Naturally ingenious crops

It doesn’t take a laboratory team meddling with DNA to create more robust or more nutritious crops. Check out these natural winners.

November 21, 2014 by Pat Thomas

Photo: Bigstock

It doesn’t take a laboratory team meddling with DNA to create crops better able to cope with environmental challenges or to meet nutritional shortcomings.

Conventional crop breeding programs are rising to the challenge and achieving results that are low in development costs, and are already out in the field. Here’s our ‘roundup’ of natural winners.

Salt pollution of soils

Across the globe, an estimated 62,000 million hectares of once productive farmland is now deeply affected by salt. That’s an area approximately the size of France. Add to this the fact that fresh water scarcity is one of the world’s most critical problems today and we can see why the goal of creating crops that can grow on salty soil, or that be watered with a dilution of sea water rather than fresh, gathers such excitement.

GM proponents have allegedly been on the verge of releasing saline tolerant crops for years, but none are as yet commercially available. In contrast, conventionally bred varieties however are taking great leaps forwards.

Naturally bred solution 1: the salt-loving spud Winning the Climate Adaptation Business Challenge in November 2013, and the USAid Grand Challenge award in October 2014, the saline-resistant Texel potato is four times more salt resistant then standard varieties. In field trials the potato crop was watered with diluted seawater.

According to the Dutch team, the salt concentrates in the leaves of the plant, so the potato itself remains safe to eat. Several tonnes of Texel spuds are about to be planted in Pakistan on salinated land. Should they flourish, the potential for food production in areas prone to flooding could transform millions of lives.

Naturally bred solution 2: a seed loan from the biodiversity bank The Navdanya network of 54 seed banks across India, founded by environmentalist Vandana Shiva, houses over 1,300 varieties of indigenous seeds, including more than 500 varieties of rice and over 100 varieties of wheat.

By interviewing farmers whose crops survived natural disasters, the bank has amassed a collection of drought-resistant, flood-resistant and salt-resistant indigenous seeds – made freely available to local farmers with the request to return their original stake after harvest. In 1999, after a cyclone devastated Orissa, and in 2004 after the tsunami that devastated Tamil Nadu, (when scientists declared that salt-drenched land would be unfarmable for at least 5 years), salt-tolerant rice seeds from the Navdanya seed bank were distributed, enabling the farmers to continue production.

Many more projects are underway, or in (salty) fields already, including salt-resistant rice and wheat.

Fighting free radicals

Antioxidants are nutrients that help protect our cells from damage caused by free radicals — rogue molecules that attack healthy cells. Oxidative stress caused by free radicals contributes to the development of many chronic and degenerative diseases, including heart disease and some cancers.

In 2008 scientists launched a genetically modified purple tomato, spliced with with snapdragon genes, boasting high levels of antioxidants. Hailed by some overexcited media as a “cure for cancer”, the initial flurry of excitement was swiftly followed by a flood of criticisms, including negative responses from both the NHS and Cancer Research UK, for over egging trial results and making vast leaps in conclusions. But was it really even necessary?

Naturally bred solution: the purple tomato (amongst others) Antioxidant rich flavonoids (anthocyanins) are present in many common fruit and vegetables including raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, plums, black grapes, red onions, red cabbage and aubergines. As nutritionists often advice – eating a rainbow (a wide range of brightly coloured fresh fruit and vegetables) is a great way of boosting the beneficial nutrients in our diet.

But if tomatoes are your particular passion, or if, indeed,, as the developers suggest, the purple tomato is more likely to be eaten than other anthocyanin-rich fruit or vegetables (for example in fast foods such as pizza sauce and ketchup) why not consider the natural option. There are naturally bred purple tomato varieties available, including the Indigo Rose variety (conventionally) developed by Oregon State University.

Vitamin A deficiency

The World Health Organization declares Vitamin A deficiency to be the leading cause of preventable blindness in children, and that it increases the risk of severe illness or death from common childhood infections as diarrhoeal disease and measles. Vitamin A is found in the diet in two forms. Preformed vitamin A is gained from meat, fish and dairy. Pro vitamin A, which the body converts into vitamin A, is found in plant-based foods such as fruits and vegetables, especially those that are orange or dark green in colour.

The most common type of pro-vitamin A is the antioxidant beta-carotene. Most projects aim to tackle vitamin A deficiency through supplementation or biofortification of staple foods with beta-carotene. People suffering from vitamin A deficiency through poor diets are often lacking in other vital nutrients, including ones important to the absorption of vitamin A, such as fat. Other strategies therefore need to be in place to increase household food security and access to markets to increase food availability and diversify diets.

Probably the best-known GM project to create biofortified food via biotechnology is the development of rice enriched with beta-carotene, known as ‘golden rice’ a novel food that has been dogged with controversy since it first appeared

After more than a decade’s worth of research, this is still not commercially available and indeed is such a complex novel food that regulators don’t know how to regulate it. Worse a recent research paper on golden rice was retracted when it became clear that subjects being fed the experimental food could not have given full informed consent to participate in the trial. Neither the children nor their parents were told the rice was GM, nor were they informed of the possible risks.

