Interview With Noguchi Isao: A Passion For Biological Diversity

The Future of the Seed of Life (Part 1) (Part 2)

In the early part of the 20th century, Japanese researchers were the first in the world to develop F1 hybrids of silkworms. This was done using a basic F1 method of breeding and soon it was applied to eggplants and other vegetables as well. For example, at the Agricultural Experiment Station in Saitama prefecture, researchers first crossed purse eggplants with a true black eggplant using artificial pollination.

Noguchi Isao uses this as an example to explain F1 hybrids when he holds lectures, with charts and graphs. He notes that most water melons for sale today are of the striped type, with a harder skin, that are easier to transport to supermarkets. “Most people have forgotten the taste of the older varieties,” he says.

In some cases, such as the Komatsuna (leafy Japanese spinach mustard) researchers mobilized large groups of housewives to help with the intricate work of artificially pollinating the plants. This required a lot of patience and skill with tweezers, as the tiny buds had to be carefully opened and pollen inserted. The pollination had to be done this way, to avoid natural pollination that would occur after the bud had opened. It was thought that this technique, called “self-incompatibility” was a Japanese specialty. Newer methods include using green houses that are sealed up carefully, to increase the levels of CO2 in the air. This changes the plants as their physiology goes mad, as Noguchi-san calls it. The stress response mechanism in the plants makes it possible for bees to spread the pollen and achieve the desired cross breeding result.

Male sterility is another technique used to create F1 hybrid vegetables. This was discovered in California in 1929 and soon imported to Hokkaido Agricultural Experiment Station, where new types of onions were developed, including a yellow variety that was crossbred with a red onion. The researchers were able to produce a novel yellow onion with disease resistance in this way.

For the brassica family, researchers found a way to use male sterility to create new F1 hybrids of cabbage and spinach with traits found in a type of radish. As the chromosomes of radish and cabbage are different, they would not normally cross breed, but using the stressful CO2 intensive method described above, the pollination suddenly becomes possible. Most cabbages sold in supermarkets today come from seeds that have been produced in this way. These cabbages are easy to store over long periods of time, but it is not possible to save seeds from such plants, as they will not grow normally.

Understanding male sterility

Noguchi-san uses his website to post articles and essays about seeds and breeding, and he often writes about his own discoveries and “aha” – experiences. One such case was when he wrote about male sterility, and his concerns about this artificial breeding method. One of his readers contacted him to comment on this essay. The reader was an expert at one of Japan’s large commercial seed companies. Noguchi-san learned that male sterility in plants actually is a result of the mitochondria in the cells of plants. The unique character of the mitochondria is that it is only passed on to the offspring from females, and never from males.

The F1 hybrid vegetables we are commonly eating all have the abnormal characters of male sterility. Noguchi-san then got worried when the World Health Organization noted that Japanese males have the lowest sperm counts in the world compared to other developed countries. This was big news in Japan in the fall of 2006. One theory is that this is due to endocrine disrupters, a type of chemicals that can influence fertility. Noguchi-san, however, thinks it is due to dysfunctional mitochondria, passed along through F1 hybrids: “I think we lose some of our original vitality as a function of both the environment and possibly also from the food we eat.”

The modern breeding techniques used for many vegetables and legumes to produce F1 hybrids do not work so well for beans. Noguchi-san points out that beans simply are too costly to breed that way, and seed companies cannot make a profit. However, by using irradiation the researchers found a way to make new F1 varieties of soybeans, in particular the smaller beans used for making natto in Japan. The irradiation used by seed companies and researchers damage the plant’s genome, and the character of the offspring is thus changed. Another example of a root vegetable developed this way is the salad gobo (salad burdoch), a miniature variety of the usually much longer and stronger plant.

GMO is “environmental damage”

Noguchi-san is very critical of genetically modified organisms (GMO) and especially the development of GM foods. He thinks this is environmental damage to the highest degree and worst extent possible. In particular, he notes that the understanding of genetic engineering still is in its infancy, and the researchers do not really know what they are doing. “Neither insect resistance nor herbicide tolerance is very useful, except as a way for the agrochemicals industry to make a huge profit,” he says. He adds that they are profiting from the very problem they caused in the first place by having encouraged farmers to use large amounts of agrochemicals, and now many plants and insects have become resistant and the toxic pesticides and herbicides have become useless.

Noguchi Isao warns that the so-called Terminator technology, an extreme form of genetic engineering that passes on a trait rendering the offspring of the GMO sterile, will make it impossible for farmers to save seed: “It is a suicide technology,” he says, and points out that companies like Monsanto have already done a lot of research and development in this area. If this trait is accidentally spread across fields, for example through bacteria, it can be the origin of a terrible plague killing plants on our planet. But he also reminds us that F1 hybrids work in a similar way, as the offspring do not breed true.

Rather than entering such an abnormal world, Noguchi-san wants to promote healthy seeds. The regular native seeds (such as heirloom varieties) do not really need any chemical fertilizers, as the crops from such seeds are powerful enough to grow.

“We should listen more to nature, with a modest attitude, rather than fighting it with our intellects,” he says. Real seeds are healthy because their genome is vital, with energetic mitochondria: “Such seeds want to grow, and we want to eat such vegetables!

(Please click here to read Part 1 of this interview)