Monday, April 25, 2011

Woodland, California: Doug Heath, Monsanto tomato breeder.

Even though I grew up in suburban Detroit, I’ve been a vegetable gardener from a very young age.  I developed a love of that.  As far as I can remember back, one of my uncles was a gardener…and I remember eating peas from behind his garage when I was really little, maybe five or six.  And we grew up on the poor side.  My mother raised 4 kids and we had canned peas.  That was the cheapest thing.  So I thought, I don’t like peas…they taste pasty, yuck.  And I ate those things; it was like magic to me.  I was like, “Wow!  How can that be?!”  Even as a little kid I’m thinking, “these are like candy!  What happened?  How could things be so bad in that can?”  And it just kind of stayed with me. 

You've probably never met somebody so passionate about tomatoes.  Doug Heath spends his life with them.

*A caveat before this article begins:  Please be aware that the term "hybrid" is unrelated to "genetic engineering" or "GMO." Many assumptions are often made about Monsanto's seed development; STEWARDS attempts to present straightforward transcriptions of interviews with agriculturalists across the board, including their personal perspective on the current state of American agriculture.

We welcome comments and discussion; please feel free to ask for clarification of terms or offer critique.  If it has been a while since your last genetics class (do you remember Gregor Mendel and Punnet squares?), I recommend reviewing our previous blog post, which contains some videos of the basics, before reading the full interview.
It was another hot summer day when we arrived in Woodland, California at a Monsanto Company research station. We had traded multiple calls and emails with public relation folks in St. Louis (at Monsanto's headquarters) and they agreed to set us up for a couple of hours with Doug Heath.  We met him in the old farmhouse office and hopped in his truck to explore the plots.

I’ll give you a background of the place here. I’ve been here 17 years. When I came we were a small, privately held company called Petoseed and this station, which stared as a Petoseed station in the early ‘70’s…it was a farm. And the house you just came in through was the farmhouse that got converted a little bit into an office. Other than that there were basically just some barns. This was a Yolo County farm.

Basically, Doug is tasked with research and development of fresh market tomatoes.  Monsanto has breeders based around the world, working on crops in different climates and cultures.  Doug is responsible mostly for tomatoes that will be adapted to and grown in the Americas and Australia.  It's a big job, and he spoke of the satisfaction that comes when he stands in the field of a farmer abroad and looks out on a crop of a fruit that he bred here in California.
He walks us up and down rows of tomatoes in the research plots; it is a little late in the season, but many plants still have some over-ripe fruits that we sample.  

I’ll sort of take you on a tour through flavor here.  I’m going to go up in sweetness.  I’ll end up with something that’s really really really sweet.

We taste a diversity of his projects off the vine, and he often pauses one of his detailed answers to our questions to elaborate on the particular balance of a variety's acidity, sweetness, history, or nutrition.

We recognized the importance of interviewing people like Doug who are often under-represented in discussions of modern agriculture in the media.  There are many negative associations that are made about companies such as Monsanto and their work; unfortunately, no matter your positions on hot-topic issues, there is a lot of misinformation out there as well.  For the record, there is no genetic engineering happening with tomatoes here.  There are modern scientific tools used, but the methods are traditional: grow a crop, save the best plants, grow the crop again, and cross-breed lines of tomatoes to create successful hybrids.

I’m a traditional plant breeder; I’m doing things just like Mendel did with his peas, crossing things together and selecting for traits.  That’s really what we’re basically doing here still; my job really hasn’t changed.  You know, we’ve gotten new owners twice, but the job remains the same.  We’ve got these tools, like the molecular marker allows us to go quite a bit faster.  

The molecular markers that he mentions are small stretches of genes on DNA that scientists can look for to see if a desired trait has been introduced into a given plant.  This means that Doug can take a sliver of a leaf from a young tomato plant and send it to the lab; the lab analyzes the DNA.  If the genes that they are looking for are present, he can grow the plant out and save its seed for reproduction.  This cuts years off of research because he does not need to wait for an entire growing season to find out  if a plant has become disease-resistant, for example.
And what traits is he working towards?  Resistance to diseases such as Fusarium wilt and late blight are big ones.  He makes the case that breeding resistant strains of plants lowers or eliminates the need for spraying.  Fusarium, much like the flu, is always changing and evolving.  Every few years a new strain of the disease arrives, which affects most tomatoes, whether they are heirlooms, grown organicaly, or grown conventionally.

