CommonGround volunteers talk advanced plant breeding techniques

Kristie Swenson

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

With great precision, advanced plant breeding techniques with acronyms like CRISPR, CRISPR-Cas, and TALEN, will more reliably produce the food consumers are looking for and, at the same time, help farmers conserve natural resources, reduce impacts on the environment, and plant crops with a greater assurance that what they plant will grow to maturity and be gathered at harvest time.

A small group of CommonGround volunteers from across the U.S. gathered in St. Louis, Missouri in November at a workshop to learn about these techniques, which all fall within the category of ‘gene editing.’

cg-workshop

From left: Wanda Patsche, Lauren Biegler, and Kristie Swenson

“With gene editing, you are not adding anything to the plant,” says Wanda Patsche, who raises corn, soybeans and hogs with her husband at their farm in Fairmount, Minnesota. “You are rewriting the genome and, by doing that, speeding up what happens with traditional plant breeding. Science is helping make that process more efficient.”

Some of the benefits available through these targeted changes include helping make plants more drought-tolerant, disease-resistant, insect-resistant, and also more efficient in the use of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. The use of these techniques may be five years or more off, in terms of delivering seeds that farmers can use, and produce that can be delivered to market.

Lauren Biegler, who farms with her husband Bryan in Lake Wilson, Minnesota says the number one benefit of advanced breeding techniques to row crop farmers like her would be protecting yield. The new technology would deliver seeds they could use with the assurance that, despite the vagaries of the weather, a sufficient crop would make it to maturity.

“There are benefits across the whole food chain. For example, the scientist who works in fruits and vegetables talked about eliminating disease,” says Biegler. “When we buy produce we buy with our eyes. So this technology has the potential to yield produce that’s more appealing, as well as improving taste, and mouth-feel. It’s exciting.”

Technology and science, particularly when it comes to our food, can be a contentious subject. One of the challenges for farmers and food scientists alike is talking about advanced breeding techniques and complicated research terminology in a way that makes sense.

Kristie Swenson raises corn and soybeans with her husband Trelin in Jackson County, Minnesota. Swenson also attended the workshop and says presenters offered basic analogies that helped make the abstract science more real.

“For example, to get from point A to point B, you used to look at your map and then get in your car and go,” says Swenson. “Today, mobile technology gives you more detailed and precise information about your route. With GPS, the navigation program can take into account things like traffic, weather and road construction. These advanced breeding techniques are like that, in that they are able to take into account a lot more factors when planning that ‘route’ to get the plant you want.”

CommonGroundThe women farmers of CommonGround think there’s a story to tell about advanced plant breeding techniques that are being developed for row crops, and fruits and vegetables. Join the conversation on Facebook or visit FindOurCommonGround.com.

CommonGround is a group of farm women who volunteer their time to share information about their farms and the food they produce. These women grow and raise a variety of conventional and organic crops, produce and livestock. More than 200 women volunteer with the program nationwide.

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