Future approach of genetics in agriculture

July 30, 2009

Where we will decide of our future...

Genetic engineering, that we just mentioned, and traditional breeding and will be increasing intertwined in the future, as they will join their respective areas of expertise into combined genetic improvement programs. Actually, we can expect that these two disciplines will be merged into only one unified science of DNA. We can expect to see an increased number of joint ventures and mergers between genetic selection companies and biotech companies in the future.

So far, genetic engineering has been mostly known to the public opinion thanks to the development of GMOs (genetically modified organisms), and this has been a very controversial area. Genetic engineering will move from a support activity to, for instance, herbicides, to address much more real problems and bring much more real solutions to the challenges of the agriculture of tomorrow. GMOs have served the sales of herbicides produced by the same companies quite well, but of course, this will plateau rather soon, and there will be a need for something else to impress the financial markets. It should not be a surprise to see these corporations specialize in biotech completely, and divest their chemicals “heritage” at some point in the future. The real problems to solve include a broad range of topics. They include technical performance and yields of plants and farm animals. Genetic engineering will help increase the efficiency in the conversion of nutrients and water. It will help plants and animals to have a stronger resistance to diseases, in order to avoid severe production losses. It will provide alternatives to antibiotics, to herbicides and pesticides. It will find ways for plants to absorb or fix the nitrogen of the air to reduce the use of mineral fertilizers. Another area of research will be influencing the quality of final agricultural products, in particular producing healthier foods, and have plants produce medicines.

To solve such problems, the people in charge of such programs will have a very heavy moral responsibility towards society, as the choices they will make will affect the longer term and our ability to survive. The success criteria will go much beyond the financial performance of these companies. This will be translated in the type of bonus packages that the executives will receive. One can wonder whether the correct structure for such companies is to be publicly traded, since stock markets tend to induce a very strong preference to the short-term financial performance. The reflection on such programs will need to go through a serious test of “what ifs”. As per now, money still is the main driver, especially in the arguments of the producing companies and countries. For instance, they reiterate that the decision of the European Union to limit the production and use of GMO will make food more expensive in these countries. Then let’s ask ourselves what if the EU is wrong in their decision? Well, production systems and agriculture would not change much; their food might indeed be more expensive than somewhere else. The people will buy smaller cars and travel less far for their vacation. This is not a very threatening situation if you ask me. What if the ones in favor of GMOs are wrong and the EU is right? The debate is indeed very emotional and political, but this is simply because we lack long term testing of the effects of GMOs to have certainty. This is why the GMO producers have such a hard time convincing their opponents.

More than one species, a whole ecosystem

A better understanding and predictability of long-term effects is paramount in agriculture and food production. Agriculture is not just about producing a particular crop, it is also about managing the total ecosystem that a field is. Actions in genetics need to guarantee the long-term balance of these ecosystems (in which weeds, although of no economic interest, are a part of), because once an ecosystem has been altered, it has been changed forever. Genetic improvement programs must ensure to preserve, in whichever form, genetic diversity and survival of vegetal and animal species, because once extinct, they are lost forever. Long-term fertility of soils is another highly critical part of the protection of our food supplies, because once sterile, the land is lost forever.

So, as you see, we are facing many challenges and genetics is a key element of our food systems. By shifting away of rather superfluous projects, even though they have been quite lucrative for the producers; and by focusing more on true improvement and sustainability of production systems thanks to technical breakthroughs, a combined breeding and genetic engineering will bring constructive solutions. All it will require from the stakeholders is vigilance.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Sustainability: As Natural As Balance

June 2, 2009

With the increasing awareness about climate change and our endangered environment, sustainability has become a widespread concept through all industries and the food value chains have embraced it like everyone else.

Yet, I do not quite understand why sustainability seems to be such a “revelation”, or even almost a revolutionary idea. Sustainability is the way that our societies have lived for thousands of years, probably because scarcity of goods made conserving and recycling a necessity of survival. Only over the last 50 years or so have we seemed to forget about it, because of our consuming frenzy and the abundance of goods that we thought to be about infinite.

To put the importance, and the obvious need for sustainability, let’s just look at its definition. What is not sustainable disappears. There is no need for any further philosophical or political discussion. Survival can (note that I only say can) come only from sustainability. All processes in nature that deal with life are all about recycling of organic matter in one form or another, and about balance. If the environment is favorable for a particular species, you will see this species thrive and its population grow quite strongly, to the point that it exceeds its abilities to provide for itself in its original ecosystem. Then, it starts to use more and other resources that nature can replace at the natural pace and this always results in a strong reduction of the population, as the weakest cannot find food and perish, or as the population density helps the spreading of diseases much faster than it would otherwise. Does this sound somehow familiar?

