SOURCE: Huntsville Times
Huntsville, Alabama 7 September 2012 – Earth will have 2 billion more people by 2050, scientists believe, and Alabama could help develop the new plants, seeds and fertilizer to feed them.
That’s the plan of two new clients of Huntsville’s Hudson Alpha Institute for Biotechnology, who hope to take those discoveries to market.
The Kirchner Food Security Group and its affiliated Kirchner Private Capital Group announced partnerships with HudsonAlpha in February and are resident tenants at the institute in Cummings Research Park. This week, the food group’s advisory board of scientists toured HudsonAlpha’s laboratories.
Also on Kirchner’s radar is the International Fertilizer Development Center in nearby Muscle Shoals, a world authority on food production.
Kirchner scientists believe crop genetics, plant genetics and animal genetics “are the most important tools in meeting future food needs,” advisory board member Edwin Price Jr. said Friday. Price leads international agricultural research and teaching in the Texas A&M University System.
Agricultural research had slacked off in recent decades after years of abundant harvests, Price said, “and we are paying the price now” in food shortages and price instability.
Global “climate variability” is also an increasing issue, said advisory board member Gaetan Lussier. Drought this year in Canada led to lower crop yields and levels of nitrogen in corn and hay high enough to threaten animals who rely on those crops for winter feed, Lussier said. In normal rainfall years, Lussier said, plants grow tall and strong enough to release the nitrogen they absorb from the ground into the air.
Lussier is a former deputy Canadian agricultural minister and member of the food advisory board.
Some genetic modification of plants is controversial, but not all, according to a plant pathologist with the Union of Concerned Sciences. ross-breeding varieties of the same plant — wheat, for example — or using genes from different kinds of wheat to create new drought-resistant wheat are safe uses of plant genetics, said Dr. Doug Gurian-Sherman.
More controversial is transplanting genes from other sources into plants to increase their resistance to herbicides and insecticides.
“We have no intention of doing anything other than working with the genes in a plant or plant family,” Food Security Group partner Steve Dauphin said Friday. “That is the easy first step, and we believe there is a lot of good to do there.”
Price and Lussier say they basically want to accelerate the kind of plant breeding begun when Gregor Mendel founded the field of plant genetics in the 1800s.
“I have not seen yet scientific proof that changing some element of the genome ultimately creates situations that could be detrimental to your well-being,” Lussier said.
Gurian-Sherman and Lussier agree that the combined pressures of population growth, climate change, water shortages and a growing global demand for meat challenge the world’s ability to feed itself.
“There are some big challenges and they are quite real,” Gurian-Sherman said.
Gurian-Sherman prefers a response that strives to reduce food waste, lessen the growing demand for beef in Asia and uses safe plant genetics Lussier trusts science to find answers and societies to choose which answers they use.
So far, however, the breakthrough scientific answers aren’t clear, Price said. Most of the techniques science has generated are already in use.
“The answers may not be visible now,” Price said, “but that’s OK.”
That’s where research institutes like HudsonAlpha and the International Fertilizer Development Center in Muscle Shoals come in.