

In a play on those who call GE crops an “unmitigated environmental disaster,” he instead calls them an unmitigated environmental miracle. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call them a miracle, it is quite astonishing what has been achieved in the literature in so short a time, and what traits we are likely to see commercialized in the next decade.
The Union of Concerned Scientists, however, just released another report, this time questioning the usefulness of genetic engineering to make crops more nitrogen-efficient. Previously, they claimed that GE crops have failed to significantly increase yields, a couple months after an announcement of a GE trait developed by Mendel Biotechnology that does that remarkably well in soybeans. This time, while people have been talking about nitrogen use efficiency, the report gives the impression that such traits are a long way off. (I’m beginning to notice a pattern here.)

The report is titled No Sure Fix.
Besides the fact that this is not a peer-reviewed report (which does matter), I have already noticed one glaring problem – while the report focuses on pleiotropy (effect on other genes and traits) for genetically engineered traits, it ignores the same topic with regard to non-GE nitrogen-use-efficient genes. Here is the only place where the comparison is made on this topic (page 30):

Since little visible effort has been made thus
far to explore this variation, either within crop
species or their sexually compatible wild relatives,
the potential exists for improving NUE by making
use of this variation through breeding. As with
GE, however, it is possible that NUE traits within
the crop gene pool could have unintended negative
side effects. But we do not believe this risk is
as high for genes that are part of the normal crop
genome as it is for exotic genes introduced to the
crop genome through GE, or engineered genes
expressed in ways outside the typical range of
crop metabolism.
(emphasis added)

The bold sentence is a completely unreferenced, unsupported statement in the paper. Notice how they make this statement about non-GE genes for NUE traits, after just saying that little visible effort has been made exploring this variation. This is an error in scholarship and logic.
If you want to change a trait through introducing a new gene from a wild relative, you are technically introducing an exotic gene, just like with GE. Or if you are instead introducing a new allele with different expression from another variety, you are changing the expression of the genes in the crop. The Bottom Line: If you are trying to change the [nitrogen] metabolism of a crop you want to change the genes and gene expression in your crop. If you are not changing expression outside the ‘typical range of crop metabolism,’ you are not making an improvement.
Still, there are some other good things to look for in the report, such as info about enhancing nitrogen use efficiency with precision farming and other practices. I’m interested to see what people think about it?


  1. Nitrogen use-efficiency is about the best thing you can improve in a crop. Water use-efficiency is in the same range. If you can achieve either of these things by any technology that is a fantastic thing for the environment.

  2. Not so sure about there not being much in the literature about NUE in crops – I’m primarily focused on NUE in corn and there is a wealth of literature out there – there are high NUE and low NUE lines available to public researchers (to the best of my knowledge Io and F2 lines are the most in depth currently studied corn lines, by Hirel et al at INRA)
    Interestingly (or perhaps not so interstingly) any gene which increases yield could be considered an NUE gene, although I think more important is increasing yield under reduced nitrogen input rather than just increasing at current (although from a purely financial standpoint the high input higher yield concept is probably a multi-billion dollar one in corn, whereas you may not even make an even billion with the low input same yield concept)
    Don’t like the fact that UCS always considers breeding and biotech as mutually exclusive avenues to persue – with improved sequencing etc it wouldn’t be surprising to see the two essentially become one in the next decade or so. Also it should be kept in mind that in general, the increases commercial companies look for with a transgene have to not only be a real increase, but a real sellable increase – I’d guesstimate that you’d need a product to reduce nitrogen use per acre by 30-60lbs or so, and frankly this is the hard thing to do, through breeding you can go in small increments towards the goal, GE wont work in small increments, at least not now, when getting a single trait commercialized is a $100M project – likewise to increase yield by 1-2% is a great step forwards in terms of breeding, but for GM the goal is probably more realistically set at 5-10%.
    Although personally I’d really like to see, in my lifetime, nitrogen fixing GM crops, rather than just NUE crops – that would undoubtedly be the holy grail of GM achievement, something essentially impossible by traditional breeding, and would change the face of agriculture utterly.
    The whole section on genes currently known about also feels like it doesnt belong in the report at all – it almost appears to be an endorsement of GE with figures for NUE improvement in the 20-50% range generally – to me this simply states that it can be done, and that it needs to be worked on (to prove that it works, and, if deleterious pleiotropic effects exist, to figure these out and counter them somehow)
    My guess on the numbers of trials of GE NUE likely relates to the lack of a successful phase I to phase II transition thus far – if you check the USDA info linked from the document it is quite clear that Pioneer and Monsanto may not have 1000’s of trials – but each trial is not just single gene – there is clearly a boatload of testing going on, and I’d assume that once either company finds a gene that actually looks like it is working in a commercially viable manner the number of trials will likely explode (as various germplasms are tested, variations on the gene, testing in different environments, etc etc)
    As far as I am aware, the big biotech companies keep investors and the public aware of where various genes are ‘in the pipeline’ (a fact apparently ignored by the report) – there is a lot of emphasis put on the fact that it is ‘thought’ NUE genes are in late stage testing, but that nothing seems to be 2 years out. Looking at recent monsanto releases :-
    NUE is in phase I – which therefore makes it hardly surprising that there is no 2012 release scheduled (as far as I know no other companies are touting anything beyond a phase I NUE project – if it was there they’d announce it, because phase advancements = share price increases)
    Overall the report is somewhat less skewed than the average UCS piece, although the conclusions about GE are simply that there is a need to tighten regulation, whereas from the main body one would expect a call for more public research into this area aswell as into breeding and organic.

