Giles Oldroyd. Oldroyd is one of a group of researchers at the John Innes Centre — an independent plant research facility in Norwich, England — who received a grant from the Gates Foundation to look at ways to make crops more nitrogen efficient. Although nitrogen fertilizers have been a boon to productivity, they’re very expensive and excess nitrogen leads to a host of environmental problems. One such example of the impact of excess nitrogen is the Dead Zone — nearly the size of Connecticut — growing in the Gulf of Mexico. Specifically, Oldroyd is looking at engineering maize to minimize the need for nitrogen fertilizers. Not only could this help farmers in Africa, who don’t have the money to buy productivity boosting fertilizers, it also could ulitimately radically reduce the use of nitrogen fertilizers in the United States, the world’s largest corn grower. Given the environmental side-effects of nitrogen fertilizer, the United Nations Environmental Program has called for a reducing nitrogen use by 20 million tonnes each year –ag biotech is one way of helping reach that goal.
Pamela Ronald. Ronald, a plant geneticist, along with her husband, Raoul Adamchak, an organic farmer, co- authored Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food, a must-read for anyone interested in the ecological argument for crop biotechnology. Tomorrow’s Table highlights the many ways in which genetic engineering and organic farming can work as partners in achieving sustainable goals. (If you don’t have time for a full read, here’s an NY Times article “Can We Feed the World Without Damaging It” AND you can read about Ronald in my book, The Taste of Tomorrow — as it had a huge influence on me) In the lab, Ronald has worked to develop strains of flood-tolerant rice that are critically important — life-savers — in parts of the world, such as Indonesia and Bangladesh, where flooding destroys 4 million tones of rice each year. Ronald’s rice has now reached over 1 million farmers.
Autar Matoo— A US government crop scientist for more than 20 years, Matoo was one of the first to explore how molecular knowledge could help organic farmers. More than a decade ago, Matoo started looking at the mulching techniques of tomato growers. Yes, genetic techniques could help organic farmers make more sustainable decisions. (The myth that organic and genetic engineering are polar opposites, at odds with each other, must be obliterated — see Tomorrow’s Table) Matoo has also discussed how biotechnology could be used to modify the taste of a tomato. For more on Matoo, take a look at this piece in Food and Wine, in which he talks about how silencing genes could change the flavor of a tomato and how his work could benefit small farmers.
Dennis Gonsalves — Gonsalves is a Cornell University geneticist, now with the USDA, who is breeder of the best-known publicly-funded genetically engineered crop in the world —the Red Sun papaya. The fruit is not only credited with saving the Hawaiian papaya industry, it’s also a glimpse at a kind of genetic engineering that we need much, much more of. Not corporate-controlled. Not herbicide tolerant. Here’s an excellent account of the Gonsalves story, “The Curious Case of the Genetically Modified Papaya.” in the “It’s Not Easy To Be Green” blog.
Richard Jefferson — If you don’t like the monopolistic practices of the Big Six, instead of giving it all up, and ceding the technology to Monsanto, and saying GE = Corporate tool=end of story, consider a another far-more helpful approach, being championed by Richard Jefferson, an American molecular biologist based in Australia. In 2005, Jefferson realized how ridiculous IP patent ownership had become and how it was thwarting the use of biotechnology for people/problems in need. So in response he started the BiOS Initiative (Biological Innovation for Open Society). Based on the same open-source philosophy as the UNIX or Linux operating systems, the goal of BIOS is to “democratize” the technology, so that it can be used to respond to inequities in food security, nutrition, health, natural resource management and energy.
Kent Bradford — Bradford, director of the Seed Biotechnology Center at UC-Davis, had a big influence on my thinking about the role of genetic engineering in sustainable agriculture. Here’s one excellent piece by Bradford — especially for those who assume genetic engineering is at odds with their support of small, local, organic farmers. Bradford, who figures prominently in The Taste of Tomorrow, introduced me to the idea of The Genetically Engineered Heirloom Tomato, which is discussed here.
The Gates Foundation — No one has been more generous in supporting humanitarian use of genetic engineering than the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. One example: Gates has given $11.9 to support the Virus Resistant Cassava For Africa (VIRCA) project. Though it’s virtually unknown in North America, cassava is a staple food crop – like potatoes — for over 200 million sub-Saharan Africans. Cassava is a tough crop — it can deal with droughts and poor land, and its good for subsistence farmers. But over one-third of Africa’s harvest is lost each year to diseases–a problem that leaves millions on the brink of famine. By using gene silencing in transgenic cassava plants, the Gates funded VIRCA project hopes to create resistance to both of these diseases. This is critical because millions of Africans depend on cassava — that can resist deadly viruses. Another Gates funded project is using genetic engineering to make cassava more nutritious.
Rothamsted Research — Rothamsted, an agricultural research station in the UK that has been operating since the 1840s, hasn’t attracted much attention during the past 180 years. But last year, that changed when a group of protestor destroyed some GE wheat crops. That’s a damn shame. Rothamsted research, an independent charitable, organization supported by grants, which is trying to develop an aphid-resistant variety of wheat that increase wheat yields by 30 percent.
The International Rice Research Institute. The IRRI, based in the Philippines, is working with leading nutrition and agricultural research organizations to develop and evaluate Golden Rice as a potential new way to reduce vitamin A deficiency in the Philippines and Bangladesh.
To be continued..