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For a long time plant science research has been unfortunately under-funded and had less attention from the public. This had led to fewer people studying it, less tool development, less technology development, and unfortunately lost time and knowledge. Personally, I love plants and eat almost only plants. I grow them inside and outside of my house. Some of my best friends, as they say.... In fact, after an undergraduate degree in microbiology I went into a plant lab. I liked the work, but it was clear that wasn't where the funding was. So after that degree, I aimed at mammalian research for my PhD. Nevertheless, I have always been interested in a wide range of species, most of which I think are valuable in their own way on the planet--and deserve focus and funding.

Sometimes pathogens are hard to love--but may be the most crucial to understand. A particularly challenging foe could be ug99. I'll introduce you to this unfriendly little fungus that could be coming to some wheat near you.

ug99 is the nickname of a strain of the organism Puccinia graminis. You can have a look at its life cycle here. For years scientists have known about this little beast, as it used to be responsible for black rust:

Before the late 1950s, the fungus was notorious for causing black stem rust, one of the most devastating diseases of wheat. Every few years, outbreaks would lay waste to entire fields somewhere in the world, sometimes sweeping across great swaths of continents in a matter of months.

Salvation came with the development of wheat varieties that resisted the disease, which are widely credited with helping to usher in the green revolution in the 1960s.

Of course, in the arms race that is biology, this wasn't the end of the story. Always the pests will up their game to defeat the plant's resistance or the pesticides farmers use. This brings us to ug99. In Uganda in 1999, a new strain of rust was found, for which the plants from the 60s have no resistance.

How serious is this? A great article on ug99 from Wired describes it:
Red Menace: Stop the Ug99 Fungus Before Its Spores Bring Starvation

Indeed, 90 percent of the world’s wheat has little or no protection against the Ug99 race of P. graminis. If nothing is done to slow the pathogen, famines could soon become the norm — from the Red Sea to the Mongolian steppe — as Ug99 annihilates a crop that provides a third of our calories. China and India, the world’s biggest wheat consumers, will once again face the threat of mass starvation, especially among their rural poor. The situation will be particularly grim in Pakistan and Afghanistan, two nations that rely heavily on wheat for sustenance and are in no position to bear added woe. Their fragile governments may not be able to survive the onslaught of Ug99 and its attendant turmoil.

Now, before you get all bent out of shape about these plants--we are not talking about GMOs here. There are no wheat GMOs in commercial cultivation.  These are conventional wheat varieties all over the world.

I recommend the Wired article for the whole story. It describes the history, the present, and looks at possible future outcomes.  Part of the history describes the delights of pre-industrial organic agriculture:

P. graminis proved to be a prolific killer throughout the ensuing centuries, regularly tormenting both Old World and New. Certain death by starvation awaited European peasants whose crops were struck, while Mesoamerican Indians learned to fear the plague they called chahuistle. And the first English settlers in Massachusetts were aghast when rust wiped out their cereal crops in the 17th century, almost causing them to starve.

The new incarnations has already harmed many subsistence farmers, the article indicates. But it is also a moving target:

Ug99 isn’t just on the march. It’s mutating, too: It has developed the ability to overcome resistance genes that were being used to combat it. At least four variants of the pathogen have been discovered to date, and each has the ability to knock out resistance genes once thought to be worthy substitutes for Sr31.

Now here's the rub for some people: biotechnology is being used to study and combat this pathogen. That means using the tools and methods of biotechnology to study the pathogen, the wheat, and to catalog and identify new resistant strains (12,000 lines of US wheat have been screened). Numerous possible interventions are being considered: using genes from resistant rice; genes from barley may convey resistance; stacking several wheat genes with smaller effects together; and other interventions based on the pathogen's genes.

What are scientists doing? Using biotechnology to speed things up:

If such markers can be identified, breeding becomes an order of magnitude easier: Seedlings can be screened in the lab to make sure they carry the desired gene combo and only the best candidates sent to Kenya. As a result, Bariana estimates that minor-gene wheats possessing near-immunity to Ug99 could be ready for widespread planting in three to four years.

What I want to know from you is this:

  • Do you really think you understand what biotech means?
  • Do you feel qualified to withhold biotech tools from scientists and farmers?
  • Are you certain that returning to pre-industrial agriculture can avoid ug99 or other pathogens? Where do you get this confidence?
  • Are you sure conventional breeding can move fast enough? How lucky do you feel?

