25 September 2012

Why aren't we talking about organic GMOs? And, why can't we all get along?

You've heard the rants about Mitt Monsanto versus Organic Obama. You've read the arguments on both sides for "Yes" or "No" on labeling GMOs in California. You've read the research surrounding the wholesomeness of "organic" versus "conventional." There's the divisive talk, the reasoned talk, and the rat-shi# crazy talk.

What I want to ask is this: Why aren't there more people, beyond scientists and academics, talking about organically grown GMOs? These last few weeks have had me thinking a lot about how the terms used to describe our food -- "organic," "conventional," and genetically modified" -- which only serve to confuse and distract from greater issues at hand.

The greater issues (in a nutshell): Agricultural and food scientists are given a heavy task of feeding nine billion people by 2050. Most will agree that it will come with substantial costs. Soil quality will suffer, excess pesticide and herbicide use will destroy biodiversity, nutrient runoff will keep fueling the algal booms, or "dead zones," that suffocate life in our lakes and oceans. The world's phosphorus reserves will be depleted. If you add in climate change to the mix, you can count on destroyed crops and suffering farmers, especially in the developing world. Food production will be more expensive. Food will be more expensive. Small farmers and the poorest among us will suffer.

07 September 2012

Making lazy, stupid plants work harder

Plants with larger root systems take up minerals more easily.
Plants these days. They're coddled, entitled, fed with a silver spoon.

Use of man-made fertilizer and traditional breeding, over the years, has selected for traits that led to today's modern-variety plants that grow fat with yields.

But the downside of easy access to nutrients is that it has allowed for the breeding out of desirable traits that has left plants, well, acting like enabled, spoiled children.

"They're lazy," said plant biochemist Roberto Gaxiola, an assistant professor of cellular and molecular biosciences at Arizona State University. Because nutrients are plentiful, they don't bother with growing large root systems. Yet, he explained to me, larger root systems are needed for them to take up more phosphate and nitrogen from the soil.

More now than ever, plants depend on these fertilizers for growth. Wild crop plant varieties, on the other hand, have had to evolve in an environment of everyday nutrient scarcity. It's these wild crop plant root systems that have been the focus of Gaxiola's research for more than a decade.