Local biotech

Farmers' Market in Jackson, Mississippi by NatalieMaynor via Flickr.

Visitors to Biofortified may notice some seemingly conflicting messages in our posts. The authors of this blog are generally proponents* of biotechnology. We are also often proponents of low-input high-genetic diversity farming, and proponents of local or regional food systems. How can that be? Well, we don’t think these ideas are conflicting at all. We think biotech** goes hand in hand with sustainability. We’d like to someday see vendors at farmer’s markets proudly displaying the traits they use in their produce to benefit the environment and consumers.
There are many ways that biotech traits can help farmers reduce inputs and have more biodiversity on their farms, and ways to help food be more local. Two great examples are apples and tomatoes. Both of these are extremely popular fruits, are a healthy addition to any diet, and are eaten fresh as well as processed. Both can be grown in a variety of climates, but have a short growing season in most places, meaning that they are often shipped long distances before they get to consumers. There are a lot of specific traits that could be put into locally adapted varieties of apples and tomatoes to help make it easier to grow in a wider variety of places for a longer season, decrease pesticide use, and increase profit margins.
A recent example of an apple trait that could help small local farmers is scab resistance (learn more in A Vf gene a day keeps the fungus away). If more traits like this were developed, they could be bred into many different varieties of apples and those apples could then be grown profitably in areas with sub-optimal growing conditions. This would allow for more local production of apples and encourage more genetic diversity of apples, based on what varieties best meet the needs of the farmers and consumers in each area.
Tomatoes have been in the news recently too, with a new biotech trait that keeps cell wall modifying enzymes from making the tomatoes all squishy (see I say tomato… and You say tomato! for more). At first glance, you might think this trait would only encourage shipping tomatoes long distances. While the trait could be used that way, it could also be used to keep tasty local tomatoes fresh long after the growing season is over, and might just give busy people time to clear their schedules for canning those tomatoes before they go bad.

How do we get there?

Breeding by small seed companies that specialize in locally adapted varieties as well as by farmers themselves is essential to keeping high amounts of crop genetic diversity on farms in developed and developing countries alike. Giving these breeders access to traits that will help enhance or protect their yields as well as traits that allow them to add value to their crops is essential to helping them compete with big seed companies that specialize in one-size-fits-all seed. That one-size-fits-all seed has been selected to do well in a variety of environments, and that does very well for most farmers, but it doesn’t give farmers or consumers many choices.
In order to allow for breeding, traits need to be licensed or released. Since corporations are legally bound to turn a profit, they can’t afford to give their research away, except in certain cases (as in Monsanto’s pledge to provide drought tolerant maize royalty free, but this still doesn’t allow for breeding). The big companies do license their traits to smaller breeding companies, but leads to some questions about monopolies and such. What we need to balance private research is public research, such as what used to be done by the USDA and what is currently being done by the Indian Ministry of Science and Technology.
Unfortunately, negative public opinion about biotechnology has been a factor in shutting down public research in the US, as well as a willingness to let the private sector take over research. Based on the uproar of activists in India against Bt brinjal, and the subsequent caving of Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh to fear mongering despite approval by all of the relevant Indian authorities, India may be on the way to reducing or eliminating public funding for research as well. That would leave India depending on only private companies for biotechnology, just as the US already left the grand majority of plant breeding and biotechnology to private companies. The best way to guarantee that traits will be developed that benefit the environment and the consumer (not just shareholders’ portfolios) is to encourage public research.
*We don’t have any guest bloggers or regular bloggers who are opposed to biotechnology so far, but that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t welcome authors who are critical of biotech as long as they base their criticisms on evidence.
**Not every biotech trait, mind you. There certainly could be some traits that wouldn’t contribute to my vision of an ideal farming system, and some traits that wouldn’t be appropriate in any farming system. Traits must be taken individually, but as a whole, the technology is sound.