Growing Super Crops: Conventional or GM?

Posted November 21st, 2014 at 2:00 pm (UTC-4)
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A customer stands in a supermarket as a label of GM-free food is seen in the foreground in Moscow, Russia, June 22, 2007. (Reuters)

A customer stands in a supermarket as a label of GM-free food is seen in the foreground in Moscow, Russia, June 22, 2007. (Reuters)

A lot of folks probably don’t like their food messed with, meaning they’d rather not have carrots cross-bred into pea-carrots, for example, or potatoes genetically fortified with nutrients they weren’t born with. But in regions like Sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia, fortified crops can help populations struggling for survival.

Fortified crops are created either through conventional farming techniques or genetic modification (GM) – two methods that have enough supporters and opponents to start a food war. But that is a topic for next week’s post.

Biofortification, conventionally speaking

Biofortification enables farmers to add higher levels of micronutrients to staple crops.

With conventional breeding, the method uses “naturally occurring varieties that have the desired nutrients,” says Yassir Islam, spokesman for HarvestPlus, a non-profit group that fights global hunger by enhancing crops with essential nutrients to populations in need.

“Biofortification is getting the plants to develop [the] capability to do the work—they take up zinc or iron from the soil or produce Vitamin A, so that the higher levels of nutrients are already in the crop at harvest,” he said in an email. “We focus on three critical micronutrients that the World Health Organization has identified the people’s diets to be most deficient in – iron, zinc, and Vitamin A.”

HarvestPlus breeds Vitamin A into maize, cassava and sweet corn, iron in pearl millet and beans, and Zinc in wheat and rice. And the seeds that grow these crops are not transgenic or genetically modified, says Islam.

“The science behind our biofortified crops is largely confined to conventional hybridization in fields using conventional breeding,” he said. “This is the reason why our biofortified crops are not controversial and do not require approval from regulatory bodies of the governments.”

To enhance pearl millet with iron, for example, “scientists single out a strain of pearl millet with naturally high content of iron and cross it with other popular or acclimatized varieties with other desirable traits,” said Islam. “This results in new varieties that are very high in iron, as well as high-yielding, drought-resistant and disease-resistant.”

Climate tolerance

Biofortification also allows farmers to grow crops that are better able to withstand climate change. HarvestPlus grows what Islam calls “climate-smart crops” like iron beans and iron pearl millet.

“They are heat and/or drought tolerant,” he said. “The orange sweet potato, which is being widely grown in Africa, is also drought tolerant.”

But both types of crops are also being developed through genetic modification – the more controversial of the two methods.

An undated handout photofrom they International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) shows genetically-modified "golden rice." (AFP/IRRI)

An undated handout photo from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) shows genetically-modified “Golden Rice.” (AFP/IRRI)

Genetic modification

“There are 100,000 varieties of rice in the world and not a single one has any Vitamin A in the grain. And so the only way you can add the beta carotene content in rice is through genetic engineering,” said C.S. Prakash, Professor of Plant Molecular Genetics at Tuskegee University and a proponent of genetically-modified foods.

GM can add one or more traits to a crop, with varying degrees of complexity. Some traits can only be added with genetic engineering, as in the case of Golden Rice, which has enhanced Vitamin A content.

So how long does it take to genetically engineer a crop trait?

“It takes anywhere from 3-10 years, I would say, because much of it is the time that we are spending really in testing and in meeting the regulatory requirements to make sure that this is safe,” said Prakash.

As the technology progresses, he says “we can not only add many traits, but we can also remember a lot of improvement in nutrition comes from turning off traits that are not necessarily good for nutrition, like allergens and toxins.”

In GM lab trials, scientists have enhanced protein content in crop lines, which are typically less nutritious than meat-based or animal-based proteins.

“We have ongoing research … [to see] how we can improve the protein quality and also many other nutrients, including phytonutrients.”

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) can also be manipulated to acquire a degree of resilience to climate change, making them more heat-tolerant or flood and drought tolerant.

Drought-tolerance varies, so that a crop might be engineered to last two weeks without water, for example. But Prakash says more research is needed to achieve longer periods.

In rice-growing areas in the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Mekong rivers in Southeast Asia, which are often flooded due to overflowing rivers, Prakash says the International Rice Research Institute is developing flood-tolerant rice using “genetic engineering and a combination of conventional technologies.”

And in regions where climate change is more acutely felt, Prakash says there is an increase in pests and diseases.

“Wheat right now is being threatened by a new race of disease … called Ug99, which originated in Uganda and it is already spreading beyond and threatening the wheat-growing areas of Asia, for instance,” he said. “And a good resistance might be found in wild wheat.”

He argues that it is “faster, but also more precise” to introduce that resistance using GM.

Going forward: conventional or GM?

HarvestPlus spokesman Islam suggests the two methods can continue to co-exist, although he believes that conventional breeding “is still the fastest way to get the crops into the hands of farmers – as there are no regulatory hurdles to overcome.”

Prakash says the two co-exist without problems as farmers already grow a mix of conventional and GMOs on separate lots.

But the difference between the two methods is ultimately philosophical, not scientific, according to Ricardo Salvador, Director of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit scientific analysis group.

That debate is the subject of next week’s post.

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

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