This post was also posted on the SciLogs version of The Quiet Branches.
Two reports released in the last month talk about the state of plants. One was the more narrowly focused National Academies report on GE crops,Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects (@NASciences_Ag, #GECropStudy; 1,420 hits on Google in the past month, 92 on Google News). The other, greater in breadth, is the first edition Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew State of the World’s Plants (@kewgardens; 2400 hits on Google in past month, 233 on Google News).
The GE crop report (reviewed on the Plant Science Today Blog w/ links to further reporting on it by Mary Williams– @PlantTeaching– here) is thorough and make blanket statements applying to all GE crop plants. That is appropriate since they conclude that GE plants are not any one thing and need to be taken on a case-by-case basis, especially in light of new modification techniques like CRISPR-Cas9 that result in targeted modification, but modifications nature could conceivably create (in one implementation of CRISPR). Largely, however, the big conclusions aren’t Earth shattering. GE crops were found to be useful sometimes, certainly not a panacea, and just not that different from their non-GE counterparts. And last- agriculture, not GE crops specifically, is what can really disrupt the environment, though some GE plants, like the Bt trait have increased specificity by targeting specific pests.
Current GE crops were found to be safe to eat and are popular with farmers in several countries (especially the US), though not as affordable/accessible as they could be in poorer regions of the world in part due to a lack of infrastructure to support farmers. Credit, markets, social reforms, and growth systems/farming techniques in some parts of the world could improve yields of crops more than a GE plant alone– agriculture and feeding the world is more than just the plants involved.
These numbers really drive home just how much “dark genetics” exist even in our own terrestrial world that humans have been exploring since we evolved 200,000 years ago.
With regard to glyphosate and “superweeds”, it seems that glyphosate may be a victim of its own success– so widely adopted and used that it has driven the evolution of resistant weeds (underscoring how varying farming methods might help- however, it’s hard to blame farmers for using a product they clearly like over alternatives). The National Academies report also concludes that the final product- the modified crop by any method- is what needs assessment, not the process used to make it, whether modern (e.g. biotech) or traditional (e.g. selective breeding). New DNA sequencing and other profiling technologies can help quickly assess any new plant products in a more open and transparent regulatory schema.
The Kew Gardens report notes another disparity in agriculturally relevant plant science. Research on plant pathogens- that are a global problem- is concentrated in wealthier countries and it is unclear whether that research benefits farmers in countries that aren’t– and can’t– invest as much in it even if it’s even more critical to farmers in those countries. Farmers in the US have all sorts of benefits those in poorer nations don’t- though farming is not an easy profession anywhere. To keep up with a growing global population, one key will be spreading and adopting best practices/new methods– including the plants. Transitions could potentially be initially costly– both in financial terms and in time. Effective communication and distribution of research results across borders is an important component of managing pathogens that ignore national borders.
Plants are a major part of the medium we exist in and research on them contributes a lot more than just understanding plants. I encourage you to look at all of these reports as they all do their part to show plant science, and scientists, engaging in solving a new problem– feeding billions while maintaining ecosystems at the same time.
As I wrote about in my last post, there’s a lot of food people eat and don’t always know everything about. The Kew report observes the full genome sequence of 139 plants currently exist with 100,000 having some sequence data available, largely for classification purposes. However, even a sequenced genome is far from complete knowledge of those plants. There are almost 400,000 plants out there in the world. While we don’t eat all of them, of course, the fact remains, there’s a lot of organismal and genetic diversity out there we are completely ignorant of. According to the Kew, humans make use of ~30,000 of the world’s plants. On top of all that we don’t know, scientists document about 2,000 new plant species each year. A recent example is a new species of Monkey Puzzle tree. These numbers really drive home just how much “dark genetics” exist even in our own terrestrial world that humans have been exploring since we evolved 200,000 years ago.
The Kew report notes threats to world plants, that 1 in 5 plants, 20%, or 80,000 of the 400,000 or so plants on Earth are currently threatened due to agriculture/land uses, climate change, and many other human driven activities. That’s a lot of natural variation and potential natural products we might miss out on. A lot of discovery gone before it could be done. Medicines, promising genetics/processes that might be useful, and just a lot of enriching detail of the natural world that might be missed.
Both reports underscore the importance of investing in plant science and science more generally (see Fascination of Plants Day #fopd for more, May 18, each year). Despite our depnedence on them, plants aren’t always obvious to us. Other areas of scientific inquiry seem more so: space, animals and The Earth itself are all rather obvious points of curiosity/exploration. Investment in plant science and agriculture research, not just biotech, is less obvious, but critical. For an example of precisely what funding plant– life– science looks like, The Boyce Thompson Institute (@BTIscience) has also just published their annual report (pdf) showing what kinds of projects their scientists engage in. Of course, along with funding, training of new scientists and structural reforms to how STEM is structured may well be needed for a sustainable future– plant science faces the same structural issues as all other sciences.
Science funding for science has been flat at best the last few years, and often it’s the less obvious and glamorous fields that are more squeezed– ecology, botany, and basic plant science come to mind. Plants are a major part of the medium we exist in and research on them contributes a lot more than just understanding plants. I encourage you to look at all of these reports as they all do their part to show plant science, and scientists, engaging in solving a new problem– feeding billions while maintaining ecosystems at the same time.