Last year in particular there was a big outbreak of late blight on the east coast, so a lot of tomatoes were lost.  That becomes like a serious spray program!  Pretty powerful fungicides to control it.  So if we can provide something that’s resistant genetically, the grower doesn’t have to pay for the spray and the consumers get something that’s unsprayed.  So it works into the organic movement as well.
One of his projects involves the breeding of heirloom tomatoes.  This has drawn criticism; many people believe that there is a stark dichotomy between heirloom fruits and larger-scale commercially available ones.  Doug doesn't believe that this is necessary.  He repeats how important it is for him to maintain flavor, color, and quality.

So why does he work on heirloom varieties?  First of all, because he and his children love them.  Practially though, his focus is mostly to increase their disease resistance and their yield.  One particular variety that he likes typically only sets 2-3 fruits per plant.  The plant's flowers are often malformed, resulting in damaged or nonexistent fruits.  Through cross-breeding and selection, he has been able to come up with a line that contains all of the original flavor and color, but yields many more fruits per plant.  This is a boon to gardeners and farmers, and Doug does not believe that they need to choose between yield and quality.

There’s a lot of skeptics, and I expected that.  There’s a lot of stuff in the press on the topic and it’s a very emotional topic for people.  I’m not surprised about that because people know that there’s a heritage related to that, these seeds have been passed down…I started working with these because I recognized that they were so unique, the colors and flavors.  I’m just trying to improve upon a good thing.

There’s an emotional attachment, and they probably feel that a breeder like me is out to ruin them, but they don’t understand that I’m not.  I’m working with them because I love them too!

Apparently one source of pride for Doug is that he developed a seedless tomato several years ago, a remarkable breakthrough.  Others had tried, but he was proud to tell us that he had bred a tomato that was plump, delicious, and seedless.  It turns out that there is quite a demand for it, especially amongst people with diverticulosis, a condition that prevents them from eating things with tiny seeds.  He refuses to call a project complete until it matches his ideals for flavor and quality.  He doesn't just work towards a single trait; he wants the whole, tasty package.

We asked him about the negative media surrounding Monsanto and its projects.  He is frustrated at the assumptions that are made by the public, and wishes that he could explain his methods and passion directly, to open ears:

...the seedless tomato, which I mentioned was traditional breeding from my work the last 17 years…when people found out that it was from Monsanto, they instantly assumed that it was GMO.  It’s like, "here’s something new, it must be GMO!"  And I’m reading the blogs and I’m thinking, “My gosh!  People have no clue.”  

Some people were saying, “Yeah, Monsanto’s making everything sterile so they can control the food supply…” And it’s amazing.  So yeah, misinformation travels fast.  You can try what you can to set the record straight, I mean every time I read one of those I want to jump in a correct them, but at some point I can’t stay up all night doing this!

But it makes me sad that people understand so little and that they assume the worst, for sure.  I mean it’s far from the case.

Doug appreciates his predecessors, the researchers, farmers, and gardeners who have made strides in the tomato breeding community.  He tells us the story of a professor whom he got to meet that was working on creating seedless (parthenocarpic) tomatoes:

His name was Dr. William Frazier, we called him Tex Frazier and he was from Oregon State University up in Corvallis.  I got a chance to meet him before he died, and I knew he was working on these parthenocarpic tomatoes.  My predecessors told me, “go visit Tex!  We think he’s got a garden at his house.”  He’s retired, but he’s got a garden.  And sure enough, this guy had like a hilltop garden in Corvallis.  And having been a professor he was very meticulous, he had everything labeled...and the juiciness…I cut one of these things and my shoes got all wet.  I was like “woah!  What is that?!”  It was a really great thing to tap into the stuff he had, because he had a lot of the pieces of the great flavor that are here as well.  Didn’t have much disease resistance left ‘cause he was just selecting for the seedlessness and the flavor.  It really made a great impression on him that I was going to be able to commercialize this.  He couldn’t quite understand how I was going to do it.

But this guy was so passionate evidently that they buried him with some tomato plants and tools.  It was so great to have met him in his house and this handoff of some important seeds that I was able to put into production...I hope I can name one after him.   Big Tex or something like that! 

