Skidmore's Distinguished Visiting Scientist speaks to student body: Lecture addresses issues of world hunger and biodiversity

Posted by Julia Leef

More than 100 students, faculty and community members attended Distinguished Visiting Scientist Wilhelm Gruissem's lecture, "Can We Still Feed the World in 2050?" at 8 p.m. on Oct. 19, in Gannett Auditorium.

Gruissem is one of the world's leading plant biotechnology experts, and has served as a plant biotechnologist in the Department of Biology at ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) since 2000.

The lecture addressed issues of global food security, water availability, bio-energy and climate change. "A Bio-Based Economy must be a part of the solution!" the title page of his presentation stated.

With the growing world population and rising cereal demand (MMT), humans must produce more food than ever before. But, we are producing less food than we did 20 to 30 years ago. More than one billion people in the world are suffering from starvation and increasing malnutrition, and, despite previous predictions, this number has steadily risen.

"We have to produce food where it's needed," Gruissem said. "We have to come up with solutions to help those people who develop agriculture in a way that it is sustainable and can support their lifestyles."

Gruissem also discussed the surge in cereal and oil prices, as well as the major bottleneck that sustainable food security faces. Humans have cultivated 7,000 plant species since the beginning of agriculture. However, only 10 plant species are cultivated today to provide 95 percent of food and feed.

This spreading monoculture is another major threat to food security, Gruissem said. He proposed his own solution to the issue of biodiversity, saying that a select number of genotypes (roughly 10,000 per crop) should be taken from a crop share of more than 100,000 ancestral genotypes per crop. These select genotypes should be characterized and studied at $1 million per genotype. He estimates that the cost of the entire operation would be $30 billion, which is $2 billion less than the 2010 budget of the National Institute of Health.

Much of the lecture promoted the use of gene manipulation technology, such as phenotyping (measuring allelic variation) and marker-assisted selection (MAS) to breed new varieties of plants and to identity those genes that are best suited to maximize yield gains.

Several requirements for this method of improving crops, Gruissem said, include being cost effective and sustainable, as well as making no net contribution to greenhouse gasses and avoiding directly increasing food costs.

The true benefits of genetically modified technology are often either unknown or misrepresented to the public, Gruissem said. European consumers are especially opposed to GM technologies, and certain non-government organizations have declared gene technology a danger, and have even attacked private property. Gruissem's own home has been graffitied.

Several newly improved crops in the market include Anthocyanin-enriched GM tomatoes, which can reduce the high risk of coronary heart diseases, and Beta-carotene enriched Golden Rice, which can reduce vitamin A deficiency.

Gruissem's own lab is working to increase iron concentration in polished rice grains in order to aid the two billion people who suffer from iron deficiency. Currently, his lab has increased the iron concentration with gene technology to 55 percent of the recommended daily intake, and is looking to improve it further.

He also stressed the importance of making plants resistant to environmental stress and able to combat such parasites as the African Cassava Mosaic Virus (CMV), which is responsible for a 24 percent loss of the total production of cassava in Africa each year.

Gruissem concluded by stressing the importance of breeding new crop varieties with a high and stable yield and improved nutritional qualities in order to create a sustainable agriculture. He encouraged using innovative research, efficient breeding and gene technology to ensure a phenotypic diversity of crop plants.

"We have to make sure that we grow food where it is needed," Gruissem said.

Gruissem will remain on campus to meet with members of the college's science faculty and to present to several biology classes this semester. 

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