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Toward Furthering Sustainable Agriculture

Fred Claussen of EPL Bio Analytical Services sheds light on genetic variations, anti-nutrients, and sustainable agriculture

Holden Galusha

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Sustainable agriculture has increasingly become a topic of focus as global demands on food production intensify. Efforts to balance high crop yields with environmental conservation are crucial. Fred Claussen, technical lead of method development at EPL Bio Analytical Services, discusses how analytical data supports the registration of crop protection chemicals and genetic variations in crops, contributing to sustainable agricultural practices. He also explores the challenges associated with implementing these technologies in the field.

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Fred Claussen
Credit: Fred Claussen

Q: How does EPL contribute to sustainable agriculture?

A: Sustainability is not a new concept for agriculture. EPL has supported sustainability since the company’s inception in 1987 by providing analytical data to support registration of crop protection chemicals (pesticides) with US EPA and global regulatory agencies. Pesticides allow farmers to obtain yields on half the acreage they could without them. There are approximately 400 million acres of land dedicated to crop production in the US. If you double that acreage to 800 million, it would encompass 42 percent of the land mass of the lower 48 states. So then double the amount of energy and carbon emissions from the additional use of fossil fuels for farm implements, transportation, and production of fertilizers. Those inputs actually more than double because less productive soils would have to be cultivated. Along those lines, water usage would increase disproportionately because more arid land would have to be placed into production requiring irrigation. Wetlands would need to be drained. The use of pesticides also allows for soil conservation practices such as no-till. Without pesticides, leaving intact residual plant material on fields after harvest would lead to increased pest infestations during the following growing seasons. Additionally, no-till practices increase soil organic matter over time with an increase in soil water retention for use by crops and a reduction in surface erosion.

So, now I will answer your question regarding sustainability given the growing public demand for environmental protection and food safety and the need to increase food production to feed a global population approaching 10 billion by 2050. Maintaining productivity increases while preserving the environment and reducing carbon emissions make the goal a colossal undertaking. Our clients produce innovative products in the areas of seed biotechnology, crop protection chemicals, and fertilizers to address these challenges. Microbiological and biochemical crop protection products are providing options to implement environmentally friendly applications to increase crop uptake of nutrients and protect plants from pests using natural chemical compounds found in nature. We are seeing an uptick in the registration of these materials and the studies needed to meet the regulatory requirements. EPL provides analytical data to support these studies.

Q: What role might new genetic variations of crops play in advancing agricultural sustainability?

A: Genetically modified organism (GMO) crops make up a major arm of the goals of sustainability and productivity. To say they have been revolutionary would be an obvious understatement. Herbicide resistance started the revolution. (That route has had some negative outcomes in the form of herbicide resistance by several plant pest species.) The initial GMO crops were crop yield insurance policies, and they still play a key role in the production arm of sustainable agriculture. Herbicide resistance was shortly followed by insecticidal traits in the form of Bt strains that produced a protein toxic to Lepidopteran pest species such as European Corn Borer, reducing the inputs of synthetic insecticides without impacting non-target insects. New traits are introduced each year, such as drought resistance that helps plants more efficiently extract water from the soil and reduce evapotranspiration in the arial leaves. Newer techniques such as gene editing (CRISPR and RNAi) are gaining momentum.

Any conventional breeding or genetic engineering to produce a more nutritious food product can also potentially reduce yield.