  3. Ewan, thanks for your insight here.
    I think the idea of breeding for the conditions you want to be growing in has some promise, but as you said, advances will be much slower than biotech traits.
    While he was at ISU, John Reganold talked a little about how we should be breeding crops for low input conditions in addition to using integrated farming techniques. Conventional crop cultivars are bred under conventional (i.e. relatively high input) conditions, so those are the conditions they do well in. If you take a conventional cultivar and try to grow it under low input conditions, it will do ok – but it won’t do as well as a cultivar that was bred under your particular growing conditions.
    In other words, if we want crops that require less water and fertilizer, we need to be breeding in those conditions. I know this all sounds obvious to any plant breeders out there, but I think it’s an important point.
    This seems to be a good argument for locally adapted cultivars. However, I don’t think developing hundreds of hundreds or thousands of cultivars is interesting to big seed companies when just a handful of cultivars will do just fine.
    Taking this idea further, I wonder how many locally adapted cultivars were available before major consolidation of the seed industry. Does any one have a guess? I wasn’t involved in ag before the consolidation so I don’t know. I also wonder how the number of locally adapted cultivars might change if the anti-trust investigations result in de-consolidation of the seed industry. Will we start to see bags of seed that say things like “adapted for x amount of N”, etc?
    And then, taking the idea even further (although I hesitate to even type this because it sounds like borderline conspiracy theory) will it be in the best interest of seed companies that also sell inputs to breed for low input conditions? I think not. If I sold two different products, I wouldn’t want one product to eliminate the need for the other product. Seems like it would be advantageous for farmers and the rest of us if ag companies were a little more free-market and a little less conglomerate. It will sure be interesting to see how these anti-trust investigations turn out.

  4. Thanks for your comments, Ewan. It’s great to know that you’re working on NUE. Although you probably couldn’t say too much about what you are working on, it certainly helps to have someone who is familiar with the topic!
    The dichotomy between breeding and genetic engineering is troublesome, and to be expected. While they want to acknowledge the contribution that genetics has to the success of a crop, they are interested in downplaying the potential of GE relative to non-GE techniques. This is to be expected considering the predisposition of the UCS. But it becomes a huge strain to argue that changes in gene expression brought about by one technique shouldn’t be worried about, but changes brought about by another technique should be. Truth is, metabolic engineering – no matter the technique used – can cause undesirable consequences. Breeding for NUE is metabolic engineering, even when you don’t know what those changes are.
    I think it is also troublesome that the report only suggests more public funding for breeding, and not genetic engineering as well. Yes, I absolutely agree that we need more public money in breeding, but at the same time there are traits that companies will skip over because the profit margin is not good enough for their trouble, so the public sector should pursue it.
    Anastasia, good points. I would like to add that since the big companies test out their cultivars in many locations, rather than being region-specific, there is one potential benefit – broad adaptability. This could be important with variable climatic conditions like we are expecting in this century.
    On undercutting their own input sales, an employee from Pioneer once came by UW-Madison and gave a talk which I attended. He mentioned that they are developing corn rootworm beetle resistance even though they sell an anti-rootworm pesticide. He said that this showed that they were transitioning from sprays to genetics, but I had a different thought about it. The reason why they are trying to undercut their own pesticide sales is because someone else could beat them to it. The competition between seed/chemical companies can potentially drive the movement to decreased reliance on inputs. Each crop that requires less sprays, whether pesticides or fertilizers, etc, the more farmers will be interested in them.
    The trick is, how do we encourage this to happen more? Incentives for farmers that use fewer inputs?

  5. There was a recent paper about breeding for performance at reduced N rates – I believe it came from INRA (possibly Hirel… I can update once I’m back at work) which suggested that breeding at low N is actually worse than breeding at high N for selecting for things that perform at low N… which seems massively counterintuitive – I believe they selected at 0 applied N but then tested at ~60lbs/Ac compared with selection at high (120+ I think) and testing at ~60lbs/Ac – it’d be interesting to see how selection at 60lbs/ac worked in this scheme, as I would imagine that 0 lbs is worlds away from 60lbs which in turn is possibly closer to the high N treatment than a low N – however one of the take home points was that environmental variability under low N conditions introduces a lot of noise which subsequently makes it very hard to select well, whereas high N input generally gives more uniformity (swamp the field with N so that there arent really low/high spots) which makes genotypic differences easier to select for with any confidence.
    I’m not sure to what extent the seed industry is coupled to nitrogen fertilizer production – the article linked is all about Monsanto, and to the best of my knowledge Monsanto isn’t in the fertilizer business, and does invest a lot each year in transgenic NUE traits – I’m unsure as to how much conventional breeding efforts at Monsanto target low input environments – I’d guess that outside of special projects like WEMA there isnt much effort put that way as Monsanto’s target market in the US would I guess be the mainstream higher input farmers (ie where the money’s at) – There are however a lot of other breeders out there who aren’t conglomerate owned (although who may license some conglomerate techs, be that GM or certain germplasms) who could undoubtedly explore that avenue (although if they were highly succesful in doing so I would envision a buyout by one of the big seed manufacturers)

