#plantbiology14 Day Three

Today was a day for personal connections and actually getting an opportunity to see some science talks.

The day began with the second in  series of sessions on the challenges of feeding 9 Billion people, with a focus on not just feeding, but nourishing them successfully.

Poster Section
My poster section, and the hashtag for the conference. My one, contribution to the Plant Biology community.

David Jenkins, Alan De Brauw, and Ricardo Uauy all talked about rebalancing our diets; less meat, more varieties of plants as well as reasons why simple access to better crop varieties is a big part of the problem in producing more food; particularly in the developing world.

There were powerful images of what families had to eat/access too; I think Uauy was the one that showed the contrast of a German family, an Ecuadorian family and one from I think Mali with the amount of food on the ‘table’ diminishing each time and there were differences in food too. It is a solvable problem, but it definitely takes a lot of will power to adjust a diet, especially for those of us in the West where we have plenty of food to eat for the most part (even here though wealth inequality is really an issue). I heard some people complain about how these last two sessions were preaching to the choir (we already know why plants are important, after all). However, as a colleague pointed out, it’s not so much the message as the passionate and effective delivery that was given and the way these speakers talked about the issues of food security and nourishment that was the real point. We as scientists studying the processes (basic of applied) of how plants work don’t often get called upon to speak up about why what we do is so critical (in the short and long term.

The last speaker of the session was the Chief Technology Officer of Monsanto, Robb Fraley who gave a very engaging talk about what Monsanto was doing; the breadth of the projects is really stunning and some of the technology is crazy; they really are investing in the next, next generation; meter by meter farming as Fraley put it. He talked about how the merging of plant science and information technology/computer power was going to fuel a second green revolution. He talked about how Monsanto is not just producing GM crops, but using marker assisted breeding and seed chipping technology to breed the best varieties possible. And GM is still there, of course, but perhaps in more limited use.

Fraley brought up the example of the next iteration of round-up; that’s a current GM tech that does make me uncomfortable and I know that the data say it’s perfectly safe (the consuming part isn’t really an issue; I’m less sold on the environmental impact the technology has; it seems to drive out diversity (as does just the GM crop itself) which is actually a source of resilience for crop plant populations.

I heard that some people felt they were getting industry talking points forced on them, though I think Fraley did a decent job of not just selling Monsanto, but actually focusing on the challenges that Monsanto hopes to be a part of solving. It’s hard to know from the outside just how well any of their combining information technology and crop science works to reduce yield gaps around the globe, but if it works as advertised (does anything?), it’s a pretty good situation to be in. And of course, Monsanto isn’t perfect, their technology isn’t a panacea. There are clearly people who care that work there though. Fraley spoke of being a father and wants to leave his kids a world where food is secure, not restricted.

One thing that was neglected was something that previous speakers (I forget exactly who, sorry!) talked about was the multiple uses of land; food production being only one. There’s the environment to consider too and plants are as key a part of that to our lives as crops are. Truly, no plants, no life. But know plants, know life.

Uauy ened by quoting Goethe:

“Knowing is not enough; we must apply… willing is not enough; we must do”

And posed the question of whether spending time studying a non-crop plant Arabidopsis is really worthwhile; why not study the plants that we actually use/eat. It’s an old argument; focus on the practical, not the theoretical/knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Arabidopsis has been on the chopping block for years, it seems. And I may be wrong, but I think it’s the only model organism for which that is true; no one is talking about killing yeast, worms, flies or mice as reference systems in the animal world. Expanding the scope of research is great. Using new models, exploring new plants, trying to translate what we’ve learned in Arabidopsis (still the most tractable plant model, I think; maybe Wisconsin FSpsc plants are easier/faster) are all great things to do. And we don’t know everything about it, even if it seems that way. Siobhan Brady gave a great talk about her lab’s work in uncovering transcriptional networks in Arabidtopsis and is now applying that work to see if the model they developed in Arabidopsis translates to other crops. Translation is for the short/medium term, which is important, but Arabidopsis is built for discoveries in the long term; 20-40 years from now. I think there should be more resources for diverse organism study, but Arabidopsis is still valuable, I  think.

I went out to lunch and had dinner with old friends. I connected with some people at the poster session. I’m stuffed. After a long day, of tweeting, talking and trying to take as much as possible in, it was an interesting day; lots of great ideas and technoligies are emerging; many developed in Arabidopsis. I think they’ll be good for many systems and hopefully the community can handle diverse organisms of study, but recognize that crop plants and tree species aren’t always impractical in some regards for certain studies/time frames (e.g. doing a Ph.D./postdoc).

I got a ride home from a friend at dinner. Sitting around a table with lots of food was a great way to end a day of science about food security, the culture of food and the barriers we face as humans (beyond the science/technical challenges) to feed the world.

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