Massachusetts Lab using plant Genetics
A Massachusetts lab is using plant genetics to change how crops are grown and increase food output. This type of innovation is the future of agriculture and will help feed the world.
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By Dean Cray, opinion guest column. • June 26, 2019 11:03 am
For centuries, physicians have been controlling human diseases using all the tools available to them: proper nutrition of patients, sanitation, early disease diagnosis and intervention through medicines, including those derived from natural sources, chemicals and with more recent innovations, such as gene editing.
Likewise, farmers also control plant and animal diseases using the same approaches — proper plant and animal nutrition, sanitation, early disease diagnosis and intervention through natural, chemical and genetic sources.
The terms vary, but the products used to control diseases are analogous. If the affected organism is a human, the common term is medicine. If it’s an animal, the term is veterinary medicine. If it’s a plant, the term is pesticide. The word pesticide doesn’t sound as soothing or healing, but pesticides are indeed plant medicines. And there are several kinds of pesticides.
Many of the stressors plaguing these different fields of work are the same — bacteria, insects, fungi, viruses, etc. And they all have an equivalent objective: effective human, plant and animal health management.
To achieve that, each relies on a known set of approaches: identify the problem, quarantine the impacted areas so that the disease doesn’t spread, and implement evidenced-based strategies to ensure a healthy result. In farming and land management, that includes techniques such as crop rotation, use of more tolerant varieties of plants, targeted soil nutrition and manipulation of harvest dates to avoid blight or insect infestations.
It’s only when other approaches don’t provide adequate control that other scientifically-proven interventions are brought into the picture such as chemical and gene editing treatments.
Indeed, these are the principles that form the basis of integrated pest management, where several approaches are incorporated into a holistic, comprehensive and sustainable treatment plan that is environmentally sound and cost effective.
Simply stated, integrated pest management is the most effective tool we have available to protect our health and that of crops and the environment. For the eight years that I served as a state representative on the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, integrated pest management was by statute and I believe still is the policy of the state of Maine. But several towns and cities are attempting to take away a key element of integrated pest management by passing or voting on municipal ordinances that preclude the use of synthetic pesticide applications not just on town owned property, but also on privately owned residential lawns and lawns and gardens.
This is a misguided solution in search of a problem and an infringement on our private property rights. When used following the directions, these applications aren’t harmful. To quote the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, integrated pest management “is a comprehensive, decision-making process for solving pest problems in both agricultural and non-agricultural settings,” and by using it, “informed decisions can be implemented to achieve optimum results in ways that minimize economic, health, and environmental risks.” And the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest Pesticide Data Program annual survey corroborates that integrated pest management is working.
We can all relate to wanting our families to live in a non-toxic environment, but banning the use of synthetic pesticides will simply mean residents will lose the ability to choose how to protect their properties.
Often a treatment plan involves several strategies. The same goes for a healthy garden and backyard. Just as physicians cannot always effectively protect us from human maladies without chemical interventions, neither can farmers, foresters, landscapers nor passionate gardeners when disease or insect outbreaks strike. Think browntail moths, West Nile virus, avian flu, poison ivy or encephalitis.
These problems impact not just vegetation, but humans as well. That’s why integrated pest management is the most effective tool we have to protect our health, crops and environment. Towns and cities should not be precluding its use.
Dean Cray is a Somerset County commissioner and former state representative who served on the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
New tech might avoid public unease with GMOs
WILLIAM SMITH May 24, 2019
THE NEW ENGLAND life sciences industry has produced an explosion of therapies for small patient populations with rare diseases. Last year, fully half of newly approved drugs were for these smaller populations.
While emerging biotech therapies provide hope for small clusters of human patients with rare diseases, when deployed to the agricultural sector, biotech advances the promise nourishment for tens of millions who may otherwise face food shortages that are increasingly exacerbated by drought and pestilence. When it comes to agriculture, biotech not only provides hope that the many might avoid food scarcity but also represents a promising opportunity for the New England economy.
The problem of future food supplies is a real one. After a decade of decline, the number of undernourished people has risen to 821 million as of last year. Millions are leaving farms and crowding into cities where the food chain cannot keep up. The planet is adding 80 million people every year while arable land is shrinking.
Without biotech breakthroughs to improve the yield of crops and protect them from disease, drought and pests, our ability to feed a growing population is uncertain. When it comes to solutions to the food supply problem, the United Nations has recognized that: “biotechnology can be of significant assistance in meeting the needs of an expanding and increasingly urbanized population.”
While Massachusetts is always on the forefront of human biotech science, it is poised to have a disproportionate role in agricultural science breakthroughs that will help feed the world because of the expertise found here in gene editing techniques. The agricultural science advances most likely to boost crop yields will come from more precise gene editing technologies. As the Scientific American recently wrote of gene editing: “It’s difficult to overstate the importance of this new revolution in plant breeding.”
Gene editing for plants is not only amazing science but it will also likely bring greater consumer acceptance than previous attempts to genetically modify plants. New plant breeds based upon recent advances in gene editing should not create the discomfort among consumers brought on by genetically modified foods (GMOs). While GMO foods have a good safety record, some people have nonetheless been uncomfortable with the fact that such genetic modifications involve bringing foreign genetic material into the plant. At the time GMO foods were invented, the technology simply did not exist to modify the plant’s own genetic material. But recent advances in gene editing will ensure that plants are modified using solely their own genetic material, producing not only highly natural plants, but stronger ones with greater yields. Gene editing of plants is essentially an accelerated form of plant breeding, a process farmers have been using for thousands of years.Meet the Author
Visiting Fellow, Pioneer InstituteBio »Latest Stories »Because the Commonwealth’s companies and academic organizations are exploring some of the most promising gene editing technologies, Massachusetts-born ideas will likely be driving the food revolution. Last year, for example, the Broad Institute in Cambridge, licensed its promising CRISPR gene editing technology to agricultural giant Monsanto (soon to be Bayer Crop Science). Even small fruit and vegetable farmers in Massachusetts will benefit if they can breed heartier crops less susceptible to rot and pestilence.
As with any new technology, there will be potential dangers to avoid. No one, for example, should want to create a new genetically modified tobacco plant that is more addictive for humans. Yet the upside of this food revolution could be staggering, with dramatic advances for farmers in developing countries who will be capable of growing robust and resilient crops for local populations. Massachusetts should take pride in the potentially revolutionary benefits of this hometown science.
Curious about what gene editing is? Watch this video to learn how CRISPR is helping farmers grow better crops to feed our growing population.