Today's feature from the LDN Spring FARM OUTLOOK

Wild plant to super seed

A new chapter in crop production

By Jan Youngquist

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[April 05, 2014]  The recent Winter Olympics illustrated the kind of spirit you also find in the American farmer: all hardworking individuals, as well as part of a larger team, utilizing the intelligence and resources of other professions to win.

Show a farmer a need, whether it is to feed a hungry world, improve livestock feed or supply cleaner renewable fuels, and the farmer will get the job done. And then, with little more than a nod, he or she moves on to the next big challenge.

Yes, farmers by nature love a challenge, as do scientists. The two groups combined are a force leading the world to more and better quality agricultural products.

A brief look at plant evolution

Archaeological history shows that plants, and animals, have changed and adapted ever since the beginning of time.

Everyone knows from Biology 101 that when plants bloom, cross-pollination is provided by insects, wind and rain, and when the seeds grow into new plants, they often show different traits. Asexual propagation of roots, stems and leaves occurring in nature has also led to plant changes. Plant sports, or bud sports, are another naturally occurring shift providing variants in foliage, fruit, blossom colors, growing habits and other plant characteristics.

Some plant changes are responses to change of environment. For example, the leaves of plants in sunny, arid environments are often either thicker or fleshy, and have a waxier coating for protection from wind and sun.

As far back as known human history, man has been cultivating plants for improved aesthetics and medicinal use, as well as food, fiber or fuel production. Cultigens are the result of plant breeding and are the base for the word "cultivars" from cultivated varieties.

The 1930s to 1996

Expanded scientific understanding of genetic traits and breeding in the 1930s brought about more aggressive measures to selectively crossbreed for desired characteristics in both plant and animal reproduction.

However, the process was slow. For corn and soybeans, cross-pollination was a random gamble made season after season. The hit-and-miss approach took decades.

The deliberate, repeatable, self-fertilization pollination between two pure lines is an F1 hybrid.

Genetic engineering

With the combined introduction of the electron microscope and the computer age, the technological age dawned. The next wave of knowledge and capability launched agriculture production opportunities light-years forward. Select desired traits could be identified and inserted directly into the seed genome.

The first genetically engineered seed to enter commercial production was a corn that was resistant to glyphosate herbicides. Roundup Ready corn was put out by Monsanto in 1996.

Since that time, corn or maize, as it was known to indigenous Americans has had a trait added that causes leaves to grow at a more upright angle, catching more of the sun. The result: greater food production within the plant, thereby a healthier plant, more weather-tolerant and resistant to disease and insects. In another added trait, the single ear forms at combine-blade height. Yet, another trait changes the maturity time, and a shorter time in the field reduces risks of crop failure by decreasing potential exposure to extreme weather conditions temperatures, wind and moisture. Planting longer and shorter maturities allows staggered harvest times great for spreading out labor, thereby again, potentially reducing mature product time in the field subjected to potentially damaging weather.

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Soybeans, too, offer single and stacked traits for disease and pest resistance, variable maturity rates, and greater weather tolerance, with herbicide-tolerant traits still being one of the more favored characteristics selected for today's fields.

Biotechnology seed varieties offer single or stacked traits requiring less chemical use, less cultivation, lower costs in labor and fuel, thereby providing greater land stewardship for overall positive environmental impacts with consistently higher yields.

For commercial crops today, the farmer can pick and choose seed in conjunction with environmental conditions and chosen methods of farming. Many great non-GM seeds still populate the market and are now being looked at as potentially beneficial in rotational use to prevent adaptation of pests and diseases another means to mess with the pesky little buggers.

While technology is now providing more solutions with precision seed traits, it has by no means been accomplished overnight or cheaply. In the U.S., a new biotech product undergoes rigorous and time-intensive processes that can take 13 years and average $136 million. Before the product enters the commercial market, the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture must all grant approval.

Looking at crop production today that the world relies on for commercial food, fiber and fuel production, it is difficult to comprehend that it all began with wild plants. It has been a long process but one that is no longer a haphazard accident.

"The responsible genetic modification of plants is neither new nor dangerous. The addition of new or different genes into an organism by recombinant DNA techniques does not inherently pose new or heightened risks relative to the modification of organisms by more traditional methods, and the relative safety of marketed products is further ensured by current regulations intended to safeguard the food supply." Statement in 2003 by 20 Nobel Prize winners and 3,200 international scientists


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