To lower the cost of food, either the cost of food production needs to decrease or food supply needs to increase. Agricultural scientists equipped with the knowledge of plant biology, entomology and quantitative genetics can help with both goals. For example, these plant breeders can identify and characterize genetic sources of resistance to stripe rust, a fungal disease that infects wheat plants. They can also develop high-quality crops that can defend against constantly evolving pests, diseases and environmental stresses. When agricultural epidemics occur, such as stripe rust, crops are devastated and food shortages rise. Selective breeding is a vital technique to combat the increasing issues of food security, urbanization, population growth, and shortages of energy and water. Increasing the number of plant breeders will improve the efforts to remedy world hunger.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture acknowledges that plant breeding can help humanity. As a result, they have bestowed grants to plant breeding programs such as those at UC Davis. $40 million was awarded to programs developing plants that would tolerate changes in climate and those that could be used as bioenergy sources. Adapting plants for climate change is an advancement that has transformed plant breeding, as these varieties can thrive despite climate variability. In addition, through the identification of wheat and barley gene variations, breeders can foster the plants’ disease resistance as well as efficient use of water and nitrogen. As a result, these techniques can optimize crop yield and create more food. Accelerating breeding to assist with the production of bioenergy is another vital program, especially when considering the fuel vs. food debate. Breeding fast-growing varieties of pine tree species creates more vegetation that can be used as feedstocks for biofuels or contribute to carbon sequestration, helping to offset the effects of climate change. These programs work toward solving significant agricultural, environmental and biological issues that are plaguing the world.
Make no mistake. Plant breeding is not the same as genetically modified organisms (GMO). Plant breeding is the process of selecting plants with desirable characteristics. This practice involves choosing parent plants with the advantageous traits. Through breeding, multiple generations of offspring are later selected that best displays those traits. Like nature, the breeding takes place within species or those closely related. Since this process could take years, selective plant breeding runs along the same vein as natural selection through evolution.
GMOs are a very different thing. GM crops are a result of nothing close to survival of the fittest as genes from one species are introduced into a completely unrelated species with the help of a little human intervention. For example, a bacteria gene can be inserted into a soybean plant to help it protect itself from insects. There a variety of concerns involving these transgenic plants. The most obvious may be the safety of these bioengineered food sources.
Since GMO labels are not required by any safety regulations, it is highly likely that we are already consuming these foods that lack any real longitudinal studies showing their long-term affects. Biotech companies not only utilize these transgenic species in their food and feed crops, but also sell the seeds to everyday unsuspecting consumers. So we may find ourselves eating GM foods when buying produce or meat from the grocery store or even when growing them ourselves.
To expand the GM debate even further, the new species of modified plants can be patented since they have the genetic makeup that someone developed. As is the nature of plants with pollens and seeds, unless these crops are growing in a completely contained environment, finding little offspring cropping up in other gardens or fields is not unusual. Besides the problem of intellectual property, there is the issue of what happens when these modified species are resilient to pesticides and herbicides. With their genetically modified tolerance, these chemicals can be used more generously creating more environmental pollution. In addition, when species start to develop a resistance to the already harmful standard pesticides and herbicides, something stronger and more potent generally results. Now we have to wonder what we are ingesting when we consume these foods even if they were originally non-GM crops that got contaminated with GM seeds.
Some may argue that genetically modified crops can provide the solution to our global food shortage. However, after 20 years of research, the Union of Concerned Scientists reports that, unlike discoveries from plant breeders, genetic engineering has done little to increase overall crop yields. They state, “If we are going to make headway in combating hunger due to overpopulation and climate change, we will need to increase crop yields… Traditional breeding outperforms genetic engineering hands down.”
Nelson, Diane. “Nurturing a Rare Breed”
UCDavis Magazine Vol. 28, Number 4, Summer 2011: 26-29.
Union of Concerned Scientists website: Failure to Yield.
World Hunger website: 2011 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics.