Biotechnology for Sustainability


Kent J. Bradford, Professor of Plant Sciences and Academic Director of the Seed Biotechnology Center at UC Davis, is today's guest blogger.

Ever since our ancestors adopted an agricultural lifestyle about 10,000 years ago, our own sustainability has been intimately tied with that of our food production systems. Those systems currently support 6.7 billion humans, or more correctly, adequately support about 5.9 billion with another 800 million or so suffering from food insecurity, malnutrition or hunger. Compare that with the 1960's when the world population was 3 billion, with 1 billion inadequately fed. Developments in agricultural technology have increased productivity sufficiently to feed an additional 3.9 billion people over the past 40 years while slightly decreasing the number in need and using less than 10% more land. However, food shortages, price increases and riots across the globe in 2008 were stark reminders that agriculture must be continuously successful or dire consequences quickly follow.

As a scientist and educator interested in sustainable agriculture, I recently came across the website of the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), an organization that manages the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco. Since they are engaged in education about sustainable agriculture, they developed some guidelines about what it means. This is not as easy as it sounds, as many groups, including our own Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis, have struggled to come up with an adequate definition. While the general principle is straightforward - to farm in a way that meets our current needs while sustaining the resources to allow future generations to do the same - what this means in practice is more difficult and contentious to define.

Intrigued by CUESA's effort to tackle this task, I eagerly read their Sustainable Agriculture Framework. Their list of best practices for producers to encourage environmental soundness were laudable: build and conserve soil fertility, conserve water and protect water quality, protect air quality, minimize use of toxics, conserve energy, use renewable resources, maximize diversity and conserve genetic resources. I'm sure every farmer would agree with them wholeheartedly.


Then I read the last point on their list: "Avoid the intentional use of genetically modified seeds and organisms." The basis for this was apparently assumed to be self-evident, as no reasons were given for including this point in their list. To be clear, all crops have been genetically modified from their wild versions through domestication and breeding, but no doubt CUESA was referring to genetic engineering, where genes (pieces of DNA) are grafted into the chromosomes of a plant to give them specific traits. A blanket ban on genetically engineered (GE) crops implies that they are incompatible with agricultural sustainability. Let's check the facts.


â¢Conserve soil and energy and protect air and water quality. The most popular GE crops are immune to herbicides used to kill weeds. Eliminating the need for repeated plowing to control weeds has encouraged the adoption of minimum tillage practices by farmers, which reduces soil erosion and fuel use. Consequently, GE crops cut greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of taking over 6 million cars off the road in 2006. And less eroded soil and fertilizer in waterways improves water quality. Check.

â¢Minimize use of toxics. The most popular herbicide used with the GE crops mentioned above replaces others that are three times as toxic and persist twice as long in the environment. Another major GE trait is insect resistance conferred by Bt proteins from a bacterium that deter or kill specific groups of worms that eat crops. In its sprayed form, Bt is approved for organic crops. In its GE crop form, it reduced global insecticide use by 300 million pounds between 1996 and 2006 (a 30% reduction). Check.

â¢Conserve water. Water shortages and high salinity are two of the biggest threats to the sustainability of agriculture in California, particularly if climate change reduces rain and snowfall, as is predicted. My colleague at UC Davis, Eduardo Blumwald, has used genetic engineering to develop plants that can maintain yields with less water and can thrive on salty water that would kill most crop plants. These traits clearly will contribute to sustaining agriculture with less water, not only here, but also in agricultural lands around the world that are threatened by drought and salinity. Check.

â¢Conserve soil fertility and natural resources. Research at Arcadia Biosciences right here in Davis promises to allow crops to produce the same yields with only one-third as much fertilizer. This would conserve natural gas used to make fertilizer and reduce nitrogen runoff from fields. Check.

â¢Conserve biodiversity and genetic resources.
The best way to promote biodiversity is to preserve native habitats. By maintaining and increasing yields on existing farms, GE crops help to minimize expansion of agriculture into natural areas. Check.


