TROPICAL WASTELANDS TO CROPLANDS WITH BIOTECH
By Dennis T. Avery & Alex A. Avery
Half of the world’s tropic croplands suffer from aluminum toxicity that forces crop plants to shut down their growth. Grains and oilseeds produce meager yields, and scientists have not even known why. The resulting low yields and food scarcity have stifled the tropics’ efforts in health care, technology, and economic growth. At the same time, tropical farmers have been forced to clear more forest to grow enough food for their families, displacing the wild species that make the forests their home.
Now genetic engineering — and only genetic engineering — has found a potentially massive food production breakthrough: crop plants that can ignore the aluminum toxicity and produce ample yields on huge tracts of tropic land that now produce little except stunted shrubs.
University of California/Riverside’s Dr. Paul Larsen, while screening mustard plants for their ability to grow despite toxic aluminum, discovered a simple mutation to a single gene that lets plants thrive, in spite of the aluminum. He was able to shut down a gene called AtATR and the plants ignored the toxic aluminum warnings from their roots.
“We have all these crop plants — wheat and corn and barley and so on — that didn’t evolve or get developed on aluminum-toxic soils,” says Larsen. Plant breeders have tried to cross-breed varieties that cope better with the aluminum, but there has been little progress. Larsen’s work dangles the potential of a vast improvement, quickly. “It theoretically will eliminate the big acid-soil yield penalties in any plant species,” he says.
Larsen says the plants “are really worried about the longterm damage aluminum toxicity could cause to their DNA over many generations.” But that thousand-year problem doesn’t mean much when modern seeds can be bred — and even grown out — on non-toxic soils and delivered to farms in the acid soil regions. Larsen says, even after growing five generations of his mutant plants on aluminum-toxic soils, there are “no obvious deleterious effects on growth, viability, [or] seed production.”
The transformation itself is one of the simplest in biotechnology. The scientists just block the gene that codes for aluminum sensitivity. No foreign genes are added.
“It’s a potential magic bullet, depending on how society decides to use it,” says Larsen.
Larsen did his original experiments with Arabadopsis, an easily-manipulated member of the mustard family. He’s now seeking the funding to transform tomatoes, and ultimately a whole range of food crops.
He also notes that other researchers have engineered plants that prevent aluminum invasion by secreting citric acid from their roots. The negatively-charged acid binds with the positively-charged aluminum so the aluminum can’t get into the roots. “We might combine my strategy of by-passing the aluminum toxicity with the aluminum-blocking strategy to create a family of tropical super-crops,” he says.
Will this new breakthrough finally force the Green movement to recognize the vital potential of biotechnology to both feed poor people and save wildlife habitat?
Agriculture, the Economy, & Human Health & Welfare:
Policy Issues Relating to Food Production & Consumption
Political Environmentalism Versus Human Progress & Prosperity:
Policy Issues Relating to Energy, Environment,
& Natural Resources
Dennis T. Avery is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., and is the Director of the Institute's Center for Global Food Issues (www.cgfi.org). Formerly he was a senior policy analyst for the United States Department of State, where he won the National Intelligence Medal of Achievement. He is the co-author, with atmospheric physicist Fred Singer, of the book, Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1500 Years (Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006). Avery's book, Saving the Planet With Pesticides and Plastic: The Environmental Triumph of High-Yield Farming (Washington, D.C.: Hudson Institute, 1995), continues to be popular as a readable overview of realistic agriculture for the future and for today. Readers may write Avery at Post Office Box 202, Churchville, Virginia, 24421. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Alex A. Avery is CGFI Director of Research and Education.
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