Roger Beachy: GM Crop Pioneer Now US Farm Science Chief
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- Peter Aldhous, , Oct 8, 2009
Beachy spoke to New Scientist about his ties to the crop biotech industry and how he plans to cut farming's contribution to global warming.
Some scientists and environmental activists are worried about your close ties to the plant biotechnology industry, in particular to Monsanto. How do you respond?
I have never worked for Monsanto or any other company. I've always been in the public sector. However, as I've done my work I've always sought to have a way for it to have it be useful. If a company licenses a technology that I have invented, the likelihood is that it will reach the consumer. At Washington University in St Louis I was one of a large number of scientists that received research grants from Monsanto. But when I went to the Scripps Research Institute in California in the 1990s I had no contact with Monsanto for 10 years.
What do you see as the priorities for transgenic agriculture?
The technology is only relevant if it meets our grand challenges. Let's take sustainable energy: NIFA would contribute as a producer of the feedstock for advanced biofuels – whether it's algae or crops or non-traditional crops such as switchgrass. We'd look to the Department of Energy to instruct us about the composition of cell walls, for example. Then the plant scientists would work to create the right type of material that would work for easier conversion into ethanol or biodiesel.
We also need to consider how to protect the plants from disease and [have them] grow in less fertile soils, and we'd like to do that genetically, not through more chemicals. In some cases the needs would be met by traditional plant breeding. But where there's a need for biotechnology, then you'd use the tools that are available, with the proviso that they all need to go through the process of safety evaluation.
How can NIFA help reduce the huge contribution to global warming caused by farming?
We can expect the agency to set a goal for emissions from agriculture, and this will be achievable. In the 1980s, we had molecular biologists telling us we were going to have nitrogen-fixing corn in 10 years – in hindsight, that's not a very smart thing to have said. So give us a little bit of time to tell what is doable based on science today.
Much of the problem comes from nitrogen fertilisers, which release the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide. So we need to ensure that we have crops developed that have the strongest possible transport mechanisms to get the nitrogen from the soil into the plant.
What will be NIFA's priorities in researching animal health?
I won't give you specifics at this point, because I am two days into the job. But diseases that can spread to people and those that might be expected to change with climate will be the focus. We also ought to be setting scientific goals for the prevention of disease. That may mean that we'll need to think differently about how animal production is done. For instance, there are some vaccines we don't use in animal health today: I'm thinking of foot and mouth disease.
And what about plant diseases?
Approximately 5 to 10 per cent of US crop yield is affected by pests and pathogens. These have largely been controlled by controlling the vectors that spread the diseases or by using chemicals. That can be effective, but the issue is sustainability. I am interested in "durable resistance": what kind of genetics should a plant contain to give it a stronger innate immunity? Plants have the ability to make between 200,000 and 400,000 different compounds. Some of these are elicited by attack by pathogens. If we can boost that level of innate immunity we have a greater opportunity to reduce the spread of disease.
How will NIFA help increase crop yields in the developing world?
What we learn about drought tolerance and salt tolerance is going to be transferable – we're quite confident – from maize into sorghum, millet and the pulses.
Another priority is educating the next generation in those countries: we need to find mechanisms that give them the means to do that. There was a programme of building capacity, but it has fallen on hard times because of the lack of resources.
We hope that the private sector could also become involved in donating technologies. The project that is being done by CIMMYT, the international wheat and corn centre in Mexico, along with Monsanto to develop drought-tolerant corn for Africa is a wonderful partnership. I would like to see other companies do the same thing.