A recent comprehensive study by the Keystone Center examined five criteria for sustainability (energy use, soil loss, irrigation water use, climate impact, and land use) and found that corn, cotton, and soybeans all improved between 1997 and 2007, a period during which GE varieties became dominant in these crops. In contrast, wheat, which has no commercial GE varieties, showed little or no improvement in sustainability indices over this period.

These results from 13 years of commercial GE crops are clear: if CUESA and other groups are serious about advancing agricultural sustainability, they should encourage producers to use GE crops rather than avoid them. And if they want to educate urban consumers about sustainable agriculture, there is a great story to tell about biotechnology FOR sustainability.

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Dr. Bradford is exactly right. The focus of the sustainable agriculture discussion needs to be on science based, measurable outcomes. Defining these is a great challenge, and there will certainly be room to improve these metrics as the science improves, but once established they provide a tool for looking at different systems and technologies in an unbiased way. If biotechnology provides measurable and meaningful benefits when viewed through the lens of these metrics, then it does. As he points out, the facts are there. Why reject it out of hand simply because it does not fit a predescribed "standard" of what does or does not constitute sustainability?

As Dr. Bradford also points out, we are facing some serious challenges as a planet as we look to the coming decades. If those challenges are going to be met successfully, we need objective measures that give us meaningful feedback every step of the way. The Keystone Field to Market grower tool is an important contribution along these lines.

Great guest post Dr. Bradford. I currently can't do anything to try and select more sustainably grown food because non-genetically engineered seems to be one of the most prevalent criteria for food advertised as grown more sustainably and I think buying into that false assumption will do more harm to the environment in the long term.

It's great to have a quote like "3x as toxic, twice as persistent." I've tried to make the point that not all pesticides are equally bad so a pound of one doesn't equal a pound of another, but it's much easier with a quick statistic like yours. Are those numbers relative to atrazine?

Hope this isn't the last we will see of you on tomorrow's table.

Beautifully stated. I expect to be pointing people here in the future.

If you could just source a couple more of the points with links that would be really helpful. I mean, data doesn't have value to a lot of the people I discuss this with. But when we have it...let's show it.

Pam--I don't think these posts are feeding to the front page yet. Can you ask the overlords? More people need to see this.

Thanks for the comments on Kent's nice post everyone and thanks Mary for the tip. I will check with the overlords...

"Are those numbers relative to atrazine?"

His reference matches up to glyphosate's toxicity scale rating versus atrazine so I think that's right.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 03 Nov 2009 #permalink

When they say GMO are not part of sustainable agriculture, I suspect they're referring to the armies of Monsanto lawyers who will sue you out of business if they find one of their genes in your field.

Joe - I guess you mean the Monsanto lawyers who will take action if you have a level of their gene in your field which is quite clearly not there by chance, for instance, to retell the flagship story of Monsanto destroying poor innocent farmers, if you purposefully spray acres of your crop with roundup in the full knowledge that only plants containing the transgene will surivive, save the seeds from the surviving plants, and then plant them on ~1000 acres.

Even if this was the case, saying GMOs are not part of sustainable ag because commercially produced GMOs fall under IP law, completely fails to take into account the work scientists in academia are doing to attempt to make the world a better place through transgenics - increasing nutritional value, introducing disease and virus resistance, flood/drought tolerance projects etc etc.

Not that I think the arguement against commercial GMOs as part of sustainable ag is remotely good, but I understand the distrust of big business and dont believe the whole technology should be distrusted because of the perceived actions of a single company.

I agree that the perceived association between genetically-modified foods and predatory business models is one factor that leads people to be suspicious of the technology.

Another worry is the tendency to develop a superior technology, then rely on it too heavily. Vast monocultures of GMOs will share the same fundamental weakness as any vast monoculture. It may take longer for them to fail, but there is no reason to think that the inevitable failure will be any less catastrophic.

I suspect that any truly sustainable implementation of GMOs will attend to that problem, by 1) deliberately maintaining biodiversity, and 2) always having a plan B.

