So yesterday I took part in a careers session for the brightest and best undergraduates in plant sciences at the Gatsby summer school. Held at the lovely Hawkhills centre near York, the idea is to enthuse these students about a potential career in plant sciences, and area which is vitally important but which has trouble attracting the best talent. It is tutored by the UK’s top plant scientists, and our session was an add-on, with six people who started out in plant scientists sharing with students about their own particular career path, showing that there are lots of different ways to use a plant science degree or PhD.
The session was followed by a barbecue, and I had a nice chance to chat with some of the scientists. One of them was Johnathan Napier, a researcher from Rothamsted, who has spent the last couple of decades working on developing trangenic (i.e. GM) crops that produce omega 3 fish oils. We had a good discussion about the role of GM in plant science, and the way that this is perceived by the public.
Why would you want to produce fish oils from plants? Principally, food security. Living in a society with surplus food, it’s often easy to ignore the grave threat that global food security faces. The world population is increasing, yet the area suitable for agriculture isn’t. In particular, water for agriculture is under threat, with the depletion and contamination of water supplies. This is going to become a huge issue, particularly in Asia. Whatever our sensitivities to GM technology, this is a powerful tool for plant scientists to use to increase food production efficiency. Currently, fish farming, for all its attendant environmental impact, is by far the most efficient way of producing animal protein. Yet much of the feed for these fish farms comes from fishing itself. A cheap, alternative plant-based source of fish oil would be really useful.
Most of the really interesting work in plant science revolves around transgenics. Yet there are big obstacles to commercializing this work. One is the societal attitudes towards GM. The opposition can be understood when it comes to the worst uses of GM: engineering herbicide resistance into crop plants so that you can then nuke fields with that herbicide and kill everything apart from the crop plant, for example. But there are elegant, beneficial uses of GM, such as golden rice, which is a beautiful bit of technology that could have had huge health benefits, and which was given as a gift by its developers, but which has been strongly opposed.
The other obstacle is intellectual property issues. Many of the techniques used to produce transgenic crops are themselves patented, and if you are going to produce a GM plant and commercialize it, then you enter an IP nightmare where you need to licence a lot of the techniques you have used in producing your GM plant. This can be a real problem, particularly if the people you are dealing with have an unrealistic view of the value of their step in the process.
What of GM vines? Vines need a lot of spraying. Agrochemical use in vineyards is really high, and there’s no way to avoid it. Even organics relies on spraying sulfur and copper to combat powdery and downy mildew. American vines are resistant to these mildews, but they make bad wine. This resistance has a fairly simple genetic basis, and it would be possible to produce GM versions of vinifera grape varieties that didn’t need spraying just by engineering in a few genes.
At the moment, any attempt to field-trial these vines would be hugely controversial, and they’d likely be ripped up by protestors who feel very strongly about this. It’s frustrating for researchers, who have this elegant technology and who could use it for clear societal benefit. I have no doubts that such GM vines would be safe, and not present a threat to the environment.
My only misgivings are the unintended consequences of such a development. One could be a loss of diversity in terms of grape varieties. People would rush to produce GM versions of famous varieties, and these would prove commercially irresistible because of the reduced cost of managing them without spraying. But what about less fashionable varieties? The cost of producing GM versions of more obscure varieties would be prohibitive. Thus GM could produce a vine variety bottleneck with undesirable consequences.