Sunday, 14 April 2013

The fraught matter of breeding tomatoes

There's no question that agribusiness has an image problem with metro residents. To see this at work, you can check out a petition page aimed at gathering signatures in response to activities of Monsanto in Europe. Watch the page and see the signatures roll in from all over the world; the total number gathered as I type is over 1.46 million. I saw the petition on Facebook where a person I'm connected with posted it, and it made me ask a few questions because the information contained with the petition has a few holes. It runs, in part:
They’re trying to patent away varieties of our everyday vegetables and fruits like cucumber, broccoli and melons, forcing growers to pay them for seed and risk being sued if they don’t. 
In the comments thread on Facebook I read things that my Facebook connection thinks about the issue, and they included "food security issues, genetic engineering ethical and health issues, planetary consequences issues" and also a suggestion that companies like Monsanto should not patent germplasm (seeds) but rather develop new varieties of, say, tomatoes out of "altruistic motivations". The petition site exploits this ignorance to generate support for its cause, but the pitch, to me, is full of holes. Avaaz provides no substantiating documentation, such as news stories detailing exactly what is supposed to be happening. Where has this been happening? I have no idea. This level of incoherence seems to gel in the minds of readers, such as that of my Facebook connection, alongside other issues such as food security (new varieties of vegetables actually improve food security), GM issues (seed companies may or may not use GM to develop new varieties of tomato; there's no information on this in the Avaaz petition), ethical issues (this is a bit vague), health issues (I have never read anything that convinces me that GM crops are bad for people), and "planetary consequences" issues (whatever that means).

It's a bit of a mess and just shows how little the average person knows about how the vegetables they eat are developed and grown. As for making a profit, the economics of plant breeding mean that profitability is necessary, as it's an expensive process.

Even if you get past the GM issue because a certain breeding program being conducted by a seed company is only using traditional breeding practices, then you hit a generalised distaste for hybrids. People who have opinions on these things and who live in cities want heirloom seeds, it appears, and not those expensive hybrids that companies like Monsanto produce for "industrial farmers". But talk to the farmers themselves and you get a different picture. In Australia we're spoiled because we can grow tomatoes year-round. In northern Queensland around the town of Bowen, for example, there are many farms producing tomatoes during winter months for supermarkets located in the southern capitals of Sydney and Melbourne. Consumers in those places love this availability, and farmers want varieties of tomatoes that provide a sufficient yield (number of fruit per plant) as well as disease resistance (there are many diseases that plague monoculture crops, including fuserian wilt, powdery mildew, nematodes, tomato yellow leaf curl virus and tomato spotted wilt virus).

This is where the scientists step in, and the seed companies provide their expertise and their production capacity to make it happen.

It takes years to develop a variety of tomato that contains all the disease resistances that are necessary for the farm environment. And government might be involved as well. In Queensland, the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has long conducted a breeding program in association with seed company Syngenta to develop disease resistance varieties with hybrids. Using expensive gene-mapping equipment and low-cost labour located in parts of Asia, as well as the expertise of Queensland scientists, the program is moving toward its goal.

"You generally accumulate two or three disease-resistance genes in one parent, and the remaining disease resistances you accumulate in the second parent," Des McGrath of DAFF Queensland told me when I interviewed him in early 2011 for a magazine story. "You bring them together in a hybrid, and because of the way they’re inherited, all of the five genes – in this case – will be expressed in the hybrid. Three will come from this side, two from the other."

This bringing together of genes is done manually, as this 2012 departmental press release shows. "The flowers contain both male and female parts," McGrath told me. "If you want to use one parent as a female you remove the male parts before they shed pollen. So you’ve just got the female part there and you transfer pollen from another flower, from another line, onto that parent." This operation is done in Asia, where labour costs are lower.

Once the seeds have been planted and have borne fruit, the resulting fruit contains seeds but these cannot be used to grow the next crop. "You’ll plant those seeds, you’ll get a crop," McGrath told me. "That crop will also produce seeds but the seeds in that next generation will be variable." Because these new seeds are variable they may not contain all the required disease resistances, so the farmer does not use them for the next crop, but instead buys more seeds from the seed company. And farmers work closely with DAFF Queensland and Syngenta - and Monsanto - to make sure the future lines of product meet the requirements of consumers as well as intermediate customers, such as supermarkets. It's a complex business satisfying the appetite of metro consumers for winter tomatoes, and people up and down the chain have to make a profit so that the supply can be maintained. Consumer demand drives the business.

As for the Avaaz petition, if anyone has more information about what Monsanto is supposed to have done in Europe, I'm all ears. There's a comments facility on this blog.


Geoffrey Burrows said...

Thanks for another good post.

I am sometimes concerned by the actions of people that are ignorant to what is actually happening in any given endeavor. I think back to the ban on live cattle exports, where no small number of metropolitan people fought against issue. For all the good intentions behind their actions, the end result has been crippling to cattle farmers that rely on exports to keep their operations viable, in the moderate term.

Like the issue of live export bans, I think that plant breeding is another area in which ignorance abounds. There's a lot of firmly held views against modern practices, but those views don't appear to be adequately informed. Ignorant activism, no matter the purity of intent, can be damaging.

Matthew da Silva said...

Yes, that's right Geoffrey, there's a general lack of information. But seed companies and government departments are partly responsible because they shy away from conflict, and do not work effectively to get their message out. They probably think it's better to let sleeping dogs lie. This wariness means that the middle - people who eat most of the food and who mostly do not get involved in activism - are uninformed. But then you get Avaaz putting up a petition, which is so easy to sign, and suddenly the middle starts to get involved. Fault lies on both sides.

Geoffrey Burrows said...

I agree with you on that. Most things that happen in life are dependant upon the actions of many sources.

The only thing that I would like to add is in relation to my first comment. I sometimes forget the negative connotation that's often associated with words like "ignorant" & "ignorance". I generally use them with no ill will, and only the strict definition of them.