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Published March 17, 2014, 09:43 AM

Speaker discusses plant breeding

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Tom Peters can tell you a lot about biotechnology and agriculture. Peters, University of Minnesota and North Dakota State University Extension sugar beet agronomist and weed specialist, gave the March 12 keynote address at the 52nd annual International Sugarbeet Institute in Grand Forks, N.D.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Tom Peters can tell you a lot about biotechnology and agriculture.

Peters, University of Minnesota and North Dakota State University Extension sugar beet agronomist and weed specialist, gave the March 12 keynote address at the 52nd annual International Sugarbeet Institute in Grand Forks, N.D.

The institute, the nation’s largest indoor sugar beet trade show, took place March 12 to 13. An estimated 3,000 to 4,000 people attended, and about 125 companies exhibited their products.

Peters, who grew up on a Minnesota dairy farm, recently retired from Monsanto after 24 years with the company. He worked in biotechnology and the development of products with new traits.

His presentation at the institute was, “I have an Idea; Let’s Develop a New Biotech Trait.” He talked about some of the principles of biotech development, using the idea of coming up with a plant that’s resistant to cold.

Breeding plants has a long and important role in human civilization.

“Classical plant breeding is something that the public accepts, and it’s a very important part of what we can do as scientists,” Peters said.

Classical plant breeding, however, only allows crosses with like crops. “You can’t make a cross into sugar beets with algae. ... You have to make a cross with a sugar beet,” he said.

“That’s a limitation. It’s really the reason that biotech evolved into the science it is today,” Peters said.

In contrast to classical plant breeding, biotech could allow a scientist “to go out and find maybe a microbe in a cold stream in Canada. Or we could go to the oceans to find a gene in a deep-water fish. We could potentially identify those genes” and move them into sugar beets, Peters said.

‘Gene of interest’

Another shortcoming with classical plant breeding is that it takes time, sometimes a very long time, Peters said.

For instance, it took 10,000 years to convert teosinte (a wild relative of maize) into corn. “Over 10,000 years, five different genes evolved as corn evolved,” he said.

Traditional plant breeding identifies “a gene of interest” that scientists hope to advance. In working with that particular gene, however, scientists must work with other genes, as well. Peters compared DNA to a string of pearls, with each pearl a different gene. With classical plant breeding, scientists work with, and advance, all the genes on the string.

In contrast, plant biotechnology “advances only the gene of interest,” said Peters, who worked on his first Roundup project in 1993. Monsanto developed the Roundup brand of herbicides

Longer process

Monsanto first became involved in biotech because its leaders thought the regulatory approval process for products developed by biotech would be easier than for products developed by chemistry, Peters said.

Over time, however, winning regulatory approval has become more difficult, Peters said.

He estimated that developing biotech products costs four times as much and takes twice as long as it did 10 years ago.

He also thinks the easiest-to-achieve biotech breakthroughs have been achieved.

“The easy stuff’s done,” he said.

Peters said consumers, not farmers, have the final vote on biotech food.

“They do that by buying the finished product in the super market,” he said.

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