Agriculture might not strike you as humanity’s first scientific endeavor. Familiar images of farmers tilling their fields or cowboys tending to their cattle evoke a nostalgia at odds with the test tubes and lab coats that have come to signify modern science. Yet agriculture represents one of the first successful applications of science to a problem that has dogged human civilization since its inception: how to feed many people without year-round hunting and gathering.
Just as the practice of agriculture has evolved over thousands of years, so has our understanding of its biological underpinnings. The emergence of modern genetics in the last century has given way to more efficient manipulation of crop traits during selective breeding, spurring the development of everything from the Honeycrisp apple to genetically modified (GM) insect-resistant corn. Largely thanks to the dominance of a handful of GM cash crops on American farms, the public has become increasingly wary of the role of biotechnology in agriculture, putting the long-symbiotic relationship between science and farming up in the air.
In 1998, the European Union placed a moratorium on GM crop and seed importation. UC Berkeley professor and plant geneticist Peggy Lemaux had been working on GM crops for nearly a decade at that point, and she has noticed over the course of her career that anti-GM sentiment rarely bears any relation to the technology itself. “In my opinion, it really doesn’t have to do with the genes that are put in, or how they’re put in. It has to do with who’s doing it, who’s controlling the food supply,” she says.
For academics like Lemaux, the story of misplaced anti-GM sentiment was all too familiar. Lemaux developed GM crops to improve sustainability, but each of her sustainable crop varieties hit a brick wall when she tried to commercialize them. Lemaux’s GM crop projects ended up in the basement of Koshland Hall, seeds safely stored in the hopes of one day being commercialized.
Lemaux quickly rattled off three examples. “We created a barley variety that was fast-germinating. It would’ve saved millions of dollars for the brewing industries, but it didn’t go anywhere. We developed hypoallergenic wheat, which was less allergenic, so more people could eat [wheat]. We’ve also worked on genetic strategies to prevent pre-harvest sprouting, which causes millions of dollars a year in losses of wheat and similar grains, a problem that is likely to increase with global climate change. That didn’t go anywhere, except in China, where it is being commercialized by Chinese colleagues.”
The GM controversy may remain unresolved for some time, but Berkeley scientists are hopeful their projects will make it out of the lab and into a world in need of agricultural innovation. Lemaux, having already dedicated so much energy into GM food crops that were never given their chance to shine, is shifting gears. “My lab is now involved in bioenergy. We’re engineering tobacco to make what they call ‘drop-in’ fuels, which are fuels extractable from leaves that you can use directly as gas or plane fuel,” she says. GM tobacco destined for fuel would avoid the regulatory mess surrounding GM foods; in fact it has governmental support from the Department of Energy. “It’ll be interesting to see how such engineering in a non-food/non-feed crop for bioenergy plays out in the marketplace,” says Lemaux.
Read the full, original article: GM to Order