The Guardian recently described it thus:
Combating stem rust: Uganda pest should give us food for thought
With 800 million chronically undernourished, anything that reduces the food supply has potential for tragedy

These genes must be identified, then spliced or bred into appropriate varieties and distributed to the blighted areas. All of which takes time, money, manpower and relentless scholarship....

So the new pathogen in Africa is a reminder that we need to do more than invest in aid budgets and crop science: we must learn much more about the intricate natural world around us. That means spending money on very basic research: at the grass roots, you might say.

Some people here use the the word "biotech" to mislead you. They are completely misrepresenting what it means in modern agriculture. Please become actually informed about what it is, what it means in full, and then decide if you really want to act to prevent people from using it. It really isn't about whether you'll head to the farmer's market on Saturday. It's much bigger than you.

Please don't let people with dog-whistles make the decisions for you about what scientists should be allowed to work on, or what we should fund because it contains the world "biotechnology". It may be they don't understand the issues, or it could be deliberate misrepresentation.

                                       +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Disclaimer: I have no relationship with any component of "Big Ag" or any of the research or researchers or links in this article. I do not own any agricultural stocks. I am not earning anything for posting here, nor for driving traffic to any web site. And I don't want you to buy my book.

Originally posted to mem from somerville on Wed Jul 21, 2010 at 05:39 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Excellent. Informative. (6+ / 0-)

    Biotech isn't evil (even if some applications of it are questionable); thanks for starting an intelligent discussion on the topic.

    "You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do." Anne Lamott

    by MsWings on Wed Jul 21, 2010 at 05:51:22 PM PDT

  •  Grim stuff. (4+ / 0-)

    There are so many possible causes of huge famines, not least of which is climate change, that one doubts earth's population can keep increasing.

    We send sacks of food or sacks of money to famine regions now;  what happens when there is no extra food to send, and money cannot purchase it?

  •  How about that? (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mem from somerville, willb48, MsWings

    I learned something. Cool diary.

    "When men yield up the privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon." -Thomas Paine

    by Fogiv on Wed Jul 21, 2010 at 06:51:51 PM PDT

  •  A small suggestion based on this: (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mem from somerville, willb48

    Personally, I love plants and eat almost only plants.

    Fight back against the horrors of fungi that you describe by expanding your diet and eating it!  Well maybe not ug99 per se, but there's plenty of varieties.  Plus, in addition to the revenge thing, it's yummy!

  •  Answers to your questions (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RosyFinch, freerad

    Do you really think you understand what biotech means?

    I’m a gardener who saves seeds. I pick seeds from the plants that do the best in the microclimate and soil in which I grow them. Over quite a few years I have, for example, a good spinach seed from plants that have bolted later and later. I work the soil with my hands and harvest the seeds myself. The complex weaving of microclimate, soil, water and my observations is not something that can be captured in a lab. A monoculture of seeds that withstand certain diseases could, in my particular garden, fail to produce well because the spinach, for example, could bolt early. I am a biotechnologist in that I use my skills in observing the effects of my particular seeds in my particular microclimate. I am not a biotechnologist in that I don’t design monolithic crops in a lab with resistances to certain diseases that may not work well at all in my specific ecosystem.

    Do you feel qualified to withhold biotech tools from scientists and farmers?

    I feel qualified only in the sense that I worry that “tools” may have serious and devastating unintended consequences that the designers, focused upon solving one monolithic problem, may overlook other problems in the complex interactions of complex ecosystems.

    Are you certain that returning to pre-industrial agriculture can avoid ug99 or other pathogens? Where do you get this confidence?

    No, I am not certain of this at all. I think there are “tools” that have enhanced the relationship between farmers and their land… and there are other “tools” that have irreparably harmed that relationship. The relationship between a farmer and their land is a specific and local one that depends upon a working knowledge of the specific soils, microclimate and ecological interactions in that specific local area. Industrial agriculture fails most spectacularly in this regard.

    Are you sure conventional breeding can move fast enough? How lucky do you feel?

    No. I don’t feel conventional breeding can move fast enough to keep up with the unsustainable growth of our species. The question is do we keep speeding up or do we limit our growth and slow down?

    I don’t feel lucky at all. I feel scared and anxious.

    muddy water can best be cleared by leaving it alone

    by veritas curat on Wed Jul 21, 2010 at 07:46:49 PM PDT

    •  I'm sorry your anxiety is so high. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      kalmoth, MsWings, veritas curat

      Fear is definitely driver of paralysis and causes some people to turn inward and not care about anything beyond their own back yard. That probably does explain part of the resistance to contemplate some of these other issues. People aren't really thinking logically about what subsistence farmers in the developing world are facing.

