The Low Fruit Has Been Picked. High Impact Crop Breeding is Hard, Arduous Work.

Photo: IRRI
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Here’s a big snippet from what I think is the most interesting part of my column today about a Center for Food Safety article on supposed myths about GMOs circulated by the media:

I’d like to really focus on one set of claims that they make about the supposed failure of GE crops with improve nutrition and geared towards the developing world.

CFS’ Debbie Baker correctly points out that only recently have breeders achieved acceptably high levels of beta-carotene in Golden Rice and that yields still lag the varieties that Golden Rice will hopefully replace.

However, golden rice is not on the market because a host of intellectual property issues and technical problems have inhibited its development for over a decade. Only a few months ago, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI)—charged with research, analysis, and testing of golden rice—released a report revealing that the “average yield [of GE golden rice] was unfortunately lower than that from comparable local varieties already preferred by farmers.

Then, like a dog on a bone, they write:

IRRI also stated: “It has not yet been determined whether daily consumption of golden rice does improve the vitamin A status of people who are vitamin A deficient and could therefore reduce related conditions such as night blindness.””

That sounds like the viability of Golden Rice has been challenged. But CFS fails to provide the context. It hasn’t yet been determined because the necessary trials can’t take place until the crop has been approved–and anti-GMO organizations like CFS are doing everything in its power to prevent that. Meanwhile, feeding trials have shown that the uptake of beta-carotene in Golden Rice is superior to spinach and that a single small bowl can provide 60% of a child’s daily needs.

There is no reason to believe that Golden Rice would not provide this level of nutrition on a daily basis and we should be applauding the IRRI for setting such high standards in demonstrating the efficacy of their product. It’s far more than is asked of the billion dollar supplement or alternative medicine industries. The IRRI recognizes that they have an ethical responsibility to make sure that Golden Rice solves the problem it is meant to address and not give false confidence to consumers. Again, they should be applauded for this, rather than opportunistically discredited for their fastidiousness.

CFS criticizes research from 2000 on a GE virus-resistant sweet potato carried out by African plant pathologist Florence Wambugu in Kenya. The work was highly touted in the press, but not by Wambugu or by biotech scientists, in hyperbolic terms as potentially ending poverty in Kenya. Unfortunately, the project failed and was abandoned in 2004. They write that a competing project by conventional breeders “in Uganda and Mozambique successfully developed disease-resistant sweet potatoes with high beta-carotene content using conventional breeding, and which also had much higher productivity.”

Here’s some context. There is no low hanging fruit left in field of crop breeding. At this point, every problem that breeders of any stripe are trying tackle is a hard problem. Contemporary breeding is a long, resource intensive process with many dead ends, whether one uses recombinant DNA or not. Difficult challenges will sometimes lead to successful products and sometimes not.

Golden Rice is a breeding project that has been in the works for 15 years. This is hardly an unusual time horizon for a breeding puzzle. Take for example Frank Kutka’s nearly 15 year quest to breed conventional corn which is impervious to cross-pollination. This trait would give organic growers protection against outcrosses from GE corn. In the Civil Eats profile of the project linked above, although Kutka has been working on this new corn variety without success since 2001, the article no where suggests that the fact that he has not yet succeeded is an indictment of traditional breeding. Because it’s not. Meanwhile, in a similar time frame, Golden Rice has had to contend with organizing security for field trials, field trials destroyed by activists, and, of course, needing to wait for regulatory approval for field trials–challenges that traditional breeders do not have to contend with. In the arc of developing novel, high impact crops, 15 years is par for the course.

For one ambitious group of breeders, deciphering a puzzle that only took 15 would be seen as child’s play. Consider The Land Institute’s pursuit of perennial grains. The Land Institute is a non-profit group headed by Wes Jackon and based in Salina, Kansas. Jackson started as an academic, with a masters in botany and a PhD in genetics, going on to found the first environmental studies program at California State University, Sacramento. In 1976, he returned to his native Kansas to found the Land Institute in order to pursue research into agroecological farming, settling on a focus on perennials begining in 1978. Jackson’s group has now been attempting to breed viable perennial wheat for 36 years. Breeding perennials that can compete with annuals on yield and return on investment is a monumental task and Jackson believes the project should be envisioned over a 50-75 year time horizon. Instead of being characterized as a failure of traditional breeding, Jackson’s work is touted as that of a scrappy visionary. I’ve never seen a supporter of biotech breeding trying to make hay out of the difficulty of the task the Land Institute has taken on, or the high standards of efficacy they have set for themselves. People may scratch their heads at the quixotic nature of the project, you never see the kind of circling vulture glee in detailing every failed trial. There is no doubt that in 35 years, the Land Institute has abandoned specific projects as Florence Wambugu was forced to do. There just isn’t any one trying to score points on those failures.

What the Center for Food Safety has done is to play a game where they seize on hyperbolic statements by journalists trying tell a dramatic story, combine this with their audience’s naivety about what successful breeding takes and then claim that biotech breeding is no silver bullet. Nobody has really ever said that it was a silver bullet (except maybe in some marketing materials or in early reporting). It’s one tool in the toolbox to help us tackle some incredibly hard problems. Supporters believe we need the full toolbox, critics twist themselves into pretzels explaining why one tool should be abandoned if it can’t fix everything.

But we do need the full toolbox. In the realm of crop breeding, easy is over. Hard has just begun.

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