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
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
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.
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
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
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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
[By JAN YOUNGQUIST]
Maize COOP Information
Soybean Genomics and Improvement
Using electron microscopy technology to
solve agricultural problems