The Media and I: Enhancing the Soil to Improve Farming

By Henry I. Miller, MS, MD — Feb 22, 2024
In a recent radio conversation with John Batchelor on CBS Eye on the World, we discussed plants' need for nitrogen, the use of fertilizers, and the potential for genetic engineering to maintain agricultural productivity and reduce detrimental environmental impact.
Image by Michi S from Pixabay

I began by explaining the role of nitrogen in plant growth, especially the clever partnership legumes like peas and soybeans have with nitrogen-fixing bacteria called Rhizobia. Growing non-leguminous plants, however, often requires chemical fertilizers, which come with their own baggage.

Chemical fertilizers, which are primarily derived from petroleum, have environmental drawbacks and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. The runoff from fields into waterways leads to anoxic areas ("dead zones"), and nitrogen oxide emissions are 300 times more potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide -- a double-edged sword, considering that we need fertilizers to maintain productivity.

Genetic engineering might provide a way to reduce synthetic fertilizer application, significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions -- adding to the soil genetically engineered bacteria that can convert nitrogen in the air to compounds that the plants can use, thereby reducing the need for excessive chemical fertilizers.

I brought up cyanobacteria, which are responsible for those green layers of slime on lakes. While still in early development, scientists are trying to modify cyanobacteria to promote nitrogen fixation for certain plants. Scientists at MIT (my alma mater) are also in the game, working on genetically modifying cereal plants like corn and wheat to create their own fertilizer. One question is whether farmers will embrace these new techniques.

Of course, our discussion wouldn't be complete without addressing the anti-GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) lobby, much of which is housed in the organic agriculture and food industries, which reject modern genetic modification. I emphasized the need for more nuanced conversations about genetic modification, emphasizing that terms like "GMO" or "NGT" (New Genomic Techniques) are misleading.They are meaningless, pseudo-categories, because genetic modification is a centuries-old seamless continuum of genetic improvement of organisms via numerous techniques.  The newer, molecular techniques are just more precise and predictable ways of doing what we've been doing for centuries.  Risk is a function primarily of intrinsic toxicity (e.g. "death cap" mushrooms or the foxglove plant) or invasiveness (e.g., kudzu or bamboo).

You can find the audio of our conversation here.

Are you looking for a deeper dive?

Reduce Synthetic Fertilizers And Improve Yields? The Microbiome Revolution Comes To Agriculture.

How Biotechnology Overregulation Harms Farmers, Boosts Food Costs And Fuels Inflation

How The Feds Froze Out A High-Tech Frost Fix

Henry I. Miller, MS, MD

Henry I. Miller, MS, MD, is the Glenn Swogger Distinguished Fellow at the American Council on Science and Health. His research focuses on public policy toward science, technology, and medicine, encompassing a number of areas, including pharmaceutical development, genetic engineering, models for regulatory reform, precision medicine, and the emergence of new viral diseases. Dr. Miller served for fifteen years at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in a number of posts, including as the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology.

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