Friday, 14 November 2014

What's next for biotech?

I recently visited Iowa, courtesy of CropLife International. The trip has changed my perceptions on global agriculture and how we will produce the food that is needed to sustain society.

I wrote this feature which appeared in Arable Farming this week.



Biotechnology is by far one of the most controversial of food production aids, yet the demand from farmers from around the world for the right to access and grow transgenic or 'genetically modified' crops (GMs) is increasing. 

At a global food conference last month, speakers at the World Food Prize and associated Borlaug Dialogue event in Des Moines, Iowa, debated the much repeated challenge of how we feed 9.3 billion by 2050. 

Almost without exception, speakers from Africa, Asia, the Americas and Europe could not see a future for production agriculture without the adoption and political integration of GM technology.
A scientist with strong, but measured views on GM is Dr Sanjaya Rajaram, the Indian born winner of the 2014 World Food Prize. His award recognised scientific contribution for increasing world wheat production by 200 million tonnes via 480 wheat varieties released in 51 countries.

"Whether we like it or not, conventional breeding cannot protect crops from climate issues like drought, extreme cold or water logging," he explained. "Whilst I am very pro GM technology for delivering tremendous yield potential, it is vital that we exert extreme caution when it comes to the impact of gene transfer on the wider environment."

Certainly in the USA the regulatory framework for GMs is exceptionally robust. Each GM trait costs circa $136m to develop,  $35m of which is spent purely on regulatory approval. But the development of acceptable regulatory frameworks is a big sticking point in many other countries, along with consumer and political aversion.  

GM crops came to the market 30 years ago. Worldwide planting of GM seed now exceeds 170 million hectares grown by 17.3 million farmers. The established GM traits are contained in corn (maize), soya bean and cotton varieties for defence against pests (e.g. the Bt gene for budworm and other pest protection) and weeds (e.g. RoundUp Ready). There is currently no GM wheat grown anywhere in the world, in fact many R&D organisations have shelved their EU GM wheat projects because the political environment is so anti GM.

However GM R&D continues apace in other parts of the world with two companies - DuPont Pioneer and Monsanto - really driving both the science and the introduction of GM to new markets.
DuPont Pioneer is concentrating on further developing both GM and hybrid traits for drought tolerance, nutritional fortification (such as nutritionally fortified sorghum for Africa) and improved nutrient scavenging. In the biofuels sector, they have developed the DuPont Cellulosic Ethanol enzyme process to improve energy release from tough fibres like maize haulm. The company is also about to bring to market the first GM product specifically for the consumer market - Plenish, a healthier, high oleic soya bean. 

In conjunction with CYMMT (the International Maize and Wheat Centre) the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation research councils in both Kenya and South Africa, DuPont Pioneer is working on the 'Improved maize for African soils' (IMAS) project which could bring traits that would greatly benefit all growers, irrespective of where they farm, or their soil type. 

"African soils have inherently very low nitrogen and organic matter," explained Jim Gaffney, Strategic Lead for Agronomic Traits at DuPont Pioneer, based in Des Moines, Iowa. "The IMAS partnership will focus on advanced breeding techniques to create maize varieties and hybrids that will yield at least 50% more than current varieties grown with existing nitrogen application rates. Hybrids will come first in 7-9 years followed by transgenic seed within 10 years."

Monsanto is also active in drought tolerance R&D. They launched the first GM drought tolerant hybrid to the US market in 2013, based on a single gene trait from a microorganism. 

Dr Robert Fraley, Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at Monsanto, the man who led the development of RoundUp Ready soya beans, describes this technology as "the next generation of bug and disease traits." 

Monsanto is also developing the traits for Africa via a Kenyan project called Water Efficient Maize in Africa (WEMA) for which it has provided three 'trans genes', royalty free. WEMA Project Manager, Sylvester Oikeh, said that with $2.48bn requested by aid agencies to alleviate drought issues in East Africa, and close to 300 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa dependant on maize, the development work in maize is vital. 

A further phase of R&D investment being made by Monsanto is into RNA Interference* (RNAi) biotechnology. It is a technique that was founded 15 years ago in medicine for targeting cancer genes. The application for agriculture was discovered in 2006 by two American scientists who won the Nobel Prize for their work. 

Put simply, the RNAi works by silencing, or knocking out, genes that cause disease. Monsanto acquired the capability to develop this technology by acquiring a business called Biologics, a business  applying RNAi to target the bee varroa mite which causes colony collapse in beehives.  The research is not only pioneering in its very precise targeting of pest or virus, it is also revolutionary in how it is applied. 

Dr Fraley explained: "In agriculture RNAi can be sprayed onto a pest of weed as you might a biological agent, and whilst it is the same technology as we use for GMOs, it is for topical application and not included in the plant. This is a very, very exciting area for us."

* RNA is a cell's messenger protein for conveying genetic information from DNA. RNAi is a biological process, occurring in essentially all organisms from yeast to mammals, in which RNA molecules inhibit gene expression, typically by causing the destruction of specific messenger RNA, or mRNA, molecules.

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