The Future of Farming: Outsmarting GM

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.’

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.