      And yeah, that's not really biotech.

      But I think I see another part of the problem: you seem to think that biologists who work on this have no understanding of biology. That's false. Most biologists I know have a far better grasp of ecosystems than most foodie bloggers I have encountered.

      "It's not like she's marrying out of her species or anything," Ms. Lynch said.

      by mem from somerville on Wed Jul 21, 2010 at 08:08:26 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Now imagine the following (2+ / 0-)

      The level of knowledge and time you invest in understanding how well a particular strain will grow in a given microclimate has to be repeated 12,000 times in each microclimate - once for each possible wheat strain.

      Now imagine that you only have to invest your level of knowledge and time on, say, 50 strains that you already know are resistant to a particular pathogen. That's the power of screening in a lab first.

      As far as limiting our growth and slowing down: who do you think we should start with and who should make those decisions?

      Give me liberty, or give me death!

      by salsa0000 on Wed Jul 21, 2010 at 08:17:09 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  So are you saying limiting growth and slowing (0+ / 0-)

        are not what we should be thinking about?

        Just wondering.

        muddy water can best be cleared by leaving it alone

        by veritas curat on Wed Jul 21, 2010 at 08:24:30 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Thinking about it is fine (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          veritas curat

          Focusing on it as our first priority? That I honestly am not sure about and in fact would say no right now. I really don't think we're anywhere near the carrying capacity of our planet's resources - my intuition tells me that we can keep engineering our way out of those kinds of problems for the foreseeable future. That's what we should focus on: growing the food and water supply, slashing our carbon footprint and improving urban design are probably the most important things I can think of where we can make dramatic improvements to keep our species growing.

          Give me liberty, or give me death!

          by salsa0000 on Wed Jul 21, 2010 at 08:56:45 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Well, I respectfully disagree about priorities (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            salsa0000

            and carrying capacity. And about keeping our species growing.

            I don't trust your intuition, but you have a right to your opinion. Mine is different.

            I don't think we can continue to engineer our way out of problems of growth and carrying capacity.

            But reasonable people can agree to disagree.

            Peace.

            muddy water can best be cleared by leaving it alone

            by veritas curat on Wed Jul 21, 2010 at 09:17:19 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  Agree that we can agree to disagree :-) (4+ / 0-)

              Though if we are forced to confront the challenges of a huge human population with one arm tied behind our back (the promise of biotech, and science generally), then of course we would be talking about a different kettle of fish. And I do think this is what mem is getting at: we like to (very legitimately) decry right-wing attacks on science (like creationist attacks on evolution, the ridiculous climate change skepticism or generally ignorant attacks on statistics which right-wingers somehow are especially enamoured of), but we don't do enough push-back on left-wing attacks on science (biotech, anti-vaccine). It can be very frustrating to confront a problem when the group that most loudly brings up the problem also is the one that most loudly objects to its most direct solution.

              I do think that the point you raise about this question of whether we can sustain our growth is the most crucial one; thanks for crystallizing it for whoever else is reading this thread.

              Give me liberty, or give me death!

              by salsa0000 on Wed Jul 21, 2010 at 09:27:15 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  Yeah, you have a very good point (0+ / 0-)

                about certain kinds of leftist attacks on science. Critical thinking, mathematics, physics and realistic observation are important. Anti-technology conspiracy theories owe much of their heat to an educational failure to understand basic math and physics concepts.

                Science may very well save our asses. If it is applied in a sane manner.

                But  (think Monsanto here)  corporatised technology that could very well wipe us out.

                muddy water can best be cleared by leaving it alone

                by veritas curat on Wed Jul 21, 2010 at 09:39:58 PM PDT

                [ Parent ]

                •  Missing the point of this diary (2+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:
                  MsWings, veritas curat

                  Where is Monsanto in this diary? Nowhere, right?

                  People have this monomaniacal fixation with Monsanto that makes them unable to consider other aspects of plant science. And that is precisely the problem.

                  Let me make this clear:

                  Monsanto ≠ biotech

                  "It's not like she's marrying out of her species or anything," Ms. Lynch said.

                  by mem from somerville on Thu Jul 22, 2010 at 05:08:59 AM PDT

                  [ Parent ]

                  •  Your inequality (0+ / 0-)

                    Monsanto ≠ biotech

                    would be cause for great confusion for the good folks at Monsanto. They believe they are a biotech company. Biotechnology and the benefits of biotech are plastered all over their website.

