How Biotechnology Differs from Other Plant Breeding Techniques - Food Dialogues

How Biotechnology Differs from Other Plant Breeding Techniques

For 10,000 years farmers have intentionally changed the genetic makeup of all the crops we grow to produce hardier crops that taste better, resist disease and are easier to grow, all while taking up less land. Today, every commercially available vegetable, fruit and grain has been altered by human hands, even those coming from organic and/or heirloom seeds.

In the 20th century, the demand increased for certain traits in crops. Many people around the world became concerned about the growing use of chemicals and inputs needed to improve yields and wanted to reduce the impact of agriculture on the environment. Hand-in-hand with this concern was the growing need to feed more people as the world’s population grew exponentially. Many people worried about a coming environmental disaster. In response, academia and scientists at companies began intense research to use genetic engineering to produce crops with specific traits to answer these concerns. The result has been seeds that yield more crops, have less impact on the environment and require fewer inputs.

Here is a timeline of human crop manipulation:

  • 10,000 years ago farmers began selective breeding to produce better crops. This means breeding the female and male part of the plant of the same species for specific traits.
  • In the 1700s, farmers and scientists began cross-breeding plants within a species, mixing the genetic makeup of different plants together for new traits. The corn, oats, soybeans, tomatoes, potatoes, rice, wheat and barley that we eat today have been bred to improve pest resistance, yield and taste.
  • In the 1940s, researchers began seeking more genetic variations not easily found naturally in the gene pool of plants. They used a process called mutagenesis, which involves exposing DNA to any number of physical, chemical or biological agents in order to alter the genetic makeup of seeds. They would then plant those seeds and look for new, preferred traits. Many plants on the market today were developed with this technique, which is not genetic engineering, and over the years, more than 2,200 conventional and organic crop varieties have been created with mutagenesis breeding.
  • In the 1990s, the first GM crops were introduced to the marketplace. Genetic engineering or GMO means copying one gene from one plant or organism and placing it into another. This is more precise than any previous method and is possible because scientists are able to code a plant’s DNA and know exactly the genetic makeup of a plant.