Despite resistance from activists and consumer groups, many scientists and agribusinesses are still betting that genetic modification (GM) will be the future of agriculture. They may be in for a shock. A growing number of maverick plant researchers are developing a new technique called smart breeding that can radically improve crops without inserting genes from other organisms.
When the company Calgene introduced the Flavr Savr tomato a decade ago, the biotech bulls called it the start of the new GM gold rush. Genetically engineered to last longer on the shelf, the product failed for a host of reasons, including its bland taste. Nevertheless, GM corn, cotton, and other crops are now planted around the world. Concerns have spread just as widely: Fears about food safety and corporate control over patented seed stocks still shadow GM agriculture at every turn.
In a report on the new 'superorganics' in Wired (May 2004), journalist Richard Manning talks to several plant geneticists who say that better crops can now be developed without resorting to controversial GM technologies. 'The public argument about genetically modified organisms, I think, will soon be a thing of the past,' former Calgene scientist Robert Goodman told Manning. 'The science has moved on.'
Smart breeding is why. The term refers to the process of applying precise genetic mapping to the ancient agricultural technique of crossbreeding. Instead of looking to other organisms for genes with particular traits, smart breeding searches a crop's own genome for a chosen characteristic -- such as drought resistance, or a particular color or taste. The dormant genes for many desired traits have been found hiding in rare or wild varieties of some plants. Smart breeders employ crossbreeding techniques to draw out these traits.
'Think about the crossbreeding and hybridization that farmers have been doing for hundreds of years, relying on instinct, trial and error, and luck,' Manning explains. 'Now replace those fuzzy factors with precise information about the role each gene plays in a plant's makeup.'
While traditional crossbreeding can take years, Manning notes, lab-based smart breeding can be done much more quickly. Without genetic modification's expense, patent politics, or potential environmental risks, smart breeding is the best of both worlds, supporters say.
Smart breeders hope to do more than make a tastier tomato. From researchers in West Africa who created disease- and drought-resistant rice to an American scientist working on corn plants that turn red when they're thirsty, smart breeders are looking to solve the world's nourishment problems. Manning dubs the new crops superorganics because, ideally, they'll be tasty and safe and won't need as much pesticide, fertilizer, and water -- it's 'a new generation of food that will please the consumer, the producer, the activist, and the FDA.'