It always will be tempting to rely on the single most efficient crop that will grow in a particular area, but it never will be a good idea to do so.

Joseph: Any `vast monoculture' may not have `the same fundamental weakness'. There are the same vast `monocultures' in nature, often in marginal or previously disturbed conditions. Many crop relatives - for example wild wheat and rice species - are found in these natural monocultures, seemingly stable, and probably used as a food source by pre-farming gatherers - a knowledge-base going back a very long time. Also natural monocultures are found for invasive `aliens', which have escaped their natural co-evolved pests and diseases. It seems early farmers knew just which species to grow that could persist in monocultures. Remember that most crop monocultures in North America are of introduced crops. So crop monocultures could be as natural as you could wish and also as stable as Nature.

By Dave Wood (not verified) on 08 Nov 2009 #permalink

It is common to hear the lament that one company or another "owns" a gene, but I seldom hear anybody mention the fact that patents expire. The ownership position of Monsanto, is temporary. This provides them with incentive to continuously research and develop new, useful...and patentable... traits.
Opposition to corporate involvement has actually made things worse by making successful development and commercial release too expensive for researchers at public institutions to move useful products beyond their labs. By aggressively promoting overregulation, the opponents of GM crops are actually complicit in creating and maintaining the near-monopoly of the multinational seed development companies. This isn't really a big problem in rich western countries (except, perhaps, psychologically), but the promulgation of overregulation internationally retards development and release of (net) yield-enhancing crops and prolongs and extends the misery of malnutrition and poverty.

By Bob Macgregor (not verified) on 09 Nov 2009 #permalink

Instead of trying to dig ourselves out of this with technology, why don't we address the real problem: POPULATION! If we can halt/reverse population then our technologies don't always have to be one step ahead of our dangerous population growth.

Do some of you guys really think that population can grow infinitely while meeting the food needs of all those people?

And on a side note, 3rd world countries send us (USA) more food than we send them; a lot more.

By Robert Zacks (not verified) on 11 Nov 2009 #permalink

@ Robert Zacks

Not all first world countries are dependant on third world countries for food. New Zealand's main exports are agricultural. Our farms are extreemly efficient; so much so that even when taking 'food miles' in account our beef is still more ecologically sound in Britain than British beef.
This success it put down to two main reasons.
1) We have a few less pathogens due to our isolation.
2) We cut all agricultural subsidies many decades ago. Farmers thought they would go bankrupt (some did) but they adapted and became far more efficient.

Overpopulation is a huge concern. However, many first world countries only have (slowly) growing populations thanks to taking in immegrants. Its the third world that is undergoing huge population booms. Once they are more educated human population should steady out.

By Hinemoana (not verified) on 11 Nov 2009 #permalink

It would be nice if the development of the things that will save the world from starving were not developed by such a villainous company such as Monsanto. Independent scientific research conducted by people with the motivation of the task at hand --the task saving the world from starvation-- rather than a profiteering racket who manipulate our food, news and interests through financial and legal clout.

I do not appreciate the playing down of the stories of "so called farmers" who find it near impossible to escape the grasps of Monsanto and Tyson and neither does the population concerned with the increasing levels of corporate tyranny. These are not Leftist buzzwords, these are accurate descriptions of the organizations in charge of the nations diet.

This is not a website concerned with the future of the world. This is an exercise in self-preservation and PR. Imagine if one of the worlds biggest immoral companies came up with the solution to the worlds biggest problem. They would patent it and then all the world would be its dependent. Democratize science!

By Jamie Ward (not verified) on 11 Nov 2009 #permalink

#14 Jamie Ward

Ugh. You can't be serious.


âVillainous company Monsantoâs profiteering racket manipulates financial and legal clout!

âGrasping levels of corporate tyranny over leftist buzzwords for self-preservation of biggest immoral companies!

âAll the World Dependant.!â

You sound about 15 so here is a clue kiddo...........the view from a âfood radicalâsâ window is so profoundly different from mine as a farm owner, the representative of working farmers and a member of a family of farmers To wit:

Actual farms producing actual food.

