Tag Archives: food crops

Preserving Seeds that Feed the World: the Svalbard Global Seed Vault

Six hundred miles from the North Pole, on an island the size of West Virginia, at the end of a tunnel bored into a mountain, lies a vault filled with more than 1 million samples of seeds harvested from 6,374 species of plants grown in 249 locations around the globe.The collection, the largest of its kind, is intended to safeguard the genetic diversity of the crops that feed the world.  If disaster wipes out a plant, seeds from the vault could be used to restore the species. If pests, disease or climate change imperil a food source, a resistant trait found among the collection could thwart the threat.

While some countries have their own seed banks—Colorado State University houses one for the U.S.—the Svalbard Global Seed Vault serves as a backup. The vault, built in 2008 at a cost of about $9 million, is owned and maintained by Norway, but its contents belong to the countries and places that provide the samples.  “It works like a safe-deposit box at the bank,” said Cary Fowler, an American agriculturalist who helped found the vault. “Norway owns the facility, but not the boxes of the seeds.”

In 2015, after the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas was destroyed in the Syrian civil war, scientists who had fled the country withdrew seeds to regenerate the plants in Lebanon and Morocco.  “It had one of the world’s biggest and best collections of wheat, barley, lentils, chickpeas, faba beans and grass pea,” Dr. Fowler said. “It was the chief supplier of a disease-resistant wheat variety for the Middle East.”  In 2017, the group returned copies of its seeds to the vault.

The 18,540-square-foot seed vault includes three rooms with the capacity to house 4.5 million samples of 500 seeds each—a maximum of 2.25 billion seeds. The environment’s natural temperature remains below freezing year round, but the seeds are stored at a chillier -18 degrees Celsius, or around -0.4 degrees Fahrenheit. They’re expected to last for decades, centuries or perhaps even millennia….

While dwindling diversity might not seem like an imminent threat, four chemical companies now control more than 60% of global proprietary seed sales…That concentration of power, some worry, could lead to less agricultural variety and more genetic uniformity…In the meantime, the seed vault (which doesn’t store genetically modified seeds) will continue to accept deposits in an effort to preserve all of the options it can.

Excerpts from Craven McGinty, Plan to Save World’s Crops Lives in Norwegian Bunker, WSJ,  May 29, 2020

Genetically Modified Crops May Become the Norm: the case of Golden Rice

Golden Rice is a genetically modified (GM) crop that could help prevent childhood blindness and deaths in the developing world. Ever since Golden Rice first made headlines nearly 20 years ago, it has been a flashpoint in debates over GM crops. Advocates touted it as an example of their potential benefit to humanity, while opponents of transgenic crops criticized it as a risky and unnecessary approach to improve health in the developing world.

Now, Bangladesh appears about to become the first country to approve Golden Rice for planting..Golden Rice was developed in the late 1990s by German plant scientists Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer to combat vitamin A deficiency, the leading cause of childhood blindness. Low levels of vitamin A also contribute to deaths from infectious diseases such as measles. Spinach, sweet potato, and other vegetables supply ample amounts of the vitamin, but in some countries, particularly those where rice is a major part of the diet, vitamin A deficiency is still widespread; in Bangladesh it affects about 21% of children.

To create Golden Rice, Potrykus and Beyer collaborated with agrochemical giant Syngenta to equip the plant with beta-carotene genes from maize. They donated their transgenic plants to public-sector agricultural institutes, paving the way for other researchers to breed the Golden Rice genes into varieties that suit local tastes and growing conditions.

The Golden Rice under review in Bangladesh was created at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, Philippines. Researchers bred the beta-carotene genes into a rice variety named dhan 29…Farmers in Bangladesh quickly adopted an eggplant variety engineered to kill certain insect pests after its 2014 introduction, but that crop offered an immediate benefit: Farmers need fewer insecticides. Golden Rice’s health benefits will emerge more slowly,

Excerpts from Erik Stokstad,  After 20 Years, Golden Rice Nears Approval, Science,  Nov. 22, 2019

Modernize or Die: Bio-Engineered Food

China is betting that CRISP technology*can transform the country’s food supply.  China also expanded its efforts beyond its borders in 2017, when the state-owned company ChemChina bought Switzerland-based Syngenta—one of the world’s four largest agribusinesses, which has a large R&D team working with CRISPR—for $43 billion. That was the most China has ever spent on acquiring a foreign company, and it created an intimate relationship between government, industry, and academia—a “sort of a ménage à trois” that ultimately could funnel intellectual property from university labs into the company, says plant geneticist Zachary Lippman of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York.

