Food without Farms: The Biotech Revolution in Agriculture

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FOOD Without FARMS The Biotech Revolution in Agriculture

If you follow the news about research in agricultural biotechnology and have a vivid imagination, you can picture any number of odd wonders that are likely to be sprouting up on the farms of the not-too-far future: tomatoes that don't need to be sprayed because they have a built-in resistance to pests; wheat fields that don't need to be fertilized because they provide their own nitrogen; and other crop plants that have been genetically modified so that they produce more protein, need less water, or grow in salty soil.

All of these are very real possibilities. Science watchers are already talking about a "second green revolution" and predicting that it will be more dramatic than the original "green revolution" - the one that resulted from the introduction of high-yield strains of rice and wheat in the 1960s. But coming close behind the second green revolution is yet another agricultural breakthrough, more spectacular than pest-resistant tomatoes or farmers irrigating their fields with salt water.

Picture this: On the outskirts of some huge metropolis - Mexico City, say - is a factory that produces orange juice. Not imitation orange juice, but real orange juice squeezed out of the same kinds of tiny juice sacs that you would bite into if you picked an orange off a tree in Florida. The difference is that there are no oranges and no orange trees anywhere to be seen; the juice sacs are grown in culture. Not far away is another factory that fabricates flour - real flour, but without using wheat, corn, or any grain at all. Another factory makes tomato sauce, while still another produces fruit jellies. The products come out, but no loads of tomatoes or fruits go in. The inputs are enzymes to regulate the growth of the plant tissues and a basic nutrient feedstock from which the plant tissues produce food for people.

Such food production is quite within the realm of future possibility. "Inevitability" is probably a better word. Scientists are working on research that increases the likelihood of people being able to grow food without farms. It is a biotechnological development much closer to being realized than many that are now being worked for and invested in, such as, for example, an AIDS vaccine.

Tissue-Culture Research

The curious thing about this research is that many of the people who are doing it would not, if you asked them what they were up to in the laboratory, tell you they were working toward the artificial production of "real" food for human beings. They talk about concrete goals, but the stated goals are usually a bit less futuristic than new forms of food. For the most part, the stated goals of such research concern some kind of incremental improvement in traditional agriculture. When you survey the research, you get the impression of a lot of scientific Columbuses looking around for new trade routes to India.

Consider Brent Tisserat and oranges. Tisserat, a plant geneticist who works in the U.S. Department of Agriculture laboratory in Pasadena, California, has figured out how to grow orange juice vesicles, or sacs, in culture.

Tissue culture is a kind of biotechnology that is considerably less celebrated (or notorious) than gene splicing but no less impressive in its results. Scientists can now take a slice from a leaf of a tree and put it into a medium of hormones and nutrients that cause it to grow into a callus, a mound of undifferentiated cells. A plant callus is not in itself a particularly inspiring sight - it looks a little like a helping of green mashed potatoes - but it has tremendous potential because every single cell in the callus has the genetic information to become a whole plant. In the proper medium, the callus can produce a hundred - or a million - copies of a single tree.

Another kind of tissue culture involves growing a certain part of a plant in vitro. …

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