I donât know where to begin to address your crap.

How about I just say I could give a sh*t what you do or do not appreciate based on your post? Since I am who you need to convince, it appears you have a serious problem.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 12 Nov 2009 #permalink

In response to the population crisis - yes categorically the world's population needs to be controlled somehow. I for one am against controlling it by starving billions to make a point - I believe there is a moral imperative to attempt to feed the world population regardless of where it is projected to end up. Equally there is an imperative to reduce population growth, although not by subjecting billions to a long torturous death due to lack of nutrition. When you look at the disparity between US yields and 3rd world (you dont even have to go as far as the 3rd world to be honest... I think Mexico has something like 1/3 the average corn yield cf the us) yields clearly there is a lot that can be done before you consign people to the scrap heap for the misfortune of being born in the wrong area.

@ Jamie Ward #14

"Democratize science!"

What exactly do you mean by that? Science is generally very open. And plenty of universities and other public organisations research humanitarian food technologies. Think of golden rice and the submergence tolerant rice reported on this very site.

I for one am doing a Masters with a Crown Research institute, a sort of government owned company whose job is to develop stuff that helps citizens in some way. We want to develop apple cultivars that are resistant to apple scab. The hopefully resultant patent will help fund further research while farmers will have one less pathogen to worry about (at least for a while) and wont have to use as much fungicide while having improved yields for export.

Ecosystem -less fungicide: Win
Farmer -higher yield, less fungicide: Win
Future research -patent income: Win
Economy -larger exports: Win

The only reason such ventures are delayed, abandoned, or, in the case of Golden Rice, become property of the big seed companies, is because of all the regulations consumers have demanded.

By Hinemoana (not verified) on 12 Nov 2009 #permalink

On the 'evils' of corporate GMOs (apologies for the split post, I had to attend a meeting to decide on evil deeds)

I think the 'villany' of Monsanto needs to be better defined rather than taken as a given which appears to be what you are doing. I'm not convinced that Monsanto have a particularly bad record when compared to any other major chemical manufacturer between 1905 and 2000. Spotless record? Absolutely not. However, if you focus on the time period since Monsanto was spun off as a purely agricultural stand alone (around 2000 I believe) I dont really buy into the evil villain portrayal (although as a Monsanto employee obviously I wouldnt)

On escaping the grasp of Monsanto - I dont really see how anyone is grasped by Monsanto at all. Farmers buy Monsanto seed because it works best for them. Monsanto has (I believe) approximately 30% market share in traited seeds - they license traits to other seed companies, farmers choose these traits because they increase yield, decrease pesticide use, and make life easier. It would be more accurate to say that farmers are in the grasp of capitalism and the drive to not work a 14 hour day. Perhaps I have a skewed view on what farmers want/like - because all the farmers I've encountered like the flexibility offered by Monsanto seeds/traits and are excited by what is going to come next. They also all appear to be at least 6'5", which is a little daunting when you run into a group of 15 on a tour around the building.

Jamie's point on a patent generating more money for future work also holds true when you take it to the level of huge corporate monstorsities... Monsanto have many projects which will be of enormous benefit to farmers and indeed mankind when they come to fruition. The projected cost of getting any one of these projects to the market is ~$100M at the low end, and takes 10 years - without the capacity to patent their work, and profit from it, the huge investments required to bring new technologies to market would be impossible, and the area would stagnate - indeed without the profit incentive who is going to spend $100M to get something to market in 10 years time? Small focused research may be able to do some of it, but the size and scope of many of the projects ongoing at monsanto frankly baffles most scientists moving from academia into industry.

(*Not Jamie Ward)

Ewan R - I did get the sense that you were a Monsanto employee from our previous exchange. Don't mean anything by it, just saying.