In 2000, EPL implemented US EPA GLP-compliant analytical services that support the food and feed safety assessment of GM products by validating targeted metabolomic assays to measure compositional and nutritional components of GMO seeds and forage. The nutritional and compositional data are used by our clients to determine if there are any unintended changes to the GMO plants. This evaluation is known as substantial equivalency or compositional equivalency. The assays include basic gravimetric procedures such as crude fat, ash, and moisture, titrimetric assays such as Kjeldahl crude protein estimation, and more sophisticated techniques such as ICP determination of minerals, UHPLC analysis of amino acids, GC analysis of fatty acids, a combination of HPLC and GC techniques for secondary plant metabolites, antinutrients, and fat-soluble vitamins, and microbiological assays for water soluble B vitamins. The process of validating these methods for maize seed and forage took over a year, encompassing 23 analytical methods and 56 analytes. Over the next five years, similar profiles for soy, cotton, and canola were validated. It was a very challenging task for an organization that previously only had experience with trace pesticide residue methods. The approaches used for sub-parts per million pesticide residue quantification and those used to measure nutritional and compositional analytes, some at percent levels, are quite different. Monitoring method performance was quite different as well. The quality control parameters for proximates, as an example, required us to construct control charts with bulk matrix reference samples as opposed to pesticide residue methods where spike and recovery is routinely utilized.

Q: What impact might anti-nutrients have on agricultural sustainability, and how is EPL addressing that impact?

A: Anti-nutritional factors are a double-edged sword. They have both favorable and undesirable effects. On one hand, they favor plant growth by regulating activities such as biotic and abiotic stress tolerance as one example. On the other hand, most interfere with digestion and bioavailability of major nutrients and in some severe cases can be acutely toxic. Any conventional breeding or genetic engineering to produce a more nutritious food product can also potentially reduce yield. The goal of ongoing research is to reduce the concentrations of specific anti-nutrients in the harvested crop (or isolate them in specific tissues) so that food and feed nutrition is enhanced and yield is maintained.

Although EPL is not engaged directly in this research, future regulatory support for anti-nutritional traits is already in place. For nutrient composition studies we provide quantitative analytical data for anti-nutrient analytes in soybean, maize, canola, and cotton. Examples include lectin in soybean using a novel enzyme linked lectin assay, phytic acid in maize using ion-exchange SPE followed by ICP measurement of elemental phosphorous, glucosinolates in canola by HPLC, and gossypol in cotton using spectrophotometry.

Q: What unique challenges do bioanalytical labs face when operating in agricultural space?

A: Although our company name implies it, we don’t meet the technical definition of a bioanalytical lab. The term is typically associated with medical and pharma laboratories. We have been dedicated to Ag industry since day one in 1987. In addition to some of the technical issues I’ve touched on, there are always business issues, many of which are beyond our control. Delays in field trial execution can leave us holding a hot potato when it comes to meeting timelines for sample analysis completion. We frequently juggle priorities and resources to do our best to maintain timelines. Are we always successful? No. But through a continuous improvement process, we strive to get better. All we can do is communicate problems that lead to delays in a timely and honest manner and work through those issues with our clients.

GMO crops make up a major arm of the goals of sustainability and productivity. To say they have been revolutionary would be an obvious understatement.

Q: How do you weigh your goal to advance sustainable agriculture against business priorities? Do the two ever conflict, and if so, how do you prioritize competing objectives?

A: Simple answer: In my opinion, sustainability and business priorities are completely complementary. Our data supports the regulatory requirements of our clients’ products. Regulatory requirements ensure safe food and feed for consumption by humans and animals and ensure little or no impact on ecosystems where they are applied. Across the board, our clients’ products are intended to increase crop yields and support a sustainable food supply for our growing population.

Fred Claussen joined EPL in 1988 as a laboratory technician specializing in sample preparation and atomic spectroscopy to measure arsenic in environmental samples. He then moved into a project management role in the early 1990s and developed expertise in trace pesticide quantification using gas and liquid chromatography (LC) techniques. In the late 1990s, Fred began using tandem mass spectrometer detectors for high-performance LC pesticide residue analysis. In 2000, Fred became VP of method development, a role which lasted 19 years. In 2019, he took a position as undergraduate director of Research and Laboratory Sciences at Hocking College in Nelsonville, OH. He Returned to EPL in 2022 to take on his current role, which encompasses method development and validation, method troubleshooting, training analysts, and coaching/teaching/mentoring project managers.