Food/Seeding the world with optimized species

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Improving genetics

In 1968 Paul Ehrlich wrote a book called The Population Bomb, warning that India and China were headed for catastrophic famines, as food production could not keep up with their expanding populations. Yet just six years later, in 1974, not only had the famines not materialized, but India and China were exporting grains.

What changed? High-yield, drought-resistant, semi-dwarf varieties of wheat and other crops were introduced to these countries by an initiative headed by Norman Borlaug 11px-Wikipedia_logo.jpg, "the man who fed the world". This is one dramatic example of the difference that using an optimized strain of a plant can make.

Other optimized strains have been introduced since then: NERICA rice has 2.5 times the yield of previously used strains. In 2002, a new strain of tomato was released in India that doubled yields and contains six times as much beta-carotene [1]. A new kind of pineapple was recently introduced in Cuba that has triple the yield of previous varieties [2]. There are countless more example like this, both for plants and livestock.

Borlaug achieved huge increases in yield by selective breeding. Around seventy years earlier, Luther Burbank 11px-Wikipedia_logo.jpg had achieved something similar by creating hybrids. But now, in the early 21st century, we have a third powerful tool in our quest for better plants and livestock: biotechnology.

Up until now, genetic modification of food-plants has been quite simple. Generally, a single new gene has been inserted into a plant, to cause it to produce a nutrient or a pest-repellent, or convey some other desirable trait. But due to the rapid acceleration of genomic technologies, we are about to see more complex modifications, combining multiple desirable traits in a single species. Genetic modification can even allow plants to grow in soils they otherwise could not [3], opening up whole new swathes of farmland. Biotechnology can also create microbes that help soil conditions, pest control and plant growth. Certain bacteria can significantly improve the yield and nutritional profile of a wide range of plants [4] and we are likely to improve on these even more.

Marker-assisted selection 11px-Wikipedia_logo.jpg is a simpler and cheaper means of using biotechnology to breed better strains. A number of strains are created, genetic samples are taken from each and tested for genes that indicate the desired trait - high yield, drought-resistance or whatever - and the ones that have the trait are further bred. This allows good strains to be identified very quickly.

The recent surprising trend toward 'garage' biotechnology (or 'biohacking') has an important role to play in improving strains. Genetically engineered foods have often been restricted by intellectual property laws, and the companies that have developed genetically modified organisms have not had the incentive to improve food for the greater good. The solution to this is open-source biotechnology, where the biotechnologists are motivated by curiosity and contribution. It will be interesting to see what new biotechnologies that could help feed the world come out of hackerspaces like DIYbio and BioCurious.

It is important to see genetic modification of food in its proper perspective. It is not, as some have claimed, a sufficient answer to the problems with our food system. Nor is it, as others say, inherently dangerous; the end products are not so different from those of selective breeding. Agronomic changes must change profoundly using agroecology, decentralization and other methods described on this page. Within such an improved system, genetically-modified plants have a role to play.

Using a combination of selective breeding, hybridization, genetic modification and marker-assisted selection, it is possible to create the highest-yielding, fastest-growing, most compact, hardiest, most water-efficient, most nutritious, tastiest plants that have ever existed. Combined with the high-yield farming techniques described above, this can produce an abundance of high-quality food for everyone. But first, these optimized strains must be shared —

Sharing genetic material

To start growing food, you need a rootstock (seed, spores, chicks, calves etc.) which you then multiply. For example, if you obtain a trio of rabbits to breed, a year later you can have over a hundred rabbits. The self-replicating nature of biology means its supply is unlimited — therefore rootstock should be abundant. You will not suffer scarcity if you give just a few rabbits as a rootstock to your neighbour, your orchard will not be diminished if you give away a few pips, and a farmer growing fields and fields of rice can give free seeds to his neighbour. This is a perfect milieu for a gift economy 11px-Wikipedia_logo.jpg to emerge. Traditional farming systems worked exactly like this; farmers did not pay for seeds until quite recently.

Once optimized strains are created, they can be spread around the world through free peer-to-peer exchanges. Thus the genetic resources for agriculture can become free again. This project is already well underway. Several organizations are very active in free seed exchange, such as Via Campesina, The AgriCultures Network and innumerable local groups. In Cuba, every farming community - urban as well as rural - has a community genebank where plants are bred using techniques like marker-assisted selection, and then distributed. This could be done everywhere, or genetic material could be shared on the peer-to-peer basis just described.

Local food growers can obtain free locally-adapted rootstocks from their neighbours, while more exotic fare can be obtained on websites where people give away free rootstocks, such as Bemushroomed for mushroom cultivators.

Diversifying our food sources

One of the weaknesses of the modern food system is its overdependence on a few species. Nearly all our meat comes from just five species (cows, pigs, goats, chickens and sheep), and 75% of all our food comes from just 12 plant and animal species[5]. As a result, regions unsuited to cultivating these species either are unproductive, or resort to unsustainable irrigation or fertilization to force them to grow. If we put more food on the menu, we will inevitably find species better suited to particular regions. Taking full advantage of native fruit trees in the semi-arid regions of Africa has the potential to provide food and income for millions of people[6]. Another example is the mongongo nut, which grows in sand dunes, and could potentially produce a lot of food in the desert regions of the world.