GMO Debate Upended by NASA-inspired ‘Speed Breeding’

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GMO Debate Upended by NASA-inspired ‘Speed Breeding’

Photo by: ulrich22 via Shutterstock


World population projections currently expect another 2 billion people in the world by 2050, and simultaneously, there isn’t expected to be any measurable change in the quantity of arable land to match this level of growth. Already, the United Nations is grappling with the realities of a global food shortage crisis, meaning that, even without the next 2 billion people added to the global population, world leaders are struggling to feed the mouths we presently have. Experts are turning everywhere for solutions, including the already realized prospect of genetically modified crops that are uniquely resistant to pesticides, harsh winters and other threats as a means to create more food sources and consolidate them.

GM crops are only one of many proposed solutions, though, and despite some of the wealthier countries in the world seeing protests against GM crops and even the technology behind it (e.g. US, UK, Australia, etc.), the truth is that many poor countries are full of hungry people who can’t afford to protest the same technology. It would present an economic boon for their government to gain access to requisite patents or for local corporations and institutions to start proliferating GM crops. Additionally, experts around the world have also been looking at the creation of heat-resistant cows and vertical farms, the latter a means of consolidating arable land and the former a means of increasing dairy yields.



Now researchers report a new advancement inspired by NASA — something they call “speed breeding.” It uses intense lighting regiments to cultivate crops far more quickly than they would naturally, otherwise grow, but this same method also improves the health of the crops in question concurrently. One of the most significant facets of this is the health enhancement because it presents an excellent alternative to the broadly controversial GM crop that protesters (in countries with the luxury to protest it) know presents scientifically proven health risks.

Scientists at the University of Sydney, the John Innes Centre and the University of Queensland—two Australian schools and one British institution — developed speed breeding based on NASA research that was trialed over ten years ago originally to produce food in space during outbound deployment. Essentially, crops are raised in a glasshouse under incessant, low-cost LEDs whose light is emitted at very specific wavelengths to catalyze photosynthesis. “The far-red spectrum is important for triggering the reproductive growth and also light intensity for healthy robust plants,” according to Lee Hickey, a senior research fellow at the University of Queensland and a co-author on the new study.



“In the glasshouse, we currently use high-pressure sodium vapor lamps, and these are quite expensive in terms of the electricity demand,” Hickey explains. “In our paper, we demonstrate that wheat and barley populations can be grown at a density of about 900 plants per square meter, thus in combination with LED light systems, this presents an exciting opportunity to scale up the operation for industry use.” This comes on the heels of a fairly significant panel report from Parliament in India coming out against genetically modified crops.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment, and Forests in New Delhi concluded that no GM crops should be brought into the country without thorough evaluation of the probable effects. The committee suggested that the government conduct this evaluation in collaboration with several pertinent agencies, environmentalists, experts, stakeholders and civil society “so that the nation is very clear about all probable impacts before taking a call in the matter.” They singled out GM Mustard in particular, one of the most internationally infamous GM crops for its widespread use and significant health risks. They alluded to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee having already approved commercialization thereof, a decision that has been appealed to the Supreme Court on the basis of “serious unanswered questions.”

“GM Mustard is a herbicide tolerant GMO, and there is clear evidence on the adverse impacts of such GMOs elsewhere in the world. […] The committee has also come to know that many state governments are opposed to entry in the form of field trials, leave alone commercial cultivation.” The Committee added that it was “not at all” persuaded of the way the Indian Council of Agriculture Research carried out its trials when studying the impact GM crops have on animal health.

Even in Ghana, a country partly affected by the global food shortage crisis, many NGOs are collaborating to fight against GM food proliferation, and an anti-GMO movement is burgeoning solely on the basis of health and environmental risks. This has sparked something of an information war in which anti-GMO advocates alert the public to the dangers of the technology and the crops for both the environment and animals (including humans), and pro-GMO proponents castigate them for “misrepresenting” the facts. Regardless of whether the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology relies on “The misdirection of its members […] to create the needed awareness,” it is true that GMO production is over two decades old and that Ghanaian “farmers [were] yearning for a technology to address production constraints,” as stated by Ghanaian Professor Walter Sandow Alhassan.


Photo via Pixnio


Moreover, Support Precision Agriculture reports, “A significant number of Nobel Laureates from diverse disciplines are voicing their support for GMO precision agriculture and calling on leaders of Greenpeace, the United Nations and governments around the world to join them. More than 100 Nobel Prize winners in fields including Medicine, Economics, Physics, Chemistry, Literature, and Peace have signed an open letter asking Greenpeace and others who have been blocking the process and access to beneficial plant biotechnology products, like Golden Rice, to abandon their campaigns against GMOs.”

The entirety of the controversy is evident in Ghana where both sides are warring vehemently because of what’s at stake. The country needs to cultivate crops as efficiently as possible to combat food shortage, but the government has to weigh demand against environmental and human protection. As many other countries endure similar fights about whether or not GMO products are worth the risks that many other scientists commonly cite (claiming that researchers in favor of GMO products are simply bought by a gargantuan industry in one way or another), Hickey’s study presents a new ray of hope that the entire fight might become circumnavigable in the near future via speed breeding — verifiably safe, efficient and ostensibly natural.



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