We want to help people understand what is (and isn't) involved in modern plant breeding. There is so much misinformation available about the crops our farmers grow, we want to provide factual, easy to understand information so consumers can make informed decisions and producers can meet the food and fiber needs of our growing world.
Plants developed through the use of biotechnology are often referred to as GMOs
Early man bred plants through selection. By choosing the biggest and best and allowing them to breed, cultivated crops produced more food than wild varieties. 6,000 years ago, we began using biological processes and microorganisms (fermentation and yeast) to improve our ability to store and transport food. Bread, yogurt, cheese, beer and wine are a few examples.
In the 1800s, we learned to cross breed plants to create new types of food. Pluots and tangelos are common examples.
In the early 1900s, we began using radiation and chemicals to force seeds to mutate to create novel traits. Ruby red grapefruit and many other varieties we enjoy today were created through forced mutagenesis. Once the new trait has been discovered, the plant is grown and reproduced just like any other crop.
In the 1990s, we learned to identify specific genes that control specific traits in plants. We use the same microorganisms our ancestors used 6000 years ago to grow specific genes to improve today's crops.
Every crop grown for food today (with the exception of wild berries) was developed by man. The older processes are costly, time consuming and inefficient. Using modern biotechnology to improve crops is more specific, precise and predictable.
Today's genetically modified crops – what's in them and why
The only crops developed using modern genetic modification on the market today are soybeans, corn, canola, cotton, alfalfa, sugar beets, papaya, summer squash and Arctic apples.
The most common traits bred into these crops are herbicide tolerance and protection from certain types of damaging insects.
Herbicide tolerant crops (you may have heard the term “Round-up ready”) do not have herbicides in them. They enable the plant to tolerate a specific type of herbicide without being damaged. This allows the farmer to use less total herbicide. One application when the crop is young removes the weeds and the crop can continue to grow.
You may have heard about herbicide resistant weeds. Many plants quickly adapt to herbicides. Farmers knew this generations before GMO seeds were developed. Rotating crops and rotating weed control methods manages resistance. Each type of herbicide uses a different means of controlling weeds. One product is not "stronger" than another; it simply uses a different pathway.
Some varieties of corn and cotton have Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) inserted. Bt is a naturally occurring bacterium commonly found in soil. It is used as an insecticide by organic growers. It kills insect larvae by producing proteins that affect the gut of certain types of insects. It shows up in the green leaves and stems of plants. When the insect chews on the leaf, it is affected by the Bt and dies, protecting the plant. Bt has been rigorously tested and is considered safe for people and wildlife. Putting Bt in the plant results in far less insecticide used.
Modern genetic modification techniques allow us to move single genes, whose functions we know, from one organism to another. Using the old methods of selective breeding, large sets of genes of unknown function are transferred between related organisms. Biotechnology decreases the risk of producing organisms with unexpected traits and avoids the time-consuming, trial and error approach of selective breeding. By increasing the breadth of species from which we can obtain useful genes, we can access all of nature’s genetic diversity.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves the safety of all foods. Crops developed through biotechnology are also regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
What does the future hold?
Crops that can tolerate drought are being developed now. They will not only benefit developing countries where irrigation is scarce but also California and other places where water resources are becoming increasingly limited. Drought tolerant crops can help us cope with climate change in the future.
Biotechnology can improve food by removing allergens. Work is underway now to develop allergen free peanuts, for example.
What else does biotechnology produce?
Numerous drugs and vaccines have been developed using the same techniques. Insulin for diabetics as well as drugs to treat cancer and other diseases have all been made possible through biotechnology.
10 Billion People for Dinner; watch the video below