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March 16, 2009

The omnivore’s stopgap: Self-fertilizing corn

by brainoids

This brainoid popped while reading Michael Pollan’s (compelling) diatribe against the evils of industrialized corn production in The Omnivore’s Dilemma.   Pollan points out that it takes approximately as much fossil fuel energy to grow corn (thanks to industrialized fertilizer production) as the corn yields in food calories, leading to the uncomfortable realization that we’ve fully switched from a solar-based food system to a fossil-fuel based food system.

My question:  How far off are we from genetically modified corn which, like legumes (soybeans, etc) is capable of its own nitrogen-fixation?   (I.e., self-fertilizing).   This should be a fairly straightforward (next decade-type) leap given the current state of gene mapping, and if accomplished, could be one of the biggest advances in agriculture in a very long time.   (Not that I’m in favor of perpetuating the corn-based industrial food system and all of its attendant woes, but we do seem to be stuck with it, and if so, minimizing the fossil fuel inputs at the front end is a first step at taming the beast).

Some interesting top-level trades arise:   Nitrogen-fixation in legumes is actually performed by symbiotic microbes that live in the root system.   Would we genetically modify the bacteria to live on corn roots, or would we modify the corn to support the legume bacteria?   If the former, I’d worry about “rogue strains” and unintended consequence on ecosystems.

Fortunately, I can’t take first-credit for this one, and it appears that folks are already working it.   I certainly hope this idea is near the top of government genetic research grants …

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