Fast-track breeding could bring a second Green Revolution
Green revolution: Fast-track breeding is beginning to develop crops that can produce more and healthier food – without controversial genetic engineering.
In Zambia during the current planting season, a corn crop will go into the fields that begins the process of rapidly boosting vitamin A content by as much ten-fold – helping to address a nutritional deficiency that causes 250,000-500,000 children to go blind annually, most of them in Africa and Asia. In China, Kenya, and Madagascar, also this planting season, farmers will put out a crop of Artemisia annua that yields 20 to 30 percent more of the chemical compound artemisinin, the basis for what is now the world’s standard treatment for malaria.Skip to next paragraph
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Both improvements are happening because of fast-track breeding technology that promises to produce a 21st-century green revolution. It is already putting more food on tables – though it’s unclear whether it can add enough food to keep pace as the world’s human population booms to 9 billion people by 2050.
Fast-track breeding is also giving agronomists a remarkable tool for quickly adapting crops to climate change and the increasing challenges of drought, flooding, emerging diseases, and shifting agricultural zones. And it can help save lives: In the absence of prevention, half those victims of vitamin A deficiency now die shortly after going blind, according to the World Health Organization; and in 2010, lack of adequate treatment – meaning artemisinin – contributed to the deaths of 655,000 children from malaria.
The fast-track technology, called marker-assisted selection (MAS), or molecular breeding, takes advantage of rapid improvements in genetic sequencing, but avoids all the regulatory and political baggage of genetic engineering. Bill Freese, a science policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit advocacy group, calls it “a perfectly acceptable tool. I don’t see any food safety issue. It can be a very useful technique if it’s used by breeders who are working in the public interest.”
Molecular breeding isn’t genetic engineering, a technology that has long alarmed critics on two counts. Its methods seem outlandish – taking genes from spiders and putting them in goats, or borrowing insect resistance from soil bacteria and transferring it into corn – and it has also seemed to benefit a handful of agribusiness giants armed with patents, at the expense of public interest.
By contrast, molecular breeding is merely a much faster and more efficient way of doing what nature and farmers have always done, by natural selection and artificial selection respectively: It takes existing genes that happen to be advantageous in a given situation and increases their frequency in a population.
In the past, farmers and breeders did it by walking around their fields and looking at individual plants or animals that seemed to have desirable traits, like greater productivity, or resistance to a particular disease. Then they went to work cross-breeding to see if they could tease out that trait and get it to appear reliably in subsequent generations. It could take decades, and success at breeding in one trait often meant bringing along some deleterious fellow traveler, or inadvertently breeding out some other essential trait.