The Golden Seed

Economist Farmer Michael Smith continues his take on Agricultural Economics. The Golden Seed . . . “Drought Resistance by Engineering Plant Tissue-Specific Responses”


I’ll cut to the chase, for centuries we have been searching for the golden goose to lay the golden egg. This search for perfection in an imperfect world leads our collective minds to continue to seek out this perfection, or some amalgamation or imperfect things that collectively can be considered close to perfection.

Climate change is now forcing us to innovate at a rapid pace because our semi-perfect is now wholly imperfect.

We planted corn this year, let it go to silk and spent yesterday pulling the ears from the stalk and measuring our yield. We spring planted 100 year old cultivars that are native to this part of the world and haven’t really been tinkered with. It makes great popcorn and a cob that would be fit for George Washington’s toothbrush, but not much else. The ears are tiny in comparison to the cultivars grown now. Think, big yellow ear of corn about a foot long and three inches wide steamed to perfection, smeared in butter and Tony Chachere’s seasoned salt, versus hard little teeth grinders that are a lot of work for very little cornmeal. But “glass corn” is pretty to look at.

A Bit of History

Native cultures grew the Three Sisters for millennia. Corn was an integral part of that, and new world agriculture and life is now dependent upon that corn production, so much so that corn, ethanol from corn, fructose, and also plastics are all derived from what has now become a multi-billion dollar industry.  The United States corn industry is slated to potentially be an estimated $85 billion dollar (USDA estimated 14.99 billion bushels multiplied by current bushel commodity price of $5.70) behemoth this year just from the production sector alone. The derivative market is also a Goliath that coupled together are an essential backbone to the United State economy. An economic backbone industry that is now more than ever threatened by climate change by further and further encroachment of Drought Territory.

The Western states’ Drought Territory is nothing new. In some of my previous posts, I have mentioned the Powell Line, or Parallel where the explorer/cartographer/American biologist Powell identified the dry line of the semi-arid to the grasslands that lead into the arboreal forests.

Brad Ripley at the USDA takes monthly snap-shots and keeps statistical data on how dry conditions are, and have been. Source, USDA Drought Monitor.

In these statistics of where we were last year on the D2-D4 is staggering. One thing of note is that the Northern Plains region is in exceptional drought in the Dakotas, and the Corn Belt of Nebraska and swatches of Kansas are also starting to dry out. We have had multiple years of exceptional drought, with the last being where vast swatches of pine forest not too many miles from me were on fire in 2011. As climate change sets in, this is only going to get worse. What to do about it? We have a population that needs to eat, medical supplies and goods that need to be properly sanitary. I polled a group of farmers one afternoon not too long ago.

“What are our options for continuing to grow crop in regions that are drying out?”

I tried to answer my own question. “Do we need to dig deeper wells, more wells, more pivots? Or have scientists alter the genome yet again to be able to have corn go 90 days with less than half an inch of irrigation?”

The response: “Can’t get water from places where there isn’t any. Trucking it in is expensive. Maybe science can save us again?”

This started a deep dive into what we can do. Water indeed is expensive to haul in and reliably doing so would exacerbate an already thin logistics system in this country. We don’t have the trucks or the truckers, and farmers don’t have the margins to even entertain the idea, let alone start a new sector of the economy.

Then we must Search for the Golden Seed

Genetically Modified Organisms get a really bad wrap. We first have to separate these into two different camps, transgenic (gene splicing), and hybridization (botanists cross breed things until the desired trait is firmly acquired in the offspring).

Genetic manipulation is controversial mostly because we haven’t yet seen the “what else happens” effects. Arguably, the knock ons of this science are well known. And the methods by which those effects are measured are the same as hybridization, it either works or it doesn’t. There is no Frankenstein’s Monster that rises up from the lab. We take a really crummy apple tree that has chalky apples and breed it with its eastern counterpart and over a few generations, we have a quite tasty sweet apple. The main difference between transgenic and hybridized is the pace at which those desired traits can be realized.

We as a species have taken a demure pastured grass that makes hard rocks that can be milled to form cornmeal into a very large, tall succulent crop with a multitude of uses that can also be eaten out on the field without breaking your teeth. Most of these trait modifications were done slowly over the course of decades by botanists from all over the country, mostly government funded or universities. Only until recently in 2011 have we had the tools to speed this up into years, not decades.

Scientists are attempting to solve a long standing problem, what happens when it stops raining?

Per this research by the USDA, one of the first private genetic modifications comes from bacteria in soil that have characteristics that can be manipulated into corn to help them survive. The process is pretty straight forward, and this addition in no way detracts from the crop yield or end product. The main problem is that the traits are only partly useful. Once advanced drought kicks in, or the farmer is planting into already dry soils, the crop can only take so much.

Going a month with no water is one thing, but we have conditions now that are 60-90 days, irrigation aside.

New research is being made in how to manipulate further, splicing in genes from tomatoes that can help with drought tolerance.

Again, a pretty straight forward approach, but nothing emerging or vastly different other than pushing the plant to store water, conserve it, or otherwise not start taking measures to begin the slow droop back to the soil.

I had thrown an idea at an epidemiologist friend who needed a mental break and I needed answers on biology. “Can’t we just use CRISPR to genetically throw in some cactus DNA into corn and save the world?” Apparently it isn’t that simple. You can breed a horse with a donkey and get a mule. You can’t breed a tiger with an antelope to get a really fast tiger.

So what can we do? The surprising outcome came from research being conducted in Barcelona, Spain.

This is where it gets complicated. Their research effectively forces the plant to focus on reproduction and less on survival. This is fascinating. We all understand that the point of vegetable agriculture is to produce something that ends up seeding or producing that thing, or end point, the eggplant, cob. Albeit the plant itself has many uses. Researchers all over the world are ultimately attempting to flip the switch on to make reproduction the primary mission, in regard to this type of cultivar. This research can have amazing outcomes if successful. Neither of which changes our current circumstance in terms of climate, but gives us hope that we will, in the end, still be able to provide food for both us and the animals we keep.

We have found the Golden Seed.