He also notes Jack Hanna and Charlie Rick as two significant contributors to the tomato world.  Charlie Rick collected samples of wild tomatoes from around the world and stored them at UC-Davis so that breeders could "delve into the past" to find disease resistance and other genetics that might be bred into existing commercial crops.  Doug references this as we sample a sun-warmed tomato off the vine:

Isn’t that amazing?  So now you can taste the acids too, but this is kind of high-sugar, high-acid.   The typical old-time flavor, “oh my grandpa had tomatoes like that!”  Check out the juice on that thing.   See, we just do not see that anymore in modern varieties.  And I really had to delve into the past to grab stuff like that. 

He agrees with the common perception that commercial varieties of tomatoes have been fairly bland in recent decades, and is happy to see the market moving away from that.  As a breeder he is victim to market demands for the most part, but he also must forecast the future as best he can.  Because it takes anywhere from 4-12 years to develop a commercial variety, he must predict the desires of the public.
It’s nice that we are able to keep on discovering things too, that’s the fun of it.  You never know everything; you have to keep an open mind.  That’s important, I think, as a scientist, to keep an open mind.   Because if we didn’t we’d still think the world was flat and if you went you went off the edge, you went off the edge of the turtle’s back! {laughs} We never know everything; we’re always discovering new things. 

Towards the end we asked him, as we asked all of our interviewees, "What would be some ideal changes you'd like to see in the ag system?"  His response was not unlike many farmers:

I would like to see more land trusts and things like that, preserving the land.  I don’t want to see ever-shrinking farmland, ‘cause there’s probably only so far we can go with this mega-production on a small piece.  I would like to see more land trusts and things where good prime agricultural land is maintained for that, or even just wild wetlands and things like that.  But for farming, not developing really good farmland…putting buildings on top of prime agricultural land, that doesn’t make sense to me!  That’s what I would like to see.  That’s probably another political question, but I think for the good of the planet and the populations in the future, we better think about stuff like that, maintaining good farmland. 

And then being good stewards of that land you have. 

Click the jump to read the full interview with Doug Heath.  It is a long one, and includes some practical information about field rotations, more personal stories, explanations of nutrition and sugar analysis, details of disease-resistance genetics, and perspectives on the agriculture system.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Ag Video Thursday: A brief overview of tomato genetics.

In preparation for our next profile, Monsanto tomato breeder Doug Heath, we thought we'd give you a quick prep on genetics.

The first is entertaining, put out by a group in Europe called EU-Sol, entitled "Genetics 2.0- Tomatoes Having Sex."

The second is a student video from Oregon State that gives a 3-minute summary of how a cross is made between male and female plants. A hybrid tomato is made by crossing two tomato plants with fixed genetics, known as "parents." I believe that there is some misconception out there about hybrids. I must stress that hybridization is completely unrelated to genetic engineering. It is simply a controlled process that allows breeders to consistently offer traits such as disease-resistance, yield, color, etc. Seeds are rarely saved because they will not reproduce consistently; it's a natural result of the process.

Third is song. While trolling for a good video summary of genetics, I found this great one about Gregor Mendel, a song by a group called Moxy Fruvous from Toronoto.

Finally, if you'd like a more in-depth, brief lecture (6 minutes) on tomato genetics, the last video is of a researcher, Dr. Harry Klee at University of Florida discussing the process of tomato crossing and molecular biology. He discusses molecular markers, which allows breeders to see inside the tomato's DNA and see if they have achieved a desired cross. That process can cut years off of research and development, but still uses classic breeding methods. If it's been awhile since your Biology 201 class, I recommend it as an update.

Enjoy! Genetics and tomatoes...two of my favorite things.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Ag Video Thursday: The American Farm Bill explained on a TEDx Talk

The gigantic and confusing political document that governs agricultural spending in the United States is called the Farm Bill. Every 4 or 5 years a new bill is voted upon, and every edition makes many people nervous.

You've heard of farm subsidies? Those come out of the Farm Bill. They effectively pay a fund to farmers who grow crops like corn, cotton, and soybeans, our large commodities. Subsidies often receive a negative opinion in the media, especially from people who support small, diversified farms. In the Midwest, however, these subsidies are what keep farmers and towns in business. Our last post, on Ken Warren from The Land Institute, touches on that.

