Can SMART biotechnology serve sustainable agriculture?


Wouldn’t it be nice if we could employ biotechnology in agriculture without imposing the risks and provoking the divisiveness that accompany the genetic engineering (GE) of food?

What if the “transgenic” GE practice of combining genes from wildly divergent organisms to create what have been dubbed “Frankenfoods” was abandoned, and biotechnology respected nature’s wisdom by only combining the genes of closely related plants?

Could biotechnology enhance — rather than attempting to bypass — traditional seed-breeding techniques? What if those enhanced techniques dramatically sped up traditional methods of producing plants with desirable traits such as drought or flood resistance?

And if by shortening the breeding process they greatly reduced costs, paving the way for economical development of the wide variety of new crops that will be needed as our climate becomes less dependable?

Happily, a suite of such promising biotechnologies is undergoing rapid development, and some techniques already have been successfully deployed in agricultural production.

The emerging technologies are known collectively as Selection with Markers and Advanced Reproductive Technology (SMART) breeding. If properly coordinated with sustainable farming techniques, SMART breeding has the potential to revolutionize agriculture while significantly reducing the current role of transgenic technology.

The Selection with Markers (AKA Marker Assisted Selection or MAS) part of SMART breeding crosses plants that could interbreed naturally — wild and domestic apples, for example — but uses genetic “markers” to take much of the guesswork out of selecting for desirable traits, thus speeding up the process.

Certain plant genes are associated with particular traits such as blight resistance, and now geneticists can identify those genes in a plant’s tissue sample and mark them using advanced genetic technology. The marked genes then appear in the seeds of the plant’s offspring.

This allows the breeder to screen out seeds from the offspring’s stock that do not have the gene for the desired trait before breeding and raising the succeeding (second) generation. (Seed selection is often done by taking a tiny chip from each seed of the stock and analyzing its genetic content.) Only those seeds that have genes marked by the breeder as associated with the desirable trait are bred; the rest are discarded.

Thus the laborious process of raising plants, testing their characteristics and then raising several succeeding generations to ensure the desired traits are “expressed” in adult plants can be mostly bypassed.

Even the process of raising a final generation of plants to test the accuracy of the genetic marking can be sped up using what scientists call Advanced Reproductive Technologies (the second part of SMART breeding). One geneticist commented that he can now breed a viable plant strain in about five years, whereas previously the same project might have taken his entire career.

Additionally, Selection with Markers allows scientists to search for desirable traits in a very broad and historically deep lineage of a plant’s domestic and wild relatives.

Millions of years of natural evolutionary experiments, and thousands of years of selective breeding by farmers around the world, have produced plants with genetic material that contains many, if not all of the characteristics demanded by modern agriculture.

Now, rather than being ignored or usurped by top-down technocratic agribusiness, the knowledge of traditional farmers can be cooperatively harvested for everyone’s benefit.

However, SMART breeding can reach its potential only if the genetic profiles of plants remains freely available to researchers and breeders everywhere. That allows for diverse knowledge and experimentation, and the equitable distribution of research results. Fortunately, many enlightened university and non-profit researchers are sharing their SMART knowledge so everyone can eat well at our ecological house.

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