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Limits of Biotech [Agriculture
Posted on November 18, 2014 @ 10:13:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I am halfway through a book by Ford Denison called Darwinian Agriculture: How Understanding Evolution Can Improve Agriculture (2012).

So far the book does not offer much guidance on how to farm better using Darwin's ideas and theories which is sort of what I expected it to be about. Instead it has thus far focused on using ideas about natural selection to theorize about where biotechnology might be successful or not in improving crop yields - the limits of biotech vis-a-vis agriculture.

Denison's argument in a nutshell (so far) is that natural selection and artificial breeding have operated on our crop plants for a long time now and if there were any simple improvements we could make to the genetic material of plants (i.e., increasing or decreasing the expression of a gene) Mother Nature would have already tried it out by now. Many biotech companies have claimed that they are working to improve upon the basic ability of plants to utilize sun, water or nutrients. Denison suggests that we should be very skeptical of such claims because the few generic variations that a biotech company might try out are no match for the trillions of experiments that natural selection has already performed to find the genetic variants that are best able to utilize sun, water and nutrients.

This is not to say that biotech as applied to developing better crops has no role, but to date most of the increases in yields it has produced are due to the addition of genes to crops to make them herbicide resistant or insect resistant. In fields without weed or insect pressure, the yields from these "improved" crops are often no better that the yields from "non improved" crops. The biotech improvements are not to the basic machinery of crops such as their ability to utilize sun, water, and nutrients; it is to ward off threats such as weeds and insects.

Denison is not coming at this issue from an anti-GMO viewpoint and would probably welcome any biotech discovery that would improve drought resistance, result in more efficient conversion of sunlight to biomass, or reduced need for fertilizers to allow crops to thrive. He has been looking for refutations of his viewpoint since 2003 and has not seen much evidence to counter his viewpoint that genetic engineering has not improved the efficiency of basic plant processes. This is not to say that a breakthrough might come in the future, however, based on natural selection and the trillions of natural experiments to date, he speculates that the breakthrough will not come by simply tinkering with genetic material in ways that natural selection would have already tried. Instead it will require real genetic engineering where more complex variations are created that have no intermediate path that natural selection would have tried (because the intermediate path would have produced less fit offspring that would not have reproduced).

Another aspect of Denison's argument is that there are generally tradeoffs involved in any proposed improvement to basic plant processes. So if you created a more drought resistant strain of corn that corn might not grow as much biomass as normal corn or it might not perform as well in non-drought conditions as standard corn. Denison advises us to keep our eye on the tradeoffs that also attend any claimed biotech improvements to basic plant processes (i.e., sun, water, or nutrient assimilation).

Denison's book would be useful to an investor who might be looking into investing into biotech companies involved in improving agricultural yields. It would give that investor another perspective by which to evaluate whether a particular investment might be worth making. This perspective would be informed by some evolutionary theory, genetics, and ecology that would allow an investor to see beyond the marketing material that biotech company might use to justify an investment. If the claim is made that the biotech improvement will improve yields then by what mechanism will it do this (e.g., basic plant process, herbicide resistance, insect resistance, late shattering, etc...), what tradeoffs might attend those yield improvements, what risks might we be opening up, and how long will these yield improvements last before some countervailing adaptation kicks in. Darwinian Agriculture was probably not aimed at investors in biotech companies but I would suggest that it is a very useful resource for anyone interested in such investing to read as it provides useful guidance for evaluating the technical difficulty of what a company might be trying to accomplish and consequently their likelihood of accomplishing it. Biotech companies are always pushing the limits on what a plant might do but some of those limits are not so easy to improve upon, and if improved upon, may involve tradeoffs that mother nature has already tried and discarded.

I'm still reading the book so this is not the final review. I will likely write another blog on this book but so far what has interested me is the idea that there might be limits to what biotechnology might accomplish in terms of improving basic plant processes. An investor should always be aware of the current limitations in any technology they are investing in so this book offers useful guidance with respect to biotech investing for improved crop performance. Improved crop performance will be essential to deal with the need to produce 30% more food by 2050 and to anticipate the effects climate change.

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