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Dinner by Design

December 10, 2009
by Frank Browning

Those of us who grew up rooted to the land—before the discovery of DNA, the invention of the Internet, and the relentless buzz of Twitter—were ordered by a different sense of time than most people raised in today’s big cities. Though clocks and school bus schedules were as constant for us, in a farm household the better part of our lives was marked by the progress—and at times the idiosyncrasy—of the seasons. A late spring freeze could blacken the apple bloom and kill a year’s income; an early July downpour might inundate the tobacco fields and unleash armies of bugs and fungus to defoliate the fruit trees.

The seasons still govern most of the world’s food producers whether in Kentucky or in Kenya, but as the climatologists repeatedly warn us, those seasons are becoming less predictable, and the regularity of time has been turned upside-down. Torrential storms batter once-temperate zones, droughts threaten to press the Sahara southward into Kenya, and infestations of fungi and crawling pests creep through France.

In the most extensive analysis yet, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) predicts a dire future for food producers and consumers alike over the next half-century. Their Food Policy Report, released last fall, projects grain yields declining dramatically while childhood malnutrition rises by 20 percent.

All of this comes as the world’s population increases from an estimated 6.8 billion today to 9 billion people in 2050. Farmers will have to double their output. A parallel report from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says output must rise by 70 percent. Avoiding catastrophe will cost, IFPRI projects, a minimum of $7 billion dollars per year in new agricultural development funding.

What, then, to do? There are no solutions without serious costs, both financial and cultural. First is the cultural question raised most eloquently by poet, essayist, farmer, and fellow Kentuckian Wendell Berry. Among the earliest of the locavore proponents, Berry argues that dependence on the factory fields of California and Florida for the majority of our milk, meat, and produce is bad for agriculture and destructive of democracy. Not only can disease spread through the vast monocultures, but worse in his view, the concentration of our basic foods in the hands of megafarms and global marketing chains divorces us from any real contact with the land. That contact, like my own childhood contact with the seasons, teaches probity and modesty while encouraging community solidarity, values whose loss imperils the basis of democracy. And that doesn’t even touch the environmental consequences of concentrated chemical runoff and blood-spewing abattoirs where millions of animals are butchered.

Aesthetically, I find Berry’s arguments eloquent. Politically, his rage against gargantuan solutions carries weight. Hyperconcentration of power, be it in banking, auto manufacture, or tomato fields, leaves me anxious. Both the Soviet collectivist record and the private corporate models are well known for their horrors.

Yet we’re also looking at a global population of 9 billion within two generations. It was on a visit to Holland two years ago that I met plant geneticist Arjen van Tunen, head of KeyGene in the Netherlands, a company that uses genetic sequencing technologies to speed up and enhance conventional breeding. Van Tunen presented the dilemma succinctly: “Think about what’s happening in Asia where there are these megacities, many you never heard of.” Like Chunking—a metropolitan area of nearly 31 million people. Transporting all the necessary vegetables and fruits from production site into the city can take a long time. “That’s where shelf life and disease resistance get more and more important.” According to the FAO, as much as half the produce shipped in India is rotten by the time it’s delivered.

Half a world away, at Berkeley’s Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, molecular botanist Peggy Lemaux is looking for solutions that will not only serve large-scale farming but help small, traditional African and Asian growers, as well, to stay on their land and avoid the costs of industrial-scale farming.

“What I hope for in the future is actually engineering crops of benefit to Africa,” she told me in a long telephone conversation. Much of her recent work has been supported by the Gates Foundation, which has invested millions on improving four indigenous African crops: banana, cassava, rice, and sorghum. Lemaux’s lab has focused on wheat and sorghum. Sorghum—the grain, not the sugar-rich stalk—is the base diet across much of central and east-central Africa. Cooked as a porridge or as a flatbread, sorghum is weak in basic nutrients, especially for children; worse, it’s often not easily digested. “We’re trying to understand why it’s not digestible,” Lemaux says. The work isn’t finished, but she remains optimistic that, just as vitamin A–enriched rice has proven valuable in Asia, nutrient-enriched and drought-resistant sorghum can fight malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa.

There is still considerable resistance all over the world to genetically modified organisms (GMO). Opponents argue that the technology is unpredictable and potentially dangerous to the environment, including to humans. But to research scientists, GMO are an essential tool in fighting global famine. They are convinced that the challenges outlined by IFPRI and the FAO can only be met by combining local production, more precise irrigation and fertilization, and the use of both genetic modification and molecular analysis.

