Thursday, 7 August 2008

GUEST POST 1: From Hunter-Gatherer to Global Citizen

As I have sometimes done before, I would like to present the occasional guest post. This one comes about through a long car journey and conversation with the author, Anne Osbourn, who is Professor of Plant Biology at the John Innes Centre and head of the Department of Metalogic Biology. She is also a poet. Here she considers GM among other things.


We used to be hunter-gatherers. That kept us pretty fully occupied. We didn’t have time to settle, build civilizations and invent the Wii. Then someone decided that it might be a good idea to collect seed from the odd grass here and there and plant it so that they knew where to gather next time. Things took off. Agriculture was born. Grasses underwent chance encounters. The brush of pollen against stigma led to new types of grasses that grew better and had higher yields. We settled down, cleared forests, and started growing monocultures (small scale at first, of course). We changed the face of the landscape.

The Roman Empire came and went, seed was transported round the world, yields continued to increase. The industrial revolution led to larger-scale farming. Bigger monocultures. Imports and exports. And then in the twentieth century we took on plant breeding big-time, producing ever-improved crops using various tricks – introducing different plant species to each other and encouraging them to have sex, rescuing the hybrid embryo from abortion using colchicine (a chromosome doubling drug from autumn crocus). We used mutagenic chemicals and irradiation to introduce more genetic variation into the breeder’s palette, so pushing the genetic resources further. We discovered the dwarfing gene. Judicious breeding of this into selected lines by crossing led to the green revolution – less straw, more yield. Cereal crops no longer grew waist high. We brought in a battery of fertilizers, fungicides, pesticides and herbicides to maximize output. Despite all of these efforts there is no respite when it comes to food production. Today yield increases are plateauing and new crop varieties continue to be overcome by ever- evolving pests and diseases. Herbicides are losing their efficacy. Our land is brimming with chemicals. The production of new varieties that will provide food security is a never-ending treadmill. There is no room for complacency.

Today many are starving because they cannot access local or transported sources of food. The reasons for this are complex and various. Elsewhere there is a huge amount of food wastage. Consumption of meat is increasing in parts of the world where incomes are rising, putting further demands on grain production. Demands on land for biofuel crops and record oil prices have all contributed to increases in the cost of food. On top of this the targets for plant breeding are moving. We know that the climate is changing but we can only hazard a guess about the kinds of conditions that the plants of the future will need to be able to tolerate - and about how far away the future is. We urgently need to move to more sustainable high productivity agricultural systems. There will be around 9 billion people on planet Earth in 2050 and as the population expands we will need more effective means of farming.

In writing this I do not mean to bring gloom and despair. Rather to highlight the fact that agriculture is not “natural” – although clearly the need to feed ourselves is. Humans have been engaging in genetic modification of crops since they first started cultivating plants. We have literally inherited the earth. We – the global community - must look objectively at the tools and resources that we have in hand and make responsible decisions about how to feed the world. This does not mean saying “Organic farming good; GM bad”. It means looking at all of the strings that we have to our bow and making responsible decisions - decisions that we are accountable for. This is not the time to bicker about the phase of the moon, small-scale farming, wide crosses, genetic engineering and biotech. These are just words. There are no scapegoats and by engaging in such bickering we leave people to starve and blame others for their demise. We have inherited the earth. And we have the power to change things. The responsibility for the future lies with us. Productive dialogue, baggage aside. Evidence-based advances. No loose words.

On agriculture

A chance encounter between grasses in ancient Mesopotamia.
Bread wheat.

The beginning of agriculture.
The foundation of civilization.

Kiwis to Norwich.
Food parcels to Africa.

See “On the brink of starvation” by Nick Danziger on the BBC at the following link:

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