Guest post by Karl Haro von Mogel. Karl will be online for tonight’s AgChat with a focus on World Hunger and Food Security:
This week, the World Food Prize organization is holding its annual Borlaug Dialogue, complete with lectures, prizes, and above all, thoughtful discussion on how to improve food security for people in developing countries. There are many ways that this can be done, through old and new genetic techniques, to improvements in farming practices and soil management, to food storage, distribution, and infrastructure – not to mention social practices and attitudes about food. But as an aspiring plant geneticist, when I think of food security I think first about improving the plants that we grow.
Being a plant breeder is not as easy as it might seem. Each crop species has its own history contained in the genetic code of the seeds that exist today, some more than others. Useful versions of the many thousands of genes that there are in crops are continually being discovered, and plant breeders draw on this variation to cross and select plants that have the right combinations of traits.
What is the right combination – the perfect plant on a genetic level? To answer that question we must consider the environment that they grow in – the intersection of climate, weather, soils, and resources that we call the farm. A variety perfectly suited to a rich soil in a moist climate may not even produce anything in a dry, sandy location, whereas a plant adapted to survive in such arid lands will be woefully inadequate where conditions are ideal. And year to year, weather patterns change, making the task of a breeder even more difficult – and more important.
You cannot talk about things such as food distribution if you do not have the food to distribute. We have witnessed in recent years that droughts and severe weather conditions are enough to cause shortages in some of the more secure of nations. Even the threat of a shortage is enough to close a trade barrier and endanger food supplies elsewhere. As our climate continues to change and these uncommon events that put crops at risk become more frequent, we need to gird ourselves (and our plants) against such possibilities.
Breeders are hard at work trying to bring together genes that will strengthen crops against these conditions, but I worry if it will be enough? I think we will need to draw on genes from outside the gene pool of individual species to bring together traits that are sorely needed. Genetic engineering is one tool among many that can help make food security possible. We will also need improvements in growing practices, which will go hand in hand with genetic improvements.
Drought tolerance is one important trait, but nutritionally improved staples such as golden rice, super cassava, and even conventionally bred high-protein maize are another important step. The ever-present biological threats of insect pests, disease, and parasitic weeds in Africa, demand attention as well. If a region, nation, or planet can first grow crops that will guarantee that enough nourishing food will be always be available for a growing population, then we can have the stable political environment that will make it possible for us to figure out how to get it into everyone’s hands.