One argument from the anti-GMO side is that biotech only favors large corporate producers. This is countered by Berkeley agricultural economist David Zilberman, who asserts that seeds designed to resist pests offer a bigger comparative advantage to small farmers in the Third World who don’t have access to pesticides than to big American and European growers. Small farmers, he and Lemaux say, can increase grain yields as much as fivefold, while the big farms enjoy a slight increase.

Lemaux, like van Tunen, sees GMO as only a partial solution. She argues forcefully for a broad array of farming approaches, including conventional large-scale, non-GMO production and organic niche farming. Lemaux advocates creating buffer plantings to protect each sort of agriculture from the other, and says GMO should never be used without careful scientific regulation. And she’s very concerned about Monsanto’s domination of the field. “I don’t think that the consolidation of seed companies by large chemical companies is a good idea. It’s not a long-term strategy and it’s not sustainable.”

Especially troublesome to Lemaux is reliance on Monsanto’s array of Roundup Ready seeds, which permit growers to avoid tilling and apply herbicides that don’t affect the crops. The technique has been championed, accurately, as preventing erosion, but it inevitably leaves the fields susceptible to so-called superweeds. “Farmers tend to have varieties they like and they’re just going to plant those. If there’s only one variety they like and they plant that year after year, we’re going to see a lot more herbicide-resistant weeds. We’re already seeing that.”

Back in central Holland, a consortium of plant and food science companies have collaborated with Wageningen University to organize “Food Valley” just above the Rhine. Food Valley researchers work in labs around the world, focusing mostly on how to make plants naturally resistant to pests. For example, van Tunen’s KeyGene has played a key role in developing lettuces that are resistant to aphids and powdery mildew. Organic growers quickly snapped up the aphid-resistant seeds.

KeyGene is also a leader in the effort to produce virus-resistant tomatoes. Better known as tomato blight, these viruses attack the stems of the plant, turning it black. KeyGene entered the hot tomato race more than 15 years ago when it developed the DNA “fingerprinting” technique that enables identification of a specific strand of genetic pairs in a chromosome. KeyGene licensed the technique to a wide array of labs—it’s most famously used in crime scenes to identify everything from a murderer’s hair follicle to a rapist’s semen. Plant researchers use the technique to identify which seedlings among thousands of crossings remain susceptible to disease and carry other undesirable qualities such as low productivity, short shelf life, or small size. More than 95 percent of the seedlings can be immediately eliminated, and the rest then back-crossed to arrive at the most promising new varieties. Thus, neither the lettuce nor the tomato hybrid was “genetically modified” but each used genetic molecular analysis to produce conventional hybrid seeds.

Down the road from KeyGene in Wageningen, a company called Genetwister Technologies uses DNA sequencing to figure out which fruits and vegetables will have longer shelf life. A cucumber or a grain of wheat with longer shelf life can endure longer shipping time without costly refrigeration.

Time influences everything in the global struggle to meet fruit, vegetable, and grain demand. Across the road from KeyGene and Genetwister, at Wageningen University’s Plant Research International, Henk Schouten works on apples. He reckons it took 50 years of conventional breeding to come up with a handful of new apple varieties resistant to apple scab, a devastating fungus that can strip a tree of all its leaves and render it unable to breathe. Within 10 years of those apples’ release, however, scab fungus had already begun to overcome the fruit’s resistance.

The original scab resistance gene came from a flowering crab apple, but there are a half-dozen others. The problem is that if it took tens of thousands of crosses to capture one gene, it could take hundreds of thousands to capture the 15 other scab resistance genes known to exist—or instead of 50 years, it could take 200–300 years to breed them all in. So instead, Schouten is plucking out the scab resistance genes and inserting them into older cultivars, making them, he says, “directly resistant to scab.”

The array of possibilities is vast—from beating pests to extending shelf life to creating prettier apples. What’s at stake in all of this plant biotech is much more than finding a prettier fruit that doesn’t brown when you slice it. Schouten’s boss, Ton den Nijs, says simply, “We can go spraying for scab for another 50 years. Would you prefer that, rather than a safe way to get rid of these pesticides?” And, she adds, the work is done with genes that are already there.

These frontier genomic technologies may even make the clock run backwards, enabling us to recover many of the now-rare fruit and vegetable varieties of the last century and before—varieties of apples such as the magnificent Winesaps and Esopus Spitzenbergs that were mainstays of Thomas Jefferson’s colonial orchards but couldn’t compete against modern diseases or today’s demand for shelf life. Such subtleties are largely lost in the public debate about farming and genetics. For many traditionalists, genomics will doubtless always be anathema. But for the billions who face famine in the developing world, these tools may be the best weapons of survival. And they might just bring the old-time heirlooms back to market.

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