As an organic farmer, Adamchak was especially interested in the molecular workings of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium compounds, and the problem of holding these chemicals within the Earth’s biomass to feed succeeding generations of crops—rather than allowing them to wash away and fuel unwanted fields of algae that plunder oxygen from the world’s lakes, streams and oceans.
Nothing has done more to transform the land, it turns out, than the annual tithe of energy that we demand from it. This energy drain helped create the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and has efficiently wrought a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that on some summers reaches the size of New Jersey. And all the efforts of agri-tech could not change the essential fact that everything that grows must first take its energy from the sun, which fuels the photosynthesis that grows the plants, which then die and transfer their energy to the soil, which sustains the crops that eventually fuel the hungry engine that is the human stomach. But conventional agriculture is a terribly inefficient means of transferring energy from sun to stomach.
Commercial farmers extract ancient solar energy (that is, oil and other fossil fuels) from one hole in the ground, convert it into fertilizer, transport it across great distances—and then pour it right back into another hole in the ground. This convoluted scheme contributes to erosion, wastes considerable energy, and creates pollution at every stage. But cover crops such as cowpeas, Adamchak explained, could help eliminate the farmer’s need for synthetic fertilizers. Using a form of bacterial symbiosis, they breathe in nitrogen from the air already around them and fix the molecules in their roots, stems and leaves. When they die, that nitrogen—the all-purpose, basic fertilizer—resolves into the soil. In this way, cover crops help keep the energy cycle local.
I asked Adamchak what he made of the genetic work his wife did. He said that in our closed-loop world of limited resources, where every expansion of fertile farmland demands a corresponding decrease in natural habitat, he and Pamela Ronald had reached a new perspective on the future of food: that it will be neither organic nor molecular but an agro-ecological synthesis of both bodies of knowledge. “As a farmer, I’m not quite sure how healthy it is to look backward for solutions to problems,” he said. “A molecular understanding will help solve problems down the road.”
I considered a future in which the science of genetic modification exploits all the micro-information available from a plant’s genome even as the science of organic farming exploits the macro-energies of the sun, the earth and water. Unlike synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides, both the gene and the Earth’s energies had always already been there, waiting. Both methods of making food took advantage of what was closest at hand. The farmer interrupted my thoughts as he held out a flimsy green plastic pint basket. “You’ve got to pick now.”
So I bent over a row of tomato vines and worked my fingers through a tangle to reach the grape-size Sun Gold tomatoes, a crop of contradictions. These tomatoes were organic, but they were genetically altered too. And as the ooze from broken stems stuck to my fingertips, I contemplated the entrenched conflict between the activists and the scientists, the mystics and the agribusinessmen. No matter how many advances we make in genetically modifying our seeds, they will still need to be planted in the earth, watered, weeded, ripened, and harvested.
As I walked away from Adamchak’s organic garden, I imagined a world filled with thousands of customized, gene-spliced, open-source, freely available grains—some made to resist freeze, others to resist flood, and some to resist deadly rice pathogens like Xanthomonas. All of which could conceivably be grown using the organic methods I had just witnessed.
Then, as if to materialize my thoughts, I came across a vast greenhouse. Beneath the great glass roof, full-grown rice plants shot up from black plastic paddies packed with mud and flooded with brown-gold water. The yard-tall flat plants were rough-skinned and pointy-tipped, top-heavy with beautiful green kernels of rice. Each plant had its own label, and I stopped before a particularly tall and vigorous clump called Xa21-106/TP309. This was the first disease-resistant transgenic rice Ronald created, one that she has cultivated in her laboratory for more than a decade. “Many years ago, we gave the Xa21 gene to Chinese breeders,” she had told me. “It was scheduled to be released two years ago, but the agricultural ministry still has not approved it.”
Today, while the Chinese government bolsters intellectual-property protections for its seed industry, Xa21-106/TP309 still languishes in the ministry’s bureaucracy, where it awaits the go-ahead for commercial development. Despite the ravages of Asian rice blight, and despite the fact that the virus has helped add millions to the roster of those who are hungry or starving at this moment, Pamela Ronald’s Xa21-106/TP309 has yet to become an officially commercialized crop. If this rice embodied the future of food, what on earth was holding it back?single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.