But the Farm Bill covers much more than that; most of its monies actually go to Food Stamps and other food-related economic support.

In this 13-minute TED Talk, Ken Cook explains the breakdown of the last bill, and makes some proposals for a rearrangement of its focus.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Salina, Kansas: Ken Warren, The Land Institute

I grew up in Manhattan, but went to the farm quite a lot and I always enjoyed that.  My background really is very very scattered.  I’m a geologist by training and spent some time on the dark side.  Worked for oil companies in Alaska and so forth, was involved in one of the real early wells on the North Slope.  Then, through a real strange bit of twists and turns, I ended up in the investment banking business and spent about 25 years in there, pretty much detesting every moment of it.

And one time when I came back for an alumni meeting, because I do have a degree from K-State as well, one of the people that I respected there met me at the airport and said, “you’re not really coming to this meeting are you?”  And I said, “look, I didn’t fly back here just for the fun of it.  What do you mean?”  And he said, “Well, there’s a fellow over in Salina that I think you ought to meet.I said, “Look, I grew up in Manhattan; nobody smart ever came from Salina.”

He said, “Ah, well that’s the way it is, is it?  Well, in that case, I’m not even taking you into town, we’re going directly to Salina and you can meet Wes Jackson.”  He told me about Wes Jackson on the way over.  That was in the very early days here.
If farming could be compared to Hollywood, it would be easy to pick out the celebrities.  There's controversial Joel Salatin, hippie successful Eliot Coleman, popular Michael Pollan, and there's the sexy old timers Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson.  When you hear a speech or read an essay by one of these farming heavy hitters, the average joe is inclined to listen and listen good- they obviously know what they are doing.  The Land Institute, founded by Jackson, is a place in the middle of the country that acts as a hub for these progressive thinkers, writers, and workers.

The Land Institute is best known for its work towards perennializing grain crops.  What does that mean? At its simplest, it's an attempt to change our crop habits from annuals (plant the corn, grow the corn, harvest the corn, repeat) to a prairie-like diversified system.  A farmer would harvest multiple crops at once from a complex prairie of edible grains, but would not have to replant because they are perennials; their roots keep them alive and they re-sprout on their own the following year.

Travis and I were deep in the heart of summertime Kansas when we pulled up on August 2nd.  There we met with Ken Warren, managing director of The Land Institute.  It was nice to hear a voice other than the prolific Wes Jackson's, and Ken is a passionate conversationalist and scientist in his own right.

Ken sat with us and gave a full tour of the property for a very pleasant few hours while he explained the issues of perennializing wheat and other grains.  Ken is a great presenter and he pulled out all the stops for Travis and I, explaining that the average American gets 70% of his/her calories from grains as he kicked out a 20-foot-long poster across the floor depicting the massive root system of wheat that has been perennialized.  Wheat that is in the field for more than a year has a HUGE root system, let me tell you.  We saw another example of this later on in the visit when Ken drove us out to the plots of wheat and we climbed down into a pit that had been excavated to give a great visual of the root system of a grand-daddy wheat plant.

You might wonder what the benefits are of perennialized food.  The cost of growing it would be much much less, as farmers would be spared the yearly seed and planting expenses, and much of the fertilizer/equipment/fuel expense.  That would translate into lower prices at the grocery store or bakery.  Erosion control in one of the home states of the dust bowl would be mightily enhanced by the ever-growing root systems these plants have to offer, and perhaps all the doomsday predictors who say we'll be starving by 2050 could come to the conclusion that food that keeps on growing without being tilled/plowed/worked/etc. could provide bread in the face of upcoming disaster.

There is a popular saying that Trav and I saw on billboards in middle America that went something like this:  "Every farmer feeds 129 Americans."  Wendell Berry responded to that with "well, you'd have to slice them pretty thin."  Ken quoted that to us and imparted his belief that farming is an incredibly risky act and farmers are the biggest gamblers, with the most to lose, in our society.  Shouldn't they (and we) have the benefit of growing food that will keep giving instead of re-buying it every year?

We asked Ken, as we asked all farmers, what the role of the farmer should be in our society: 

First of all, he’s gotta be more interactive.   Farmers don’t even talk to each other!  We have a farmer that works with us who really does understand controlling inputs.  In fact he has a pickup truck he calls Herb because he bought it with herbicide savings.  He doesn’t feel comfortable talking to his neighbors about his methods, although he knows that per acre he makes more money than they do, and is probably lots better for the environment than they are. 

