Humans have been breeding crops for thousands of years. Early farmers chose to save seeds from plants with juicier fruit, or from the plants that didn’t shed their seeds too quickly. Plant breeders continuously look to breed together similar plants to produce varieties with the traits they want. Selecting for specific traits has given us broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale and kohlrabi – all from a single species, Brassica oleracea (wild cabbage).
These traditional plant breeding techniques have created most of the food crops that feed us today. But there are limits. For one thing, the trait you want might not exist in that crop or a related variety. Or, even when you find the trait you’re looking for in a plant closely related enough to work with, you must slowly breed out the undesirable traits too. It’s a process that can take many years, which is why scientists have developed advanced breeding techniques like genetic engineering (GE).
Genetic Engineering in a Nutshell
Genetic engineering refers to specific methods of plant breeding that use laboratory methods to change an organism’s DNA. It can be used to introduce one or more genes into a plant’s genetic makeup. This involves either moving genes from an unrelated organism into the plant or by changing the plant’s own genetics.
The idea came from nature. About 50 years ago, scientists discovered Agrobacterium tumefaciens (Agrobacterium for short), a single-celled microbe and natural genetic engineer. They found that Agrobacterium can take part of its DNA and insert it into the DNA of a plant. Scientists were able to refine this technique to introduce specific DNA sequences into crop plants.
First, they locate the desired gene or genes containing the information for the desired trait. Then the information is copied thousands of times and linked to the Agrobacterium cells that insert the desired trait into the plants. This process results in crops with new abilities such as helping them fight off pests, grow more nutritious food and become better at dealing with climate change.
Like any new crops, those produced using genetic engineering are tested thoroughly by Health Canada to make sure they are safe. It can be years – even decades – before an idea results in a product, passes through many rounds of rigorous testing, and makes it onto supermarket shelves and into consumers’ hands.
To date, there are only a small number of crops that have been genetically engineered. These include alfalfa, apples, canola, corn, cotton, papaya, potatoes, soybeans, squash, eggplants and sugar beets. However, products containing these crops are very common. Examples include cooking oil, tofu, syrup, sugar and ingredients in other products.
What are GMOs?
GMO stands for “genetically modified organism,” and in plant breeding are the plants that result from genetic engineering that typically includes bringing DNA together from different sources. Over the years they have been the subject of controversy. However, there’s a lot you might not know about GMOs and their benefits to people and the planet.
We asked Ian Affleck from CropLife Canada: what GMO crops are grown in Canada?
Improving our Ability to Feed a Hungry World
Plant breeding creates new crop varieties that meet a whole host of challenges, such as foods with enhanced nutrition, crops that yield more, look more appealing (like non-browning apples), need less fertilizer, are more drought-resistant, or fight off pests better. Farmers around the world can efficiently produce high-quality food and make a living while keeping prices affordable for consumers.
Weeds can be a major problem for farmers because they compete with the crops for water, nutrients and space. Herbicide-resistant crops are engineered to withstand a “broad spectrum” herbicide that is effective against many different kinds of weeds. These crops can be sprayed by the herbicide without suffering any damage while all the weeds die – an efficient strategy that reduces costs and gives the plants a better chance to produce more food.
Pest-resistant crops are genetically engineered to resist specific insects. This means farmers don’t need to spray pesticides as often, or they may not need them at all. Genetically engineered crops designed to resist pests greatly reduce the need for insecticides, which means farmers can produce more food in an environmentally friendly way.
GE also has tremendous potential to contribute to human health and nutrition. Genetic engineering allows us to create crops such as bananas and rice with beta carotene, which our bodies convert into vitamin A. Farmers grow these crops to help prevent malnutrition in developing countries and save lives.
Giving us the Ability to Adapt in an Ever-changing World
Pests, disease and climate change continuously threaten crops and food security the world over. GE technologies are just one of the tools farmers employ to address food production challenges in a faster, more efficient and more environmentally friendly way.