Chinese leaders “want to strategically invest in genome editing, and [by that] I mean, catch up,” says Zhang Bei, who heads a team of 50 scientists at the Syngenta Beijing Innovation Center…China may one day need CRISPR-modified plants to provide enough food for its massive population….    China needs to resolve how it will regulate CRISPR-engineered crops—a divisive issue in many countries. In a 2018 decision that rocked big agriculture, a European court ruled that such crops are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that need strict regulation. In contrast, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) exempts genome-edited plants from regulations covering GMOs as long as they were produced not by transferring DNA from other species, but by inducing mutations that could have occurred naturally or through conventional breeding.  Chinese consumers are wary of GM food. The country strictly limits the import of GM crops, and the only GM food it grows are papayas for domestic consumption. But for CRISPR, many plant researchers around assume China will follow in the United States’s footsteps…

For Corteva, Syngenta, and the other two big ag companies—BASF and Bayer (which acquired Monsanto last year)—the long game is to use CRISPR to develop better versions of their serious moneymakers, the “elite” varieties of a wide range of crops that have big commercial markets. They sell dozens of kinds of elite corn seeds—for example, inbred strains that consistently have high yields or reliable resistance to herbicides. Creating the genetic purity needed for an elite variety typically takes traditional breeding of many generations of plants, and CRISPR is seen as the cleanest way to improve them quickly. The earlier methods of engineering a plant can lead to unwanted genomic changes that must be laboriously culled…

Syngenta sees CRISPR-modified corn as a big opportunity in China, which grows more hectares of corn than any other crop. Yields per hectare are only 60% of those in the United States because corn ear worms often weaken Chinese crops. A fungus thrives in the weakened plants, producing a toxin that makes the resultant ears unfit for animal feed. As a result, China must import a great deal of corn. (According to USDA, 82% of U.S.-grown corn has been engineered to have a bacterial gene that makes it resistant to ear worms.)…“Syngenta is putting a lot of emphasis to grow in China to become the leading seed company. The China market as a whole, if it modernizes as the U.S. has modernized, can be as big as the U.S. market.”

Jon Cohen, To feed its 1.4 billion, China bets big on genome editing of crops, Science Magazine, Aug. 2, 2019

* Genome editing (also called gene editing) is a group of technologies that give scientists the ability to change an organism’s DNA. These technologies allow genetic material to be added, removed, or altered at particular locations in the genome. Several approaches to genome editing have been developed. A recent one is known as CRISPR-Cas9.

The Silent Environmentalists

Elephant ears are leafy vegetables. African locusts are tree-borne legumes. All are standard fare in various parts of Africa. What they also have in common is that they are, from the point of view of plant breeders, orphans. They are neglected by breeders because they are not cash crops. Conversely, they are not cash crops because they are neglected by breeders.

That neglect matters. The cereals which dominate human diets—rice, wheat and maize—have had their yields and nutritional values boosted over the years by scientific breeding programmes. In the modern era of genomics, they have had their DNA scrutinised down to the level of individual base pairs, the molecular letters in which genetic information is written. They are as far removed, nutritionally, from their ancestors of as little as two centuries ago as those ancestors were from the wild plants which begat them. Orphan crops have yet to undergo such a genetic revolution.

Even for adults, a lack of calories and essential nutrients is harmful. For children it can be devastating. Poor childhood nutrition leads to stunting—inadequate bodily development, including the development of the brain. A report published by the World Health Organisation on November 16th, 2017 suggests that almost a third of Africa’s children, nearly 60m of them, are stunted. And stunted children grow into adults unable to achieve their potential. Researchers at the World Bank reckon the effects of stunting have reduced Africa’s GDP by 9-10% from what it would otherwise be.

One way to reduce stunting would be to improve the crops that Africans, particularly those in the countryside, actually eat—in other words, orphan crops. Such improvement is the purpose of two recent, interrelated projects that are now getting into their strides. Both are based in Nairobi and are conducted under the auspices of the World Agroforestry Centre, an international non-governmental research organisation. One is the African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC). The other is the African Plant Breeding Academy. The AOCC’s task is to obtain complete sequences of the DNA of 101 neglected food crops

Breeding and disseminating new crops is a long-winded business, but a DNA-based approach has already shown promise. One scientist who is embracing it is Robert Mwanga of the International Potato Centre. Dr Mwanga was an early proponent of the scientific improvement of African crops. His own work, for which he was awarded the World Food prize in 2016, is on sweet potatoes. The varieties of these root-tubers that were popular in Uganda, his native land, and other parts of Africa in the mid-1980s, when he began his studies, are deficient in vitamin A. A lack of this vitamin damages children’s eyesight and opens them to infection by such things as measles. This is a disease that can kill, and, if it does not, it can cause brain damage.  Starting with Asian varieties that had more vitamin A in them, Dr Mwanga bred a dozen strains that are vitamin-A rich and have more dry matter (and thus more calorific value) than African landraces. He then led a campaign to encourage local farmers to adopt his novelties—which they did…

Julia Sibiya of the University of KwaZulu Natal, in Durban, meanwhile, is working on sorghum, another under-studied African crop. She is also working with Dr Achigan-Dako to set up MoBreed, a pan-African collaboration with the self-appointed task of improving ten orphan crops, including Kersting’s groundnut, the African custard apple and fonio, a type of millet.

Happiness Oselebe… is even more ambitious. Dr Oselebe works at Ebonyi State University in Nigeria. Not content with improving existing crops, she wants to create a new one by domesticating serendipity berries. These are wild vines that produce a protein 3,000 times as sweet as table sugar. That, she thinks, could be the starting-point not merely for something grown for local consumption, but of an industrial-scale cash crop.

Excerpts from Nutrition and Genetics in Africa, Economist, Nov 25, 2017