Eric, Alessia, Madeleine, and Cyril are students from ETH Zurich participating in a northern California study tour, “Tackling Food System Challenges with IT Innovation." The tour explores the role of IT in addressing the food system challenge of ensuring food and nutrition security for a growing global population. In this post, they consider the potential of high-tech solutions being developed to improve seeds and ultimately contribute to global food security.
Monsanto offers us a way to improve seeds, but can we outsmart an ever changing nature?
We were impressed by the high degree of automatization utilized in the genotyping laboratories of Monsanto in Woodland California. This futuristic research site is geared to offer high throughput analytical services to breeders.
As we learned, Monsanto first grinds leave tissue samples to extract DNA and then analyzes the genetic material for the presence of traits that are of interest for the different stakeholders. To keep track of which sample belongs to which plant the actual macroscopic field or greenhouse is structured in the same architecture as used by the microscopic 96-well robot in the laboratory. The scientist in the group were amazed to learn how Monsanto is blurring the line between bench and farm work.
This process indicates a way to move away from the random selection of the next seed generation towards a more rational approach. Crop producers can already use this analytical service to screen the genetic potential of their plants to identify the most promising variants.
The variety of traits the breeder can emphasize on is virtually endless, from the color to the sweetness of the cultivated product. However, we feel that Monsanto is addressing an important issue by prioritizing resistance to both biological as well as physical stresses. Physical stresses include droughts and other adverse weather effects, which will be of ever growing importance.
It remains to be answered how much this research can contribute to global food security. While this approach allows to pick the most promising seeds based on the current knowledge it also drastically reduces diversity, which, to our understanding, makes the entire system extremely vulnerable to unforeseen challenges.
Blog Authors: Eric Stirnemann, Madeleine Widmer, Alessia Delbrück, and Cyril Statzer are students from ETH Zurich, and are participating in a study tour of ag and food tech innovations in northern California.
This study tour is part of ETH Meets California, a 10 day event organized by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) that brings some of its top researchers and students to California to unravel the mysteries of science and technology in an exchange of ideas with west coast counterparts in academia and industry.