Biotechnology aids forage research

Planted acreage may have played a role in which crops were selected for early genetic engineering research and development, leaving others, such as forages, to lag behind a bit.

But forage crop scientists are making up for lost time, and possibly learning from experiences of their counterparts in cotton, soybeans and corn.

“Money is the key to national research priorities,” says Joe Bouton, acting head of the Forage Biotechnology Group at the Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Okla.

In an interview during the recent International Symposium on Molecular Breeding of Forage and Turf in Dallas, Bouton said molecular breeding techniques allow forage developers to “get to our main mission, which is to help farmers and ranchers.”

Bouton said genetic engineering in major U.S. crops paved the way for forage development. “The sheer numbers of crops grown here and around the world may have delayed genetic engineering in forages,” he said, “and money is the key in both public and private research facilities. Specialty crops have gotten what was left.”

Alfalfa may be the first big beneficiary in forages, he said. “Alfalfa is a high value and high acreage crop and it adapts well to micro-technology.” After alfalfa, scientists select other crops based on use and value in the world. “Tall fescue may be next with 40 million acres. Perennial ryegrass and white clover also “are getting a lot of attention,” Bouton said. “These crops also support big seed industries.”

Not always quicker

Bouton said speed may be one advantage of molecular breeding programs, but it's not always quicker. “In fact, sometimes we can use conventional breeding techniques and get where we want to go just as fast. With some traits, however, genetic engineering is the only way to reach the goal.” He said scientists cannot select for Roundup Ready traits, for instance. “That depends on gene technology.”

He said a primary question at the Noble Foundation will be “is there a trait that demands molecular technology. We certainly don't want that avenue cut off. This is an extremely powerful tool.”

Bouton said opposition to genetic engineering is ironic. “The technology produces a good product that's simply misunderstood,” he said. “Through all facets of modern society, technology plays a key role.

Biotechnology offers us another useful tool that allows researchers to “mine germplasm by using genetic markers.”

Bouton agrees that regulatory agencies must oversee the research. “In the United States, we have three, USDA, FDA and EPA, screening genetically engineered crops,” he said. “We rely on those agencies to do their job because we certainly don't want to put out something that is harmful to people or the environment.”

He says attitudes about genetically modified organisms in the United States break down into roughly two groups. One assumes that if the product has been tested and screened by government agencies, it must be OK.

“A smaller group works off emotion, so facts are unimportant. They don't understand the dynamics of the food supply and are against anything that does not fit their idealized version of production. Thankfully, it's a small group.”

He says the opposite is true in Europe, where citizens have lost confidence in regulatory agencies following episodes of mad cow disease, hoof and mouth disease, etc. “The emotional group in Europe is much larger and the issue is more controversial than it is here. In fact, some European scientists say they'll never catch up and will use genetic engineering only on a limited basis.”

Bouton said underdeveloped countries, however, will find genetic engineering a godsend to help feed starving populations.

He said scientists gathered at the conference agree with the benefits of technology. “They also emphasize that products must be safe and controlled by a regulatory agency.”

20 countries represented

He said more than 20 countries were represented at the conference, including China, Japan, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. The Noble Foundation, along with Texas A&M, hosted the forum. “This is the first time the meeting has been in the United States,” Bouton said. “It's a big honor for Noble. We were asked to host the conference in recognition of our efforts in forage development, in both molecular and conventional breeding.”

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