Sir David Baulcombe is the British bioscientist credited with the discovery and characterisation of a ribonucleic acid (RNA) silencing system that protects plants against viruses.

His work on genetically modified (GM) plants spans more than 30 years, winning numerous accolades, as well as stirring several controversies.

What does he say about the adoption of GM?

“Initially there was significant scepticism towards the usefulness and applicability of GM technology,” recalls Baulcombe.

“Slowly, as more and more GM crops were being produced, evaluated for their safety and nutritive value and then released for use by farmers, there has been an incremental increase in the public’s acceptance.

“I anticipate that over the next five years or so, GM crops will become more the norm than the exception, but only time will tell.”

Green revolution

Genetic modification is one, current example of how scientific inquiry is bringing sweeping changes to agriculture. 

Sciences’ earliest success was during the ‘Green Revolution’ of the 1960s and 1970s. This saw substantial increases in rice and wheat yields across Asia, saving almost a billion lives on the continent.

Despite decades of research on GM crops, today only nine varieties are available globally, ranging from cotton to sweetcorn. Several more are still held back by long-drawn regulatory checks.

For instance, in November 2017, the Indian government’s Environment Ministry halted the release of GM mustard – under development for over a decade – despite clearance in 2016 from India’s top biotechnology regulator declaring the transgenic mustard plant “safe for consumption”.

Tip of the iceberg

Professor Baulcombe’s current research includes hybrid tomatoes and genetically-engineered maize. The latter can potentially resist a lethal disease endemic to Kenya, Uganda and neighbouring African countries.

“Maize disease or ‘necrosis’ is a major problem in East and Central Africa. We are looking at doing a trial of some GM varieties over the next year,” he explains.

“When it comes to genetic modification, we are just at the tip of the iceberg.”

Chainsaws versus scalpels

“It’s an open secret that farms are typically managed with chainsaw precision versus scalpel precision,” says Sherman Black, the new CEO of early-stage American ag-tech startup Conservis.

Black, a veteran IT professional, returned from retirement last year to lead the enterprise and believes this role is “my most noble one yet, spending the last chapter of my career helping farmers grow better food”.

Conservis provides farmers with a cloud-based software solution that enables compliance, tracking, traceability and performance management, allowing them to track field activities, manage inventories and analyse yields, all at the touch of a button.

“It started with a handful of farmers asking the founders to help with workflow management,” recalls Black.

Today, industry leader Conservis is used by some of the most successful agricultural producers, managing over US$8 billion in land, equipment and crop assets primarily across North America, with initial traction in Australia.

A major shift in agriculture

So are farmers joining the digital bandwagon? Not as quickly as Black would like, but he contends the industry is on the cusp of a major shift when it comes to food production.

“Much of agriculture today is essentially a manufacturing process: we operate like it is the ’80s and ’90s. Think of the tremendous leaps we made when it came to the mobile phone. Just 10 years ago, who would have thought we’d want all this functionality in a single phone?

The shift in agriculture will be very much like that. Farmers are no different to anyone else: once you reach the threshold of inevitability, you either get on board or get bought out by a larger and more tech-savvy co-operative.”

In the next article in our series on food, science and technology, we’ll explore how robots, data and super-charged photosynthesis are changing the farming landscape forever.

This article is adapted from an in-depth look at food, science and technology by Natasha D’Souza in the latest copy of the Odgers Berndtson magazine, OBSERVE.

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