Likewise, the GM super banana, developed in Australia with a $15 million grant from the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation, is currently being market tested on a small number of Americans before a proposed commercial release to Uganda in 2020. Unlike the pale fleshed commercially exported banana variety, Cavendish, which comprises around 40% of global production, the ‘super’ banana is rich in beta-carotene.

From the outside it looks like the average commercial banana, but inside the flesh is yellower, with orange ‘flecks’ of concentrated betacarotene. The gene introduced into the GM ‘super’ banana comes from the Asupina, a natural fei banana variety collected in Papua New Guinea as part of a publicly-funded mission around 25 years before.

Naturally bred solution 1: Back to basics with the fei banana

Once a staple domesticated food in micronesia, fei bananas became increasingly rare following the introduction of imported commercial banana varieties. Following research on the qualities of the indigenous species, a number of projects are already in place to encourage a shift back to local varieties for their superior nutritional benefits. Indigenous groups and biodiversity campaigners, including Vandana Shiva are calling the GM version, with its patented DNA, a clear case of biopiracy.

Naturally bred solution 2: Corn with A clout Researchers from Purdue University, USA, discovered a method of naturally selecting gene variations to achieve ‘orange’ corn with higher levels of pro vitamin A carotenoids.

The procedure enabled plant breeders to develop naturally biofortified corn. Orange corn is already being grown in Zambia, Nigeria, Ghana and Zimbabwe, though work will continue to develop corn with sufficiently high levels of pro vitamin A to reduce the level of consumption needed to achieve beneficial dietary requirements.

Undernourishment in the developing world

Cassava’s starchy roots form a substantial portion of the diet of nearly 600 million people worldwide. By growing plant with larger roots, volume of food supply could be increased. Nutritional quality of course, is another issue. The GM solution is to super size the humble cassava. A team at Ohio University introduced a bacterial gene that increased starch production and led to roots more than double in size.

Naturally bred solution: extra super size cassava! In reply to the publication of the above research, Nagib Nassar, agronomist from the University of Brasilia, Brazil, and Rodomiro Ortiz, agronomist from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, Mexico countered that cassava were already being grown with far greater roots simply by crossing hybridised cassava (Manihot esculenta) with the related wild species (Manihot caerulescens). In addition, the hybridisation led to a variety with 50 times as much beta-carotene as typical cassava, and another with five per cent protein content, compared with the usual 1.5%.

Low fish stocks vs high demand for fish oil

There are many health benefits in eating a diet rich in oily fish, or some source of omega 3 essential fatty acids. Fish stocks are dwindling, and there are concerns over heavy metal and chemical contamination levels in some species such as king mackerel and fish-farm salmon. Global sales of packaged omega 3 products (supplements, food and drink including baby milk formula) reached estimated sales of $33 billion in 2012.

GM’s answer to this dilemma is a ‘flax’ plant that produced fish oil. Earlier this year Rothamstead applied to grow a open-air trials of false flax (Camelina sativa) engineered with synthetic marine algae genes to trigger the production of omega-3 acids usually found in fish oil. One of the uses for such oil is likely to be feed for industrially farmed fish, whose unnatural diets mean their flesh typically lacks the omega-3 found in wild species. Note that the purpose of this GM solution is not to feed people but to feed our greed for farmed salmon.

Naturally bred solution 1: Ahiflower Ahi flower oil is a non-GM, proprietary, branded form of Buglossoides arvensis seed oil (common name: Corn Gromwell, a member of the borage family). It has exceptionally high levels of omega-3 specifically, stearidonic acid (SDA) which is said to convert to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) at a rate of up to five times that of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA, the omega-3 found in marine oils) in the human body, and omega-6 gamma-linolenic acid (GLA).

There are of course many other wonderful plant sources of nutritionally beneficial omega-3 and -6 essential fatty acids including evening primrose, hemp, and flax and recent evidence suggests that plant derived omega-3 is just as heart healthy are marine derived omega-3. In this, as in so many nutritional dilemmas, variety in your diet is likely to be the key to better overall health.

Do we need GM to produce healthy food?

It is interesting to note what role genetic engineering has in the development of new ‘biotech’ patentable crop varieties. In contrast to the examples above, quite often the genes added are not in fact to do with the targeted role.

Typically GM industries use conventional breeding to develop new crops with target traits such as drought resistance or superior nutritional profiles. Once the new variety is created, genetic modification is used to add in the company’s proprietary genes, so they can then patent and own the crop.

The GM tweak is often herbicide or pesticide tolerant aspect that adds nothing to the nutritional or agronomic performance of the crop at all. What we are seeing is developers rifling through biodiversity troves, selecting and conventionally breeding with commercial varieties, then adding a tweak to create ownership, then selling the patented varieties back to the local markets with legal clauses around seed ownership.

And yet, there are many novel projects through conventional breeding techniques – blight resistant potatoes, aphid-resistant soybeans, ‘Green Super Rice’ bred for high yield and super resistance, high-yield pest-resistant chickpeas, low-allergy peanuts, iron-rich millet to name a few.

The key to a sustainable future lies in ensuring that we protect the wide biodiversity of plant species across the globe to give a wide selection to breed from, coupled with development programs to increase household food security, instead of giving in to a reductionist commercialist view which will only ever serve the purposes of an elite minority.

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