A High-Tech Route Back to Traditional Farming

A funny thing happened on the way to the next green revolution. The world's biggest biotech corporations have deployed the latest in genetic science to pump up yield, ward off crop disease, make food more nutritious and fundamentally reengineer what we plant and eat, and no one is complaining. Environmental groups are not shouting about the perils of "Frankenfoods." There's no rabid French cheese maker with a bad mustache leading foodies on a rampage through high-tech farms. Prince Charles is quiet. Has the war over the world's dinner table finally ended?

Not quite. Europe, much of Asia and parts of Africa fiercely resist filling the larder with genetically modified groceries, and many in agribusiness despair that they always will. So instead, they're trying to woo them with distinctly non-GM varieties. Crop scientists, seed companies and clever farmers are using the most advanced tools of science to reinvent native breeding—the age-old technique of selecting the best crops and then painstakingly breeding and crossbreeding them to make more and better food. These discoveries are remaking the world's farms by boosting productivity, creating more-nutritious food and steeling harvests against diseases and inclement weather. And yet because the new methods do not require gene splicing, they circumvent the conflict between Big Biotech and the Cassandras of food that has roiled for decades. In part, this is also a recognition that early claims for the coming genetically modified utopia were overstated.

Don't call it retro farming. Behind the revival of "traditional" farming techniques are many of the same breakthroughs in genetics, computerization and plant physiology that have driven the biotech revolution. The difference is, instead of food fashioned in the laboratory by lifting DNA from one species to another, scientists are working to unlock the secrets bundled inside each plant itself.

Part of the story is that conventional breeding can still do certain things extremely well—even better than genetic manipulation. What GM techniques are best at is isolating particularly useful bits of DNA in a prized plant, and transferring that single gene to another plant that is less well endowed. (In the best-known example, Monsanto spliced a gene from naturally herbicide-tolerant grass into soybeans, so farmers could apply the chemicals without killing their crops.) Conventional breeding still does better at building up qualities that require a complex suite of genes, such as the ability to fight off certain insects or to resist drought, which involves a host of genes that determine the way plants take up and manage water. The Switzerland-based company Syngenta, which made its name through gene splicing, has found that the best way to fight off sucking aphids, which devour soybeans, is through a combination of techniques, from spraying with pesticides to using molecular markers to identify naturally resistant strains of soy and then crossbreed them to create bugproof new varieties.

Without resorting to GM, researchers at the Brazilian agricultural institute Embrapa are breeding varieties of upland rice that not only ward off pests and increase yield, but also contain up to double the vital minerals (iron, zinc) found in unimproved varieties. They have tripled the amount of vitamin A in corn and boosted iron uptake in wheat. Cimmyt, a wheat- and maize-improvement center in Mexico, is breeding corn for pest resistance that has cut losses to weevils in half. The German biotech company BASF has launched an improved, non-GM strain of corn that resists striga, a weed that ravages African fields, and is working to breed high-yielding commercial strains of wheat that also resist fungus and drought.

The recent advances in genomics are saving scientists time, grief and money over old methods of crossbreeding by allowing them to quickly zero in on the genes associated with desired traits like high growth or vitamin A content or efficient ethanol production. Ag experts are especially excited by a technique called marker-assisted breeding, which mines a plant genome to enhance native breeding. Just as modern medicine has found ways to track bits of human DNA responsible for good traits (straight teeth) or bad (cancer), high-tech farmers peer inside the submicroscopic components of seeds and plants to pinpoint the specific genes, or markers, that command growth, or that make plants susceptible to disease. Identifying and tracking markers can lead in a matter of months to the strongest varieties for further breeding while discarding the weak. Research can then use lasers to take microslices of a seed without damaging it and evaluate the genetic components to see if they've got a potential winner. The techniques have cut the time it takes corn breeders to create a new strain from 10 years to four.

Avoiding gene tinkering also saves money that would otherwise be spend on lawyers, patents and getting the products through the labyrinth of health and safety hurdles—often 90 percent of the cost of GM, estimates Thomas Lumpkin, head of maize breeding at Cimmyt. The battle over Frankenfoods is sure to smolder on. But thanks to the breakthroughs of cutting-edge agricultural science, traditional farming still has a brilliant future.