Wheat isn't the only crop that is being bred and crossed for perennializationmilo), sunflowers, and corn are included.  One of the tenets of The Land Institute is that a diverse crop has a much greater chance of being healthy.  Ken struggles with getting more input from farmers themselves about what they'd like to see, and when the day is done, what they'd actually buy.  He lamented that most farmers "are not a chatty bunch."
We asked him a question that Trav had wondered for some time.  How does a perennial system respond to the argument that we need to increase yields of all crops to "feed the world" in the coming years?

Absolutely.  Absolutely.  And I don’t know how you do that.   I mean, it frightens me that every 15 days we add to the population of this planet the size of the population of this state.  And when I think about that I just think, “there’s no way!” 

Of all things that give me a real start, thinking about the hope for the future, that’s one that really is a sobering one.  And if you don’t bring it up, people always say, “eh, well, have you considered population growth??” “We considered population.”  “What’re you doin’ about it?”  “What am I doing about it?”  Preaching.  I don’t know what else to do. 

Ken also is a bit frustrated and was candid with his doubts and concerns about the perennialization process.  He spoke of the struggling Plains farmers and the booming world population.

Farmers can’t live right now without the subsidies.  Back when those diesel fuel prices went crazy, it was really close out here for a lot of them.  

They didn’t realize, I think, that the last of diesel fuel is not gonna be running a tractor, it’s gonna be in a Hummer limousine going somewhere.   They really got to thinking about that.  And they got to thinking, “you know, we can’t afford to irrigate this corn anymore, ‘cause we’re up against it, takes a lot of energy to do that.”  So what happens?  Ethanol raises its ugly head.  And it makes all of that thing profitable again.  And they go back to their old habits.

The real thing you’d like to see happen is more of that money go back to the farmer.  And stay in their pockets and stay in their communities.  That’s probably as big a dream as any. 

How does a town like this one live if trucks don’t come down the interstate?  We don’t know how to grow food.   What would we do?  We used to have a diversified support system around here.  Today’s paper, always does, has a little column that goes back 25, 50, 75, 100 years.  You read about those things and you realize what we lost here. 

On a final note, if there is anyone out there who does think of farmers in celebrity terms then prepare yourself to feel a twinge of jealousy- Trav and I did exchange hello's and how-do's with Wes Jackson.  As we wrapped up our interview with Ken, a middle-aged, dirty-from-the-fields man walked in the door and asked us if we needed anything, which we didn't, but it was nice of him to offer.  He sure looked like he could stand a glass of ice water to survive the ups and downs of mimicking the perennialized American prairie.        

A summary of "Why Perennial Grain Crops?" can be found on The Land Institute website, here.

Click on the jump below to read most of the interview, including discussion of genetic diversity, the difference between traditional breeding and genetic engineering, and some sobering thoughts on how farmers in Kansas are faring.  He also goes into detail of the process of combining modern annual wheat with its perennial cousin.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Kathleen Merrigan On Genetically Engineered Alfalfa

Have you been paying attention?  A lot is going on in the agriculture sector these days, and one of the hottest topics is genetic engineering.

Recently, the USDA deregulated genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa and sugar beets.  Many people ar excited about this, and many people (mostly the louder and more public ones) are upset.  The list of concerns is long and constant: will GE crops threaten other strains?  Is there too much corporate influence in these decisions?  Are GE foods affecting our health (or other animals')?  Do they really result in less pesticide use?  What about herbicide-tolerant weeds?

We plan to begin posting on this blog soon with factsheets about these hot-topic issues.  They will attempt to collect pro and con arguments, provide summaries, facts, and questions, and will do so as an unbiased source of information.

I encourage you to see this 2 minute video by Deputy Ag. Secretary Merrigan if you are in the industry.  In it she calls for nominations to the USDA's Biotechnology Advisory Committee, a new group to discuss policy around GE crops.

If you are concerned, please consider who you would like representing you in this discussion.  If you are in support, same thing.

Meanwhile, look for profiles and interviews later this week with Ken Warren, director of The Land Institute, and Doug Heath, tomato breeder for Monsanto.

Take care!