Different approaches to breeding and drought-resistant maize

Bestriding the world on the shoulders of giants, as we do, can cause dizzying glimpses of the obvious. Allowing farmers to participate in studies to improve their farming, for example, is a central tenet of research in poorer countries. Elsewhere, it seems to be less common and less visible, which may be why we sit up and take notice when we do see it, for example among Europe’s brassica growers.

Now, from the US, come similar stories. First off, there’s Syngenta’s drought-resistant maize which — get this! — is not genetically engineered.1 Syngenta says these varieties suffer no production penalty when there is no drought. That’s really important to farmers who might not suffer a drought, but want to be prepared just in case, and whose preparation consists of one or a few highly-tailored varieties rather than a diversity of varieties. And it is really hard to achieve.

What does drought-resistant corn have to do with participatory research? (Leaving aside the question whether Syngenta’s approach might be a better idea than a pure GM approach for poorer countries.) Just that Mat Kinase recently drew attention to something called the US Testing Network (USTN), launched in Iowa in 2009 to “develop and introduce new non-GMO corn hybrids in the market, while improving the quality and quantity of non-GMO corn hybrids available”. As Mat notes:

I couldn’t care less about avoiding transgenes, but I love the idea of small companies, public sector scientists and enthusiastic individuals working together to improve germplasm for niche markets too small for the big seed companies to serve.

That is indeed a good idea. I wonder, would Syngenta be willing to offer USTN some drought-resistant lines without engineered pest resistance and herbicide tolerance, for use in further breeding efforts to serve niche markets? I doubt that there would be any risk of those markets cannibalizing sales of Syngenta’s products.

And there’s a tantalizing tidbit in the full report on USTN that Mat linked to:

Walter Goldstein of the Michael Fields Institute, Margaret Smith at Cornell University, and Major Goodman at North Carolina State have conducted research on a trait from popcorn, GaS, which blocks incoming pollen. This trait holds promise to block cross pollination from GM corn.

Even from these lofty heights, I had not been aware of this approach, the reverse of Terminator technology, to protect plants from inadvertent cross pollination. Early reports suggest it may not be plain sailing; even so, the fact that farmers and researchers are working together to solve a problem specific to those farmers is surely welcome.

  1. Well, not entirely; the drought-resistance was selected, not engineered, but these Agrisure Artesian varieties do contain engineered pest resistance and herbicide tolerance. []

One Reply to “Different approaches to breeding and drought-resistant maize”

  1. Leaving aside the question whether Syngenta’s approach might be a better idea than a pure GM approach for poorer countries

    I’m guessing (although the article doesn’t make it totally clear) that the project being referred to is WEMA (article calls it drought tolerant maize for africa rather than water efficient – but afaik CIMMYT is involved in WEMA) in which case your characterisation of this as a pure GM approach is vastly unfair – the primary goal of WEMA is breeding drought tolerant varieties – a subsequent goal is to use a transgene (which has demonstrated capacity to improve WUE in US germplasm) to further increase WUE of the varieites produced – as such however the transgenic approach here is nothing short of a proof of concept work which will, if succesful, boost an already improved set of varieties – there is no guarantee that the transgene will work in the improved varieties but given that it’s already researched and will have full global regulatory approval by the time we know if it works or not is well worth the extra bit of effort.

    Bit of a kick in the fork to all the plant breeders and agronomists working on the project to suggest that it’s a one trick pony however (if it is then that trick is breeding – and we’ll know precisely how many tricks said pony has once the field results for the transgenics start to come in)

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