Getting SMART About Biotechnology

The climax comes when Dr. Victor Frankenstein announces to his apprentice “Igor, it’s alive!” Who would have guessed that Victor’s name would find its way out of the fictional world to be used to describe certain types of food we eat today? The so-called Frankenfoods, a term coined to describe genetically modified (GM) foods, have met resistance in many quarters similar to that experienced by the monster in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel. In fact, to GM or not to GM remains the Shakespearean conundrum a number of African countries still find themselves in. But is there a way to exploit biotechnology without causing such public unease? SMART breeding could be the answer.

What’s so Smart about SMART Breeding?

SMART stands for Selection with Markers and Advanced Reproductive Technology.

It uses two processes, selection with markers or Marker Assisted Selection (MAS) and Advanced Reproductive Technologies. Using MAS, the genes of a plant with a desired trait such as drought resistance are identified through the plant’s tissue sample and marked using advanced genetic technology. The marked genes then appear in the progeny of that plant, enabling breeders to easily select and breed only those seeds that have the desired traits; a  simulated natural selection.

Through Advanced Reproductive Technologies, growing a test generation of plants to ascertain the accuracy of genetic marking is also much faster. A viable plant strain can be grown in about 5 years as opposed to genetic engineering which can take over 10 years. This shortening of the breeding process drastically cuts down the cost of developing new crop varieties; ensuring the economical development of a wide variety of new crops that will thrive in the face of our ever-changing climate.

In Concert With Nature

If you recall the original gothic horror story, Frankenstein’s creation was a composite of odd bits and pieces stitched together resulting in something more monstrous than human. In the same grain, genetic engineering as we know it today involves combining genes from organisms with such divergent characteristics that no such mix could ever be found in nature. This is known as transgenic breeding. SMART breeding, however, is based on taking the lead from nature and combining only the genes of closely related plants, making the technology less provocative than genetic engineering. The technology’s inherent respect for the species barrier makes it a more palatable choice for many consumers.

A Marriage Of The Old And The New

SMART breeding seeks to enhance rather than bypass traditional seed breeding techniques. It builds on the knowledge gathered by farmers who, over millennia of selective breeding, have produced plants with genetic material that meets most, if not all of the demands of modern agriculture. This continuous interaction with the farmer makes the SMART model vastly different from  genetic engineering where breeding is centralised.

SMART allows for region-specific breeding, which ensures local crop varieties are not sacrificed even as great technological advancements are made in agriculture. This goes a long way not only in enhancing food security but also in maintaining the cultural integrity of regions in the world that would adopt this technology.

The future of agriculture is collaborative

Successful applications of MAS have already happened n countries across Asia. In China, India and Indonesia bacteria leaf blight in rice fields has been combated. MAS has been used in Sudan to help deal with witchweed in sorghum and to develop resistance to mosaic disease in cassava - a staple for millions in sub-Saharan Africa.

Beyond health concerns, GM foods are seen by many as a ploy to make farming economically inaccessible, especially to small-scale farmers. In India thousands of farmers have protested against GM corn field trials. In Kenya a petition to prevent Monsanto - a major GM biotech company - from setting up shop was started. The world over, ‘No Monsanto’ marches have been held and continue to be organised to protest the use of GM products.

All these events point to the fact that the collaborative or open-source nature of agriculture will not go down without a fight. Technologies such as SMART breeding will go a long way in ensuring that the ability to grow one’s own food from one’s own seed will remain a right preserved for posterity.

For further reading: Greenpeace SMART Breeding: The next Generation