The Null Device

Frankenfoods will save us all

Contrarian idea of the day: genetically engineered organisms may be our best hope for averting environmental catastrophe: (via worldchanging)
In 2001 a group of scientists announced that they had engineered a transgenic tomato plant able to thrive on salty water--water, in fact, almost half as salty as seawater, and fifty times as salty as tomatoes can ordinarily abide.
Salt-tolerant crops might bring millions of acres of wounded or crippled land back into production. "And it gets better," Alex Avery told me. The transgenic tomato plants take up and sequester in their leaves as much as six or seven percent of their weight in sodium. "Theoretically," Alex said, "you could reclaim a salt-contaminated field by growing enough of these crops to remove the salts from the soil."
most agronomists agree that some substantial yield improvements are still to be had from advances in conventional breeding, fertilizers, herbicides, and other Green Revolution standbys. But it seems pretty clear that biotechnology holds more promise--probably much more. Recall that world food output will need to at least double and possibly triple over the next several decades. Even if production could be increased that much using conventional technology, which is doubtful, the required amounts of pesticide and fertilizer and other polluting chemicals would be immense. If properly developed, disseminated, and used, genetically modified crops might well be the best hope the planet has got.

Of course, to the Khmer Vert that is the dogmatic wing of the Green movement, any tampering with Mother Gaia's blessing is anathema and an absolute evil, so they won't have a bar of this. Though hopefully more neophilic heads will prevail, when people realise that we can't return to an idealised, "natural" hunter-gatherer subsistence lifestyle. Human civilisation, in its present form, is deeply unnatural and dependent on technology, and the only way to reduce its footprint on the planet will be by technological means.

There are 2 comments on "Frankenfoods will save us all":

Posted by: gjw Tue Nov 25 12:53:32 2003

There's a good paper I read a while back, which argued that genetic modifications are unlikely to improve food output for at least 30 years. The current efforts only make minor changes to growth rates, nutrient requirements etc. which in many crop species are essentially maxed-out already. Real breakthroughs, like converting C3 plants to C4 plants, are currently out of the question. (Quarterly Review of Biology, 78 (2) 145-168)

As for GM plants being useful in salinity remediation, it's certainly possible, but there are plenty of plants that do that anyway (not to mention heavy-metal remediation). That's what I get paid for ;)

Posted by: acb Tue Nov 25 13:12:44 2003

Still, even if the current generation of GM doesn't produce a spectacular breakthrough, the next one might, or the one after that.

Given that, in theory, organisms could be made to produce anything an organism produces and grow in many forms, all sorts of things are possible, and I suspect that the only barrier to farming deserts, oceans and what have you is our technological level.

And then there are the prospects of pollution-eating bacteria and other non-edible applications of biotech.