The soil that feeds usThere are many discussions in scientific, economic and political circles about whether we have reached such a stage either regarding pandemics or regarding food supplies. The specter of pandemics recently raised its head with the “swine flu” originating from Mexico. Last year, there were severe disruptions of food supplies in some parts of the world, not as much as the result of an actual shortage, but as the result of prices skyrocketing and fears that food would run out.

Are we about to run out of food? Malthus was warning about such a risk in the early nineteenth century, but since then, the world population has increased far further than he estimated was possible. Today, we probably are not in that dire a situation, yet the main food supply issue is more one of distribution between geographic regions. Some parts of the world are underfed while others die of all sorts of ailments related to overfeeding. This is more a matter of politics than purely of agricultural (including seafood) potential.

Sustainability is about allowing nature to do its work at its own pace. This is all about staying in balance and keeping natural cycles complete their courses. Since you cannot live without eating much more than 2 months, you cannot live without drinking for much more than 2 days and you cannot live without breathing for much more than 2 minutes, these cycles can be reduced to just a few critical areas for life:

  1. The cycle of air, necessary to remove, or to help nature remove the contaminants, so that air remains breathable.
  2. The cycle of water, necessary to remove, or to help nature remove, the contaminants that can make it undrinkable.
  3. The cycle of soils, necessary to preserve the fertility of the soils, and thus allow a continuous agricultural/livestock production to feed people.

Agricultural challenges aheadThis is why, with a growing human population, agriculture and food production at large, managed in a sustainable manner, will become increasingly strategic in the future, and sensible management of water resources will be a key factor for the success of agriculture as well.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Food production: the balancing act

May 19, 2009

Since the beginning of times, feeding a population has always been about balance.

When mankind was still in the stage of hunting, fishing and gathering, survival was about keeping resources at a level that would allow the group to keep on feeding from its close environment.
When agriculture started, followed by the domestication of what became farm animals, the idea was clearly to have more control on the resources and insure that they would be available on a more regular basis. Of course, there were times when this did not happen, but the principle has remained.
For many centuries, agriculture was a local activity. Farmers would grow a diversified group of products that insured a sustainable balance at local level. The different products were a reflection of seasons and of land diversity. They also would offer different activities, and some revenue, through the different times of the year.
Their productions were part of a cycle. For instance, farm animals would eat crops coming from the farm to produce meat, milk, eggs which are all related to the reproduction cycle and the continuation of their species. What would not be digested, as well by the farm animals as by the local human population would return to the land as manure (usually mixed with a crop by-product such as straw to provide and insulating litter), fertilizing the next round of crops. So basically, what was extracted from the Earth was returning to it, thus insuring the continuity of the system, for as long as the climate would support it.
With the growth of world population and the increasing mobility and later globalization of markets, this very local and sustainable system has evolved. Products are sold far away from their area of production; many farms have specialized and replace the manure cycle by purchase of fertilizers. Animals are fed with raw materials originating from the over side of the world. Genetics, crop engineering, technical progress have also allowed yields to sharply increase as well as the speed of the production of foodstuffs, vegetal and animal. This has benefited mankind on the shorter term because it provided more food at relatively cheaper prices, so more accessible to a larger group. This has benefited trade and business, but it has brought its toll on the balance that is the cornerstone of any biologically related activity.
For example, intensive animal husbandry was developed in poor regions, allowing farmers to have a decent revenue in areas were they could not have stayed, but as the animals were fed with non-indigenous feedstuffs, they produced massive amounts of manure that were much higher than the local ground could process. This has led to loss of soil fertility, as a result of excess phosphates in the ground, among other things. Water resources have been polluted with high level of minerals, such as nitrates making it risky to use for infants and pregnant women. The exclusive use of chemical fertilizers in crop areas, as a result of the disappearance of a mixed farming also led to lower levels of organic matter (which is crucial to fix minerals and make them fully available for plants) and has caused some severe erosion of very fertile soils. While these problems were growing in the West as we were putting too much back on the land, on the other side of the world the opposite situation was happening with an exhaustion of soils to produce crops aimed for export only, which resulted in taking more out of those soils and not returning it in the right form. Further, these regions developed very often these commercial crops on land that had been won from ecosystems such has tropical forests, which have very sensitive soils to rain, erosion and oxidation of metals such as aluminum and iron.
By bringing the natural cycles out of balance, we have weakened the Earth from providing us optimally with what feeds us. Our future and our sustainability will depend of our ability to manage this balancing act. As usual, what seems a challenge can also offer new opportunities!