                    So, are you saying that Monsanto itself is the problem (which I agree with) or are you saying it is incorrect to consider Monsanto a biotechnology company?

                    I'm afraid it's going to be very difficult to decouple the phrase "plant science" from Monsanto. They pretty much own the concept - which is terribly unfortunate. "Monomaniacal fixation" is kind of blaming the victims and may be overly harsh.

                    muddy water can best be cleared by leaving it alone

                    by veritas curat on Thu Jul 22, 2010 at 08:34:28 AM PDT

                    [ Parent ]

                    •  No, I'm saying (1+ / 0-)
                      Recommended by:
                      veritas curat

                      that people who make claims about "biotech" are using that as a synonym for Monsanto. And they are not synonyms.

                      There is extensive "biotech" plant science research that is NOT associated with Monsanto in any way.

                      People use "biotech" as a dog whistle that means Monsanto. It makes discussion about the broad scope of the needs and applications of the technology impossible.

                      So if you are saying you support academic and public plant biotech research because it is not "corporatised technology", that's fabulous. I'm glad to hear that.

                      There is an unfortunate fraction of people who are unable to understand the difference between the two words, or pretend that there is no distinction. That is a monomaniacal fixation, and they intend to stand in the way of the science because of it.

                      "It's not like she's marrying out of her species or anything," Ms. Lynch said.

                      by mem from somerville on Thu Jul 22, 2010 at 10:33:42 AM PDT

                      [ Parent ]

                      •   I think I may actually have reached "fabulous" (1+ / 0-)
                        Recommended by:
                        mem from somerville

                        because I do

                        support academic and public plant biotech research because it is not "corporatised technology"

                        Except I would replace "because" with "if" and add a few more caveats.

                        I support academic and public plant biotech research if it is not corporatized technology, does not create harmful unintended consequences and takes into account the broader ecosystems within which the plants are embedded.

                        muddy water can best be cleared by leaving it alone

                        by veritas curat on Thu Jul 22, 2010 at 11:01:57 AM PDT

                        [ Parent ]

                        •  Terrific-- (1+ / 0-)
                          Recommended by:
                          veritas curat

                          and this is a point you can rarely get to in these conversations because people refuse to acknowledge there is anything but Monsanto.

                          There are some great projects coming that will benefit millions of people with calories they need, important nutritional features, tools to battle climate stressors, and oil-free materials.

                          "It's not like she's marrying out of her species or anything," Ms. Lynch said.

                          by mem from somerville on Thu Jul 22, 2010 at 11:09:43 AM PDT

                          [ Parent ]

                        •  My favourite food label (2+ / 0-)

                          I remember I saw this butter product at the grocery store that proudly proclaimed "NO BIOTECHNOLOGY!"

                          And this was in Cambridge, MA. Literally blocks away from my lab. I found it both absolutely hilarious and offensive all at the same time. I'm guessing that because mem and I are surrounded by this subculture that treats biotech and bioengineering like it's some freakish evil that will offend the spirit of the earth or some such nonsense, we're a bit more sensitive to these issues than others...

                          Give me liberty, or give me death!

                          by salsa0000 on Thu Jul 22, 2010 at 01:16:37 PM PDT

                          [ Parent ]

                          •  The fact that we have opposable thumbs and (0+ / 0-)

                            big brains makes our species a technological species. And the fact that we grow food makes us biotechnologists. But, thanks to the way corporations have perverted these things in the pursuit of profits, they have become scary, negative terms.

                            Our future will depend upon wise use of science and technology. Unfortunately, I don't see a lot of wisdom in how we have used it in the past. This makes me very uneasy for the future.

                            muddy water can best be cleared by leaving it alone

                            by veritas curat on Thu Jul 22, 2010 at 01:35:36 PM PDT

                            [ Parent ]

                          •  There certainly are bad corporations (0+ / 0-)

                            there have also been bad things done in the name of religion--presumably from a non-profit perspective....

                            But you know what: Gutenberg had a company. He wanted to make money on that printing press thing. That doesn't mean all profit-driven innovation should be entirely dismissed either...

                            That said, a lot of the work in this arena is now being done by academics and governments. So maybe the perceptions will change.

                            "It's not like she's marrying out of her species or anything," Ms. Lynch said.

                            by mem from somerville on Thu Jul 22, 2010 at 04:14:35 PM PDT

                            [ Parent ]

    •  fear is the mind-killer n/t (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      mem from somerville

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