The struggles of producing a sustainable food source

By Jessica Leber 2 minute Read His wife once threatened to kick him out, his landlord might evict him, and he could go broke.

The struggles of producing a sustainable food source

This year it began to rain in early August. A large country house, housing the operations of Teagasc, overlooks the field trials, and well-dressed Irish and EU bureaucrats hustle in and out.

As part of an EU-wide project called Amiga to study the impact of genetically modified GM plants, Teagasc researcher Ewen Mullins is testing potatoes that are engineered to resist blight. Watch a video of Mullins and GM potatoes in Ireland at the bottom of this page or here. Bending over the conventionally bred plants, he firmly pulls back the wilted stems and leaves to show that the tubers, half-exposed in the ground, are scarred with black blotches.

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Then he picks at a green leaf from one of the genetically engineered plants, which have been modified with a blight-resistant gene from a wild potato that grows in South America. The defenses of the potato plant have fought off the spores, rendering them harmless.

But even if the results from next year are similarly encouraging, Teagasc has no intention of giving farmers access to the plant, which was developed by researchers at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

Such genetically engineered crops remain controversial in Europe, and only two are approved for planting in the EU. Though Mullins and his colleagues are eager to learn how blight affects the GM potatoes and whether the plants will affect soil microbes, distributing the modified plant in Ireland is, at least for now, a nonstarter.

Bananas, which are a primary source of food in countries such as Uganda, are often destroyed by wilt disease.

In all these cases, genetic engineering has the potential to create varieties that are far better able to withstand the onslaught.

The struggles of producing a sustainable food source

GM potatoes could also lead to a new generation of biotech foods sold directly to consumers. Though transgenic corn, soybeans, and cotton—mostly engineered to resist insects and herbicides—have been widely planted since the late s in the United States and in a smattering of other large agricultural countries, including Brazil and Canada, the corn and soybean crops go mainly into animal feed, biofuels, and cooking oils.

Drought, damaging storms, and very hot days are already taking a toll on crop yields. With the global population expected to reach more than nine billion byhowever, the world might soon be hungry for such varieties.

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Although agricultural productivity has improved dramatically over the past 50 years, economists fear that these improvements have begun to wane at a time when food demand, driven by the larger number of people and the growing appetites of wealthier populations, is expected to rise between 70 and percent by midcentury.

In particular, the rapid increases in rice and wheat yields that helped feed the world for decades are showing signs of slowing down, and production of cereals will need to more than double by to keep up. If the trend continues, production might be insufficient to meet demand unless we start using significantly more land, fertilizer, and water.

Climate change is likely to make the problem far worse, bringing higher temperatures and, in many regions, wetter conditions that spread infestations of disease and insects into new areas. Drought, damaging storms, and very hot days are already taking a toll on crop yields, and the frequency of these events is expected to increase sharply as the climate warms.

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For farmers, the effects of climate change can be simply put: If you have a relatively stable climate, you can breed crops with genetic characteristics that follow a certain profile of temperatures and rainfall.

Creating a potato variety through conventional breeding, for example, takes at least 15 years; producing a genetically modified one takes less than six months. Plant scientists are careful to note that no magical gene can be inserted into a crop to make it drought tolerant or to increase its yield—even resistance to a disease typically requires multiple genetic changes.

But many of them say genetic engineering is a versatile and essential technique.

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The corporations that helped turn genetically engineered crops into a multibillion-dollar business, including the large chemical companies Monsanto, Bayer, and DuPont, promoted the technology as part of a life science revolution that would greatly increase food production.

To be sure, bioengineered crops are a huge commercial success in some countries. The idea is simple but compelling: Surveys estimate that more than million hectares of such transgenic crops are grown worldwide.

In the United States, the majority of corn, soybeans, and cotton planted have been engineered with a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringensis—Bt—to ward off insects or with another bacterial gene to withstand herbicides.

Worldwide, 81 percent of the soybeans and 35 percent of the corn grown are biotech varieties. In India, Bt cotton was approved more than a decade ago and now represents 96 percent of the cotton grown in the country.The Struggles of Producing a Sustainable Food Source PAGES 5.

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