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

The Ocean, not Mars is the next frontier

May 19, 2009

Sorry to crush George W.’s and Star Trek’s fans’ illusions, but I believe that colonizing oceans could offer more interesting possibilities than outerspace. Mars… well that’s another story…
OK, so, let’s start daydreaming!
First, a look at the scenery.
Close to 70% of the Earth is covered by water.
Most of that volume is left unexploited, with exception of fisheries, which unfortunately deplete stocks, mostly because there is no efficient plan to manage fish stocks in a sustainable manner.
The timid colonization efforts are limited to fairly coastal activities.

Natural resources
While on the land, it has become more and more difficult to extract metals and minerals, there is a vast hardly explored potential for these natural resources lying at the bottom of the sea. Many open-sky mines have been exploited to almost full potential. Drilling and mining at deeper and deeper levels have resulted in higher and higher costs. All things considered, it is probably cheaper to drill through a layer of (soft) water than hard rock, and there are areas known where metals are available on the surface of the oceans bottom.

Tremendous energy potential is available in and over the oceans.We have huge reserves of hydrogen in there. Of course, to produce it we will have to produce the necessary energy to split the water molecules. Using fossil fuel cannot be an option, as the gas emissions would defeat the purpose.
The great thing is that the energy needed can be found in the oceans themselves. Why not think of having large wind or solar farms located on oceans (probably not too far offshore), dedicated to splitting water and producing hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen could be used in fuel cells, and the oxygen could be used to allow the people involved in underwater activities and settlements to breathe.
Further, more electricity can be produce by using the strong currents to run through turbines.
It could be also interesting to consider the possibility to create floating solar energy farms.
It such a scenario, it is not unthinkable that all our energy needs for cars, factories and industries could come from clean emission-free electricity.

Water, and especially clean drinking water will be one of the biggest challenges that mankind is going to face in the future.
Of course, there is plenty of water in the oceans, but the main problem will be to make it drinkable.
Considering that in the fantasy I am writing here, I envision human settlements on (or in?) the oceans, there will have to be drinking water available.
Next to desalinization, the other most obvious source of drinking water is collecting rain.

Capturing carbon
There are projects of using minerals to change the pH of the sea with the hope that this would help absorb CO2 much faster than it naturally currently happens. Although, this might be our last resort if we do not get our emission under control. The problem is that we have about no idea on what the side effects on the ecosystems might be, and that is a scary thought.
Here, I want to focus on more positive ways to use ecological methods.
On the land, we are losing more and more trees as a result of our need for more and more land, and therefore we are losing the natural capacity to capture CO2.
Then why not think of replacing these lost trees by cultivating the oceans and develop large vegetal populations, in other words, grow aquatic meadows and forests?
This must be done with care of course as the ocean life is a three dimensional thing with depth playing a significant role, while on land it looks more like two dimensional (limited depth/height significance).
Another area of attention when developing such vegetal populations is to make sure they do not get out of control and impact the oceans ecology as many other species with interact with them, creating complete ecological systems and food chains.

Developing a whole new aquaculture
Here, I use this term in its literary meaning, which is cultivating the water, not just restricting it to the production of a few commercial aquatic species, as it is the case today.We should be able to cultivate the water en develop it in a similar way as we did with agriculture, but also by learning from the mistakes we have made in agriculture.The only way that the current aquaculture farms can survive is to produce (cultivate) the foodstuffs it needs in the oceans as well. Keeping on doing as today has probably not that much future, as the need for fish meal, and mostly fish oil will exceed by far the current production possibilities, and exhausting the wild stocks used for that clearly could not work. Further, replacing these foodstuffs by vegetal protein and fat from agricultural crops will not work, either, because there will be too much competition from the needs for land-based animal productions and the needs for human food. Clearly, the only way to meet the increasing needs for seafood is to grow the foodstuff in the sea.
This opens a tremendous project of picking which foodstuffs to produce in the sea, how to manage them, how to combine the mix of production and ensuring the sustainability of this new aquaculture, and at the same time ensuring that the marine ecosystems recover and function properly as well.
This will require an aquaculture of plankton, of algae, of aquatic plants, of fish, of shellfish, of mammals en maybe more.
So far we have depleted the food chains in the sea, now is the time to restore them, next to increasing our ocean-based food supplies.

The challenges
Well, you will say: that sounds all very nice but is it realistic?
And I would answer, maybe it is not quite realistic today, but if we work on it, quite a few things named above can be achieved. Actually, some have already started.
The main challenge I see is to cope with the tremendous forces that oceans can unleash, such as currents, storms, waves and pressure in the depths; and we would need to build in a way that can deal with such forces, if we want to avoid disasters.
But you have to agree that there is lots of space available on our planet this way and it here right here “at home”.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.