Top Crop Manager

Features Agronomy Cereals
Spreading the value of GM foods

Academics and dietitians have far more traction than any corporate communications suit

November 15, 2007
By Top Crop Manager


The Council for Biotechnology Information has an unusual story in Canadian
agriculture. It is about six competitors putting aside their intense wrangling
for market share and coming together to bolster the public acceptance of biotechnology.
For the last four years, the funders, BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow, DuPont,
Monsanto and Syngenta, have put aside their brand hats and brainstormed about
how to improve public acceptance of biotechnology.

Experience has proven that the most credible 'spokes-people' are third parties:
academics and dietitians have far more traction than any corporate communications
suit. An example of this outreach strategy is the Young Scientist Footsteps
Award which was established in 2003 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Watson
and Crick's discovery of the DNA double helix. Genome Prairie has adjudicated
applications, recommending five winners so far, each cashing $5000 cheques to
further their Master's or PhD studies.

The criteria for the search has been community involvement, communications
ability and outstanding science in plant biotechnology with a consumer benefit.
To-date, the benefits of biotech crops have been mostly to producers in the
form of reduced labour inputs, less fuel and better weed and insect control.
Despite clear environmental benefits to society, consumers have failed to connect
with how the technology can enhance their daily lives.


The winners of the Young Scientist awards have been able to soften the edges
of biotech angst with their individual research quests. The first winner, for
example, was Janice Cuthbert, who is exploring the wheat genome, specifically
targetting genes that control the crop's yield. Based at the University of Manitoba,
she collaborates with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada which introduced Superb
wheat. Cuthbert has documented that Superb wheat has an increased yield of 25
percent more than Katepwa, a conventional variety. Her research also holds potential
to quicken the process of developing new varieties for wheat breeders. Traditionally,
10 to 12 years of selection and field trials are required to assemble the desired
traits of a new variety. Cuthbert's research aims to halve this time. Her foundation
research on wheat yield today may lead to understanding the characteristics
that can result in more nutritious bread and pasta tomorrow.

Kiersten Stead, PhD candidate at the University of Alberta, has a similar message.
She is working on blackleg resistance in canola, but hastens to add: "Today
it's an understanding of disease resistance, but tomorrow it's about a healthier
canola oil." Through the use of molecular marking and selection, she aims
to improve yield and resistance to the costly fungus.

Potatoes have been a favourite target for genetic improvement through biotechnology,
first through resistance to the Colorado potato beetle but more recently through
Heather Topley's search for the After-Cooking Darkening gene. Based at the Nova
Scotia Agricultural College in Truro, she has been able to identify genes that
cause potatoes to turn black after they have been cooked. Her research may help
the potato industry reduce artificial whiteners in processed potatoes.

The potato plant has proven to be a treasure trove for Meriem Benchabane, a
doctoral candidate from Laval University in Quebec City. Potatoes are rich in
proteins, and as such, Benchabane views the potato plant as an industrial manufacturer
of basic proteins for pharmaceutical uses. Her focal point is serpins, a group
of proteins that can potentially prevent and treat human diseases such as emphysema
and perhaps AlzheimerÕs disease. Eventually, her basic proteins will be harvested
and purified for commercial or pharmaceutical use.

The diagnostics of biotechnology are proving to be a powerful tool to sort
through thousands of genes for traits that have countless consumer benefits.
At Ottawa, Martha Mullally's research at Carleton University highlights the
value of these sorting and marking abilities in tree research. "There has
been a long history of crossbreeding with food plants, but as a society, we
have taken trees for granted," says Mullally. The Masters student is using
gene-mapping tools to determine if particular genes have important wood-building
functions in the vascular cambium of poplar trees. Her work, as part of a large
Genome Canada-funded project called Arborea, could one day contribute to a more
sustainable Canadian forest.

By sharing their career paths in biotechnology, these 'under 30' Canadians
are a powerful statement to urban women who are fretting about GM foods in their
grocery carts. Their stories have been told widely, from the front page of the
Edmonton Journal to CBC Radio News to breakfast-TV shows in Halifax, Quebec
City and Ottawa. It is by putting these common crops into context of a single
researcher that the public may get a different notion of the good that biotechnology
can do now and into the foreseeable future. This is comforting news for Canadian
farmers who want to know who is standing up for agricultural science. -30-