But as a Monsanto employee could you perhaps answer me this? Consider a farmer who opts not to use Round up ready soybean or BT soybean seeds, and who collects his own seeds and replants them next year and continues this cycle. However his soybean plants are pollinated by nearby soybean plants with the Bt or Round up Ready genes, so that his harvest next year contains a significant population of round up ready genes or Bt genes. Imagine two scenarios, the farmer uses a roundup-like non Monsanto brand weed killer (Since i believe the patent is expired on roundup) on his crops which causes the roundup ready stock of his to preferentially survive. Would Monsanto sue him?

Imagine scenario two: His stock has a significant BT population because of random pollination. over several years this population becomes the dominant stock of his as he collects his seeds, because they are more likely to survive the beetle pest it is designed to foil. ten years later, perhaps, about 95% of his stock is BT gene stock due to of natural selection. Would Monsanto sue him then?


Yes, I'm a Monsanto employee - I wouldnt take any of my statements as Monsanto approved policy or anything though, I'm a relatively low level science grunt - my support of GMOs stems from over a decade ago, and I've worked at Monsanto for a little over a year now(dream job though!).

Now on to answer your questions
I'm not sure that either of your scenarios could occur.

In the first scenario - it is highly unlikely that pollination from a nearby field would cause a 'significant' portion of the next years crop to be roundup ready, or indeed that once a small percentage of the population were roundup ready that this would be likely to become fixed in the population (I'm not 100% sure how well the corn pollination data translates to other crops - but in corn there is a very short distance over which even a small percentage of cross pollination should be expected. Breeders could probably answer questions better - my expectation is that for a farmer saving their own seed they'd have some sort of breeding program in place to achieve the best seeds, and this would generally be done in a relatively controlled manner (again, farmers or breeders may be able to correct/amend this statement - my guess is that either controlled breeding or taking seed from the middle of fields would be the best way to ensure purity of your own particular line) however, lets assume there was some contamination, and a farmer did use roundup and then saved the seeds - Monsanto would most likely sue in this situation. Non-roundup ready crops wont have 'differential' survival compared to roundup ready crops in a situation where they are sprayed with roundup or any glyphosate based herbicide - in much the same way as mice wont have differential survival compared to fish when expected to breath underwater for 2 hours. If you spray a field of crops which contains roundup ready and non-GM varieties with useful levels of roundup then once the herbicide has acted all you will have is roundup ready crop. This is exactly what Schmeisser did (on canola) and exactly why he lost his court cases.

On the Bt - again, I dont think you'd end up with enough pollination in any of the first years to achieve a significanly high population of Bt plants, however assuming some cross pollination I'm equally unconvinced that a modern farmer will have significant selection pressure on the transgenics because they will almost certainly utilize some other insect control measure - it'd be interesting to know what the selection pressure was, and what the pollination rate from a field of distance x was, and spatially how this would arrange itself (because again I'd assume a modern seed saver would have some method of protecting the purity of their own saved lines) and then model what % might be Bt after 10 years (I'm assuming a spread from 0% to some other %age due to stochiastic wossnames involved in gene fixation etc - again a breeder or farmer would have a way better idea of this) - however if a field was 95% Bt my assumption would be that should they find out about it some sort of investigation would likely take place which may or may not lead to legal action - if the farmer had a strong case it may just be that Monsanto would request the removal of all the Bt or somesuch. However as this case seems incredibly unlikely, and the end result may or may not lead to legal action I'm not thinking it is such a great case against the use of GMOs (should the vast majority of farmers have to suffer reduced yield/income because a tried and tested technology may be unjust to a single farmer in a highly unlikely hypothetical scenario?)

You also have to consider how many farmers save their soy/corn or whatever crop seed - it is my impression that the majority buy seed every year, whether GMO or not, to take advantage of 'hybrid vigor', so on a lot of farms the whole cross pollination and entry into the saved seed population isnt even a worry - the only 'concern' for these farmers is the rather minor one that some of the seed they end up selling at the end of the year may have transgenes in them - which isnt something Monsanto would sue for, but is a worry for those who are adamantly opposed to any level of GMO in the food supply. (a worry I find silly, but a worry none the less)