CAPLAN: GMO Crops versus Traditional Plant Breeding

I got into a friendly discussion about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) with some friends on Facebook over the weekend. Readers urged me to write a short article about the topic.A couple of problems with this. First, as my editor knows, I don’t know the meaning of the term “short article.”Secondly, the whole topic of GMOs is extremely complex, with a lot of advanced science that must be explained. So I will spend the next couple of weeks covering what GMOs are, how they are created and what this means to us as consumers.

Because I am not a bioengineer, I needed to look up a lot of this information. But I had to choose my sources carefully. The companies that have done the most work on biotechnology and genetic engineering stand to make millions of dollars from this technology and can’t be considered unbiased in its use or safety.

However, after reading some of the anti-GMO material, it’s obvious that this group also has major biases and agendas.

So, I found some university websites and bulletins and have pulled my information from them. If you want to receive a list of these websites, contact me by my email address at the end of this column.

To start with, some definitions: Genetically Modified Organisms are those living things whose genetic makeup has been altered or modified through biotechnology. Biotechnology is “the application of scientific information and methods to biological problems such as in agriculture and medicine. It includes moving traits or characteristics from one organism to another, to improve or create new industrial, medical and agricultural products.”

At its most basic level, the genetics of plants and animals have been modified by humans since the dawn of agriculture, about 10,000 years ago. Ancient farmers would save seed from successful harvests and discard seed from diseased or sickly plants, thereby selecting for characteristics such as disease resistance, larger yield, sweeter fruit and so forth.

Nobody understood why this worked until botanist Gregor Mendel discovered in the mid-1800s how dominant and recessive alleles (genes) could produce the traits we see and how these traits could be passed on to offspring.

This soon led to advanced plant breeding techniques, including controlled cross-pollination between members of a species and then between species.

To breed a trait into a crop (for example, resistance to a disease) using traditional breeding techniques, you had to find a plant somewhere in the world that was already resistant. Maybe it was a wild, weedy relative of our domestic crop; maybe it was a sport or mutation from an existing crop population.

Seeds of this plant would be collected and planted, pollen carefully moved from this plant to another and, with luck, after a decade or so you might have a new and improved variety. There are limitations to this, however, which we will examine next week.

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