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“Mother Nature also had to worry about pests, nutrients, water and other factors that modern farmers have under control.”

20 Apr 2010

“Rewiring Plants Could Supersize Crops” went the headline. I’m curious in how to improve agriculture, so I thought this could be a cool article, about tweaking the basic biochemistry of plants and trying to get better crops out of it.

A team of researchers has found that—according to their computer models of the molecular cycles involved in growing plants—they could optimize how much CO2 plants suck from the air and use to build up their leaves and stalks, their seeds and fruits. Replacing plants’ usual carbon cycle, called the Calvin-Benson cycle, with one from bacteria, known as MOG pathways, might make plants grow bigger or faster.

But on reading the article, I’m really skeptical whether this approach will work. The lead researcher, Ron Milo of the Weizmann Institute, says:

“When you’re working in modern agriculture, what you’re trying to optimize is different from what nature is trying to optimize. We’re trying to get the most food.”

And the journalist who wrote the article, Brendan Keim, summed things up by saying: “Evolution might have stumbled on this solution [of the MOG cycle], but Mother Nature also had to worry about pests, nutrients, water and other factors that modern farmers have under control.”

Yes, we those are perfectly under control now. No worries about extreme weather, about pests. No worries about climate change, about water stress.

I’m worried that this study takes the usual scientific approach of maximizing one particular quality of a plant, and takes it to the extreme by tinkering with one of the most basic properties of plants, one that’s apparently been preserved through many tens of millions of years of evolution.

But if plant breeders went down this route, I’m afraid they’d be breeding all the resilience out of the crops. Maybe they’d optimize the carbon fixation in good years. But how would it affect the soils? How pest resistant would the plants be? Would they need more pesticides and herbicides? What about fertilizers?


books I've read on failure & grace

The World Without Us
The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Hell and High Water: Global Warming--the Solution and the Politics--and What We Should Do
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
The Tipping Point
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization
Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail
The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Mason's favorite books »