  6. That’s very true – they do yield test promising cultivars all over the place so they can sell a seed that will do well just about anywhere. But I have to wonder if this is the best way to go about it.
    I hadn’t thought of the companies needing to consider their competition – but when your competition is making the same stuff you are, I don’t know how much incentive there is. Would some sort of a subsidy-type incentive for farmers to adopt certain farming methods affect what seed companies develop? I think so – or at least we’d get new companies to meet that new demand.

  7. Oh and Karl’s point about beating others to the punch is an excellent one – Monsanto are as succesful as they are now because they transitioned from chemicals to genes before anyone else did – making a huge bet early on which has paid off massively (just look at graphs of income as split between monsanto chemical sales (ie roundup) and seeds/genetics sales over the past decade – companies with interests in both areas will simply weigh the costs and benefits of the tech introduction, and likely structure pricing such that at worst they come out neutral in terms of monitary gains/losses (that and running a chemical manufacturing facility is likely a lot more expensive and risky than running a seed manufacturing facility)

  8. That’s very true – they do yield test promising cultivars all over the place so they can sell a seed that will do well just about anywhere.

    There’s probably some sort of a happy middle, but it occurs to me that breeding for a smaller number of cultivars that can grow in most places has the side effect of selecting for varieties with greater adaptability. The ideal of thousands of cultivars precisely adapted to very specific local growing conditions might be riskier in a world where climate change makes it even more difficult to predict exactly what local growing conditions will be from one year to the next.
    With infinite grant money and research time it’d be great sound-bite research to see if the Nested Association Mapping population could be used to map out “adaptability” QTLs.

  9. when your competition is making the same stuff you are, I don’t know how much incentive there is.

    Well in the case of Rootworm resistance, let’s say Company A and B both make rootworm-controlling sprays, and also develop corn varieties. If Company A can develop a GE trait that eliminates the need for the rootworm spray, they could undercut Company B’s sales of both their rootworm spray and their corn seeds. So it is in the interest of Company B to also develop that trait to protect their seed sales. Even if they don’t make a spray, developing the seed trait will still be in their interest. Otherwise they would need to license from the other company to have that trait in their seeds. (Which does happen I suppose)
    The reason why I’ve been thinking about this is that people tend to say that GE is all about selling Roundup – and that it is a technique that inherently means that farmers will have to spray more. But in a healthy competition between several seed companies, there’s the potential to have it work to reduce sprays instead.
    Perhaps this hypothetical subsidy could give credit to farmers that reduce environmental impact in general, based on the EIQ calculation, for example. Farmers that can currently reduce their impacts would benefit right away, but for those that can’t there would be demand for traits in seeds that will enable them to meet the benchmarks. Let’s call up Tom Vilsack right away! 🙂

  10. I like it, Karl!
    Of course, this brings us back to wondering if there is any competition, and if not, how to encourage it.
    There isn’t any competition, at least according to Monsanto Squeezes Out Seed Business Competition, AP Investigation Finds. I posted the Huff Po source because many of the ideas we debunk here at Biofortified are discussed in the comments, including lots about suicide seeds: “crops that that don’t produce their own seed” and “seeds are dead to the farmer because [they] have been put through a bathroom laboratory process that kills of their life force, making them unable to reproduce the plant”.
    Anyway, the article says that Monsanto’s licensing agreements with other seed companies are effectively preventing competition. Is it possible to enact regulations that would allow other companies to compete on a more level playing field? David Koepsell of Who Owns You? argues that we just shouldn’t allow patenting of genes. Would that do it?

  11. Actually I thought that David Koepsell said that we shouldn’t be able to patent genes in the molecular-marker sense, but thought that transgenes were ok. I might have misread him, though.
    Yeah, I saw the AP article as well as Monsanto’s response. Working on a thoughtful post about it, should be up before I fly out of Mad Town this weekend.

  12. Not allowing patenting of genes would, I think, effectively kill biotech as a viable commercial endeavour – although it is possible that doing so may just make the market truly non-competitive, as there would be no incentive to license your transgenes to anyone due to the fact that as soon as they are out of your hands you’ve lost them – it would then depend, I guess, on whether or not protections in place for plant breeders would be enough to prevent seed saving etc.
    I enjoy the accusation of bathroom science killing things ‘life force’ (one wonders how a plant manages to grow from a seed to an 8ft high beast of a plant with no life force – of course ignoring that the concept of a ‘life force’ is a neat throwback to a time before we had the vaguest understanding about how life operates)

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