Systemic approach more efficient than GMOs

The systemic approach is a method of breeding plant varieties that are hearty and resistant to all forms of stress, such as disease and drought. In the systemic approach, traditional principles of plant breeding are used, though the plants are subjected to a wide range of stresses, and only the most resistant plants are selected for continued breeding. The systemic approach offers a promising alternative to GMO’s, and it produces results that go beyond our expectations.

GMO’s have become commonplace in fields and on supermarket shelves, despite the uncertain health and environmental implications. GMO’s can cross-pollinate with traditional and organic varieties, resulting in mutant plants and contaminated food supplies. Nevertheless, companies continue to drive forward the genetic modification of plants, under the banner of creating plants with sought-after features or increased resistance. With the systemic approach, however, we can develop plant varieties that are all-around resistant and versatile, without the negative drawbacks associated with GMO’s.

Systemic seed selection with specialist André Comeau

André Comeau, a researcher for the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture for 35 years, maintains that the systemic approach offers a sustainable avenue for seed selection, and increased food security in the face of climate change. In fact, he succeeded in ‘tuning up’ a wheat plant to be all-around resistant. To achieve this, he simply applied the principles of traditional breeding and genetic selection, but with a systemic approach that takes into account as many factors as possible. The results have been significant.

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Selecting wheat seeds

Glassy, shiny with a smooth surface… these are some of the characteristics of the wheat grains sorted by this cereals plants’ specialist. His work consists of developing germplasms and mother plants used by breeders to produce the cereal varieties intended for farmers.

Typically, breeders asked the researcher for a plant possessing particular characteristics, such as virus resistance, short straw, or higher protein content in the grain. But after collaborating with the Brazilian researcher Vandelei Caetano, Mr. Comeau realised that we can’t isolate one characteristic from the rest. “Everything is interrelated." For example, if we increase virus resistance to fusarium, we often decrease yields. "There are dozens of parameters. The systemic approach strives to integrate and correlate these multiple factors when it comes to selecting the best plants."

In the systemic approach, we use the same selection tools as before, while we consider the overall system: pest and disease resistance, morphology, yields and root system, also taking into account the agricultural system in which these plants are grown. “The simplistic approach - where we try to simplify the situation to achieve a specific result - ends up by taking one step forward, then one step back. A systemic approach, which encompasses a high number of parameters, gives us a positive result without any bad surprises. If we continue for several years, keeping many parameters, we end up with a striking increase in genetic material possessing the desired characteristics." When using the systemic approach, Mr. Comeau says researchers should use 10 times greater biodiversity of seed, and maintain 10 times greater severity of conditions than in traditional selection, while basing the tests on a high number of different parameters.

The Wheat Plant Example

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A naturally selected super wheat plant

Knowing the desired characteristics required by breeders, the researcher submitted many types of wheat plants to different sorts of stress (poor soil, disease, pest, drought, soil deficiencies) and kept only the best subjects. In 2003, during his first attempt on 9000 plants, only one plant was retained. In 2006, the quantity of resistant plants this time was over 300. “We weren’t able to make them sick. Resistant to every stress, these plants showed a good capacity to produce grains. The results: less farm inputs are required because the plants’ needs are null or reduced in pesticides, and because the plants have a better capacity to take and make use of soil nutrients.” Besides that, the 2006 trials were mainly conducted without pesticides in soils that had never been farmed.

Comparison between GMO’s and the systemic approach

GMO Systemic approach
Addition of the desired characteristic by modifying the genetic code of only one plant. By elimination: discarding the least adapted plants among a multitude of plants.
We start with a wheat plant coming from a renowned agronomic line.

In laboratories, we add a characteristic by inserting genes (coming from other plants, microorganisms or animals) in the cell nucleus.

We start with many different strands of wheat in order to have a wide genetic diversity.

We expose those plants to different environmental stresses, and we select the most resistant plants.

We repeat this for many years, crossing over the better subjects from previous years and exposing them to new stresses.

Doesn’t use the natural process of pollination.

Rather, the gene is forced into the cell with the use of bacteria or by bombarding the cell with a particle canon (method called biolistic).

Uses the natural reproduction processes – pollination – but achieved manually.
The new plant has never existed before: it has a different genetic code than the original plant. Many fear unexpected long term effects on health or on the environment. There ought to be mandatory years of studies to validate their safety. The resulting plant is a wheat plant, like the others, but corresponding to the desired characteristics.
The development cost is very expensive and involves hefty fees. Prediction: Will become less costly to create new varieties that are resistant to all forms of stress.

Unfortunately, funds are orienting research toward biotechnology and focalised research, instead of a systemic approach. For 12 years, Mr. Comeau was denied many requests for financing on the the pretext that his approach lacked interest or sense. However, in 2003, a commercial producer federation backed Mr. Comeau’s ideas and now a grain research centre is preparing to research organic wheat. The development of the systemic approach also faces a lack of interest in the academic domain. “As far as I know, over the past few years no Quebec university has offered a practical course in Applied Genetics although this approach is five to ten times less costly than biotechnology and it’s the only efficient method when it comes to considering several parameters at once.” Nor should we forget that genetic engineering requires significant infrastructure, and becomes complicated by issues of rights and patents granted to private companies.

Over time, Mr. Comeau’s ideas have won ground and many breeders use his strands in order to create new varieties. New avenues also look fruitful. For the last two years, he has chosen not to sterilize his soils. Indeed, laboratory researchers always sterilize soil substrates to ensure no microbes or weeds interfere with the experiment. “We already find that wheat plants are able to compete with weeds, and we are rediscovering the beneficial action of microorganisms around roots, either to help plants resist disease, or to fix a bit of nitrogen (with the help of Azospirillum). During a drought period, a bit of nitrogen at the surface of the roots can be vital, because the plant has great difficulty in obtaining nutrients. As we face climate change, we must take that into account, especially with the arrival of extreme weather (wind, sleet, cold, heat, drought, and flood) where our present crops are at risk.”

In short, Andre Comeau eagerly wishes to share with academics, scientists and the general public both the great potential and tangible proof of the success of the systemic approach to adapt our crops to climate change. Such an approach can be applied worldwide and is surely helpful for veganic growers, too.

18 June 2013
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