Nov 18 2016

Improving Photosynthesis and Crop Yield

photosynthesisNo GMO currently on the market has a trait that is designed to increase crop yield. What some traits do, usually by incorporating pest resistance or drought resistance, is to reduce crop loss and improve the predictability of crop yield, which is critical for farmers.

One of the promises of GM technology, however, is that it will produce traits that will increase the potential yield of crops, allowing for the production of more food from a given amount of land. A recent study published in Science reports a significant success in doing just that, using a modification that I have not even heard of before.

I always love when that happens. I read a lot of science news, and therefore I tend to see any big advances coming because there is often a buzz for many years before the technology is ready. Every now and then a new technology or discovery hits without warning. It reminds me that there are researchers working away without hype or attention but with the potential for significant discoveries at any time.

Improving Photosynthesis

If we want to increase the amount of plant matter that can be produced from one plot of land, then we will need to increase the efficiency by which those plants convert sunlight into food. There are many potential ways to do that, but the most direct way is to improve the efficiency of photosynthesis itself. Sunlight is a fairly fixed input, so we want to turn as much of that sunlight as possible into food.

Photosynthesis is a complex 140-step process involving 30 distinct proteins, used by all plants, algae, and some bacteria to make their own food from sunlight.

Scientists have been studying this process carefully, looking specifically for opportunities to improve efficiency. Stephen Long and his colleagues, based at the the University of Illinois and the University of Lancaster, have successfully found one such process.

While plants depend on sunlight to grow, too much direct sunlight can damage plant tissue so they have evolved a mechanism to protect themselves. When the sunlight is too strong plants will dissipate excess sunlight energy as heat. When a cloud passes overhead, reducing light intensity, plants will then turn off this protective mechanism to make maximal use of the lower light levels.

However, plants are a little slow in making this switch, taking many minutes, which is a source of inefficiency. The researchers calculate that this sluggish adaptation to light levels reduces potential yield by 20%.

What the researchers did was insert extra copies of the gene that turns off the heat protective system, allowing it to switch off more quickly. They tested their modification is a tobacco plant and in a field test found that it improved plant dry matter productivity by 15%.

This protective system is common to all flowering plants and crops, and so could be incorporated broadly throughout agriculture. The researchers are now targeting soy, wheat and rice.

But…Monsanto, or something.

This breakthrough, in my opinion, illustrates the absurdity of trying to categorize all genetically modified organisms as if they were one thing, either biologically or economically. This research was conducted independently by academics working at universities, not in some corporate lab.

Of course, at some point, the technology will have to be commercialized (welcome to capitalism), which means it may be licensed to companies, or the researchers will start a company or they will sell the patent. They may also make it open source so anyone can use their technique. It’s their innovation, they can do with it what they want. I’m sure the universities will be interested in getting their cut, that is an important way that universities fund themselves. The researchers probably already have some contractual obligations to their universities.

All of this is true of any commercializable scientific discovery made by researchers working at a university.

Typically anti-GMO activist try to portray this system as somehow sinister, and also especially sinister for GMOs, which is simply not true.

Regarding the technology itself, the process does not involve an transgenes (genes from other species), which in my opinion doesn’t matter anyway, but is a big anti-GMO talking point. This is the “fishmato” propaganda strategy. This technique, however, uses genes from the plant itself and just increases the number of copies of that gene.

Implementation of the technology also is not tied to any chemicals or pesticides. The plants themselves are just inherently more efficient.

So none of the usual anti-GMO talking points apply to this technology. They will be left arguing that GM technology is inherently risky (which is demonstrably not true) or default to the even weaker position of the precautionary principle mindlessly applied.

It is the hallmark of an ideologue that their conclusion comes first and then they search for justifications for their conclusions (this is broadly true of humans, but we do this more the more invested we are in the conclusion). When the usual anti-GMO talking points don’t apply, activists simply make up other excuses for their opposition.

An intellectually honest person would at least admit an exception to their general opposition. But their opposition is not rational, it is largely based on vague gut feelings that GMOs are not “natural.” The details are backfill, and they will be creative in coming up with whatever details they can.

Golden rice is a perfect example. As with this discovery, golden rice is not the product of a corporation, it is a humanitarian project that will be available open source. There is no issue with pesticides. Increasing vitamin A content in rice is all about improving lives, and specifically saving the vision and the lives of poor children. How could you possibly oppose this technology?

Well, their invented reason is that golden rice doesn’t work (which is not true) and that other methods of vitamin A supplementation are better (which is not true). Essentially they argue that we don’t need it. If there are other methods of achieving the same goal, then we should not rely on GMOs, but that argument assumes opposition to GMOs.

I predict opposition here will be similar. Anti-GMO activists already use the ridiculous argument that we don’t need to increase yield (seriously, they say this) because we already produce enough food to feed the world. We just need to reduce waste and improve distribution of food.

While this may be literally true it misses many valid points. First, if reducing waste is so easy, why isn’t it happening? Waste costs money, so there is already an incentive to reduce it. The problems of distribution also involve complex international political and socioeconomic barriers, so good luck with that. Of course we should reduce waste and have more just food distribution, but improving yield helps too. This is especially true if we can improve yield for poor farmers in the third world, you know, where most of the hunger is.

Further, we have to be developing the technology to feed the population of 2050 and beyond, not just today. We should not wait until we can’t produce enough food to feed the world and then start working on solutions (which is essentially what they are saying). Therefore we will always be working to improve yields while we currently make enough food to feed the current population.

Finally, improving yield also impacts land use. The more food we produce per acre the less farmland we need. Even if we already produced enough food and had a stable population, increasing yields would be good for the environment because it would reduce the amount of land that needs to be converted to farmland. The single biggest stress on species (remember the butterflies) is habitat loss. Returning farmland to natural ecosystems would be a huge benefit.

But anti-GMO activists who say they support farmers and are for the environment don’t want to use technologies to improve yields.

Future possibilities

The current breakthrough, improving the off-switch for heat protection in flowering plants, could result in a significant boost to many crop yields. There are other GM projects being researched as well.

Some plants actually use a more efficient system to convert light energy to food. Researchers are trying to understand the genetics of these more efficient systems so that they can insert them into crops. This is taking time because this is not a single gene, but a suite of genes that work together in a complex way.

If successful, improved photosynthesis could give another 10-20% boost to productivity.

As with many technologies, we tend to pick the low hanging fruit first. As we try to push performance to greater and greater levels (think computer technology) we need to utilize more and more complex technology.

We may already be getting near the limit of what breeding, cultivation, and hybrids can do. If we are going to continue to improve yields, which we have to do, GM technology is likely going to be necessary.

I hope this new technology works out well and is able to be incorporated quickly into commercial crops. It’s important to show the public what the true potential of GM technology is. That is also precisely why the anti-GMO crowd must oppose it, whether or not it is rational to do so.


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