Tag Archives: Agriculture

Will Europe toast GM wheat for gluten sufferers?

Soon, individuals with celiac disease in southern Spain will begin receiving regular allotments of bread. Rather than misguided charity, this will be a clinical trial of a new type of dough made from genetically modified (GM) wheat. The wheat has been altered to be low in gliadins—the portion of gluten proteins that are toxic to people with celiac disease. If successful, the trial could bolster growing research efforts to engineer wheat to be compatible with the immune systems of the ~1% of the global population with celiac disease and the much larger number of people with gluten allergies.

Low-gluten wheat could also open a new front in the battle for GM food acceptability in Europe. If Europeans are ever going to accept a GM food, celiac-safe wheat may be a good candidate. European consumers accounted for over euro1.1 ($1.21) billion of nearly euro1.9 billion worldwide gluten-free food market, according to market research firm Euromonitor International. Global gluten-free bakery sales are expected to grow at >7% annually, the firm predicts. But because this and other efforts to modify wheat involve inserting genetic elements to silence genes, they are subject to a European regulatory process closely tied to anti-GM politics. And even if such legal barriers to marketing are overcome, marketing such a wheat would require not just farmers, but millers, bakers and consumers to be persuaded that it is worthwhile.

Read the rest of this feature in Nature Biotechnology: [html] [pdf].
También publicado en Scientific American en Español: [html] [pdf].

¿Celebrará Europa la llegada del trigo transgénico para quienes no toleran el gluten?

Pronto, los celíacos en el sur de España comenzarán a recibir cuotas regulares de pan. Lejos de ser una caridad desacertada, se trata de un ensayo clínico de un nuevo tipo de masa hecha de trigo genéticamente modificado (GM). El trigo ha sido alterado para ser bajo en gliadinas –la porción de las proteínas del gluten que son tóxicas para las personas con enfermedad celíaca–. Si tiene éxito, el ensayo reforzará los crecientes esfuerzos de investigación para crear trigo que sea compatible con el sistema inmune del ~1% de la población mundial que padece la enfermedad celíaca y una cantidad mucho mayor de personas con alergia al gluten.

El trigo bajo en gluten también podría abrir un nuevo frente en la batalla por la aceptación de alimentos GM en Europa. Si los europeos van a llegar a aceptar alguna vez un alimento GM, el trigo apto para celíacos sería un buen candidato. Los consumidores europeos representaron más de €1,1 mil millones ($1,21) de los casi €1,9 mil millones que suma el mercado mundial de alimentos sin gluten, de acuerdo con la firma de investigación de mercado Euromonitor International. Según las predicciones de esta organización, se espera que las ventas mundiales de panificados sin gluten crezcan más de 7% por año. Pero debido a que este y otros esfuerzos para modificar el trigo implican insertar elementos genéticos para silenciar genes, están sujetos a un proceso de regulación europeo estrechamente ligado a la política anti-GM. E incluso si se superan estas barreras legales para la venta, la comercialización de un trigo de este tipo requeriría no solo convencer a los agricultores de que vale la pena, si no también a los molineros, los panaderos y los consumidores. Continue reading

Grow plants without water

Ever since humanity began to farm our own food, we’ve faced an unpredictable frenemy: rain. It comes and goes without much warning, and a field of lush leafy greens one year can crackle, dry up and blow away the next. Food security and fortunes depend on rain, and nowhere more so than in Africa, where 96% of farmland depends on rain instead of the irrigation common in more-developed places. It has consequences: South Africa’s ongoing drought — the worst in three decades — will cost it at least a quarter of its corn crop this year.

Biologist Jill Farrant (TED Talk: How we can make crops survive without water) of the University of Cape Town in South Africa says that nature has plenty of answers for people who want to grow crops in places with unpredictable rainfall. She is hard at work finding a way to take traits from rare wild plants that adapt to extreme desiccation and use them in food crops. As the Earth’s climate changes and rainfall becomes even less predictable in some places, those answers will grow even more valuable. “The type of farming I’m aiming for is literally so that people can survive as it’s going to get more and more dry,” Farrant says. Continue reading

The cultivation of weed

Packets of cannabis seeds line the shelves of legal grow shops in Madrid. Many carry labels reporting the percentage of sativa and indica, two types of cannabis. Breeders often label plants that produce a more exciting high as sativa and plants that provide a more mellow feeling as indica, suggesting that cross-breeding tailors that buzz. The conceit is widespread. Botanist Jonathan Page at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, says he sees the same at local grow shops.

For reasons that go beyond assessing the quality of the user experience, botanists such as Page are investigating the evolution and present-day diversity of cannabis. To do this, they must confront centuries-old taxonomic questions, including whether cannabis is one species, Cannabis sativa, with several subspecies or varieties, or if it is several distinct species, such as C. sativa, Cannabis indica and Cannabis ruderalis. “It’s complicated taxonomically because of its intimate relationship with humans for long periods of time,” Page says. People have long bred cannabis as a source of fibre, food and oil — as well as for its mind-altering effects (see page S10). As governments relax cannabis laws, commercial growers want more clarity about the chemical properties and capabilities of the herb’s many varieties. In parallel, regulatory bodies trying to establish a legal framework want to be able to classify whether a given type of plant is for fibre (hemp) or recreational or medical use (marijuana).

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