A Seed Story
Plant Biotechnology in Focus
Seeds are the basis for all plant life on earth. For millennia, mankind has worked to continually improve the seeds we use to grow crops that feed and nourish our communities and improve our lives. Plant biotechnology is yet another step in the journey to improve agricultural production and feed our changing world.
Today’s farmers are tasked with feeding a global population of 7 billion people compared to 1.6 billion only 100 years ago. According to United Nations estimates, by 2050 we will be challenged to feed 2 billion more, or a total of 9 billion. With a fixed amount of land available for food production, we must use new tools and techniques, such as plant biotechnology, to give farmers new ways to sustainably produce enough food to meet this critical need.
Early seed experimentation
Ten thousand years ago, the earliest farmers, living in the Fertile Crescent of countries surrounding the Nile River, the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf, worked to find the seeds that grew the hardiest crop. They discovered some seed types from the wild grains produced more plentiful harvests. They began selecting these types (today we call them varieties) and began cultivating them every season which ultimately led to the establishment of thriving stable communities, ending the nomadic lifestyle which was previously driven by a search for food.
Origins of today’s crops
These early seed selections marked the birth of what we today call plant breeding. Our knowledge and skills in plant breeding excelled over the years and crops grown today bear little resemblance to their wild ancestors. For example, maize’s origin lies in teosinte which was first domesticated by indigenous peoples in Mesoamerica almost 10,000 years ago. Today’s robust ears of maize resemble their tiny ancestor only through their DNA.
Beginning about 2500 BC, maize (corn) began to be planted through much of the Americas. After European contact with the Americas in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, explorers and traders carried maize seed across the Atlantic to Europe. Maize spread to the rest of the world because of its ability to grow in diverse climates. Maize is the most widely grown grain crop throughout the Americas with 332 million metric tons grown annually in the United States alone. Photo Credit: Nicolle Rager Fuller, National Science Foundation
Domestication is the millennia-old practice of guiding the evolution of plants and animals over generations to develop species that better meet our needs. Today’s farm animals and even our pets are the result of centuries of domestication.
Early genetic adaptations of seeds
Over the past 150 years, researchers have built on the earliest farmers’ knowledge to better understand the importance of plant genetics to develop stronger and more vibrant crops.
By identifying crops with desired traits such as better nutritional characteristics or greater tolerance to drought and using selective breeding, they have developed improved plants that are healthier, more resilient, and capable of producing greater yields.
Gregor Mendel was an Austrian monk, botanist, and a pioneer of plant science and genetic research. Mendel famously cultivated and tested nearly 30,000 pea plants during his research, successfully cross-breeding traits such as pea color, plant height and pod size. Mendel showed that differences such as a plant's height or color could be attributed to specific genes. His breeding work taught researchers how specific genes could be inserted into another generation of plants through basic breeding techniques. His work was so significant that he became known as the “father of modern genetics.”
In the mid-20th century, governments and experts around the world were increasingly concerned about dramatic population growth. In 1900 the global population was 1.6 billion and in just 40 years it had nearly doubled. Without significant improvements in global agriculture production many were unsure if expanding populations could be fed.
In 1944, Dr. Norman Borlaug traveled to Mexico to work on developing new varieties and growing techniques for wheat as part of a Rockefeller Foundation project. His work over the next decade provided a blueprint for revolutionizing agriculture worldwide. Dr. Borlaug developed disease resistant wheat varieties that used modern crop inputs like fertilizer and pesticides to triple grain output.
His techniques were exported to rapidly expanding regions like Latin America and India where they sparked a green revolution in agriculture by enabling farmers to grow more food on less land than ever before. As a result, Dr. Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and is often credited with having saved more lives than any person in human history.
Genes under the spotlight
Today, seed research is highly sophisticated. In the lab, scientists work carefully to identify the specific genes responsible for traits that make crops tastier, more nutritious, heartier or more tolerant of drought, pests, floods, pesticides, or saline environments.
Scientists learn about the genes comprising individual seeds by grinding, shaving or chipping off a small bit of it for analysis. The genes contained in those small seed fragments are studied in the lab while the rest of that seed is planted and observed under growing conditions. This allows researchers to study the gene map for the actual plant that is growing. The resulting individual plants that display useful traits can now be matched to the genes identified in the lab.
For every one trait that is brought to market, more than 6,000 others are screened and tested.
Since the early days of plant biotechnology, researchers and technology providers have developed and implemented stewardship practices to ensure biotech traits and crops are safely used throughout their lifecycle. From the moment a gene is discovered until a biotech product is discontinued, the plant biotechnology industry and farmers are committed to ensuring the product is used sustainably and responsibly. For more information, visit https://croplife.org/plant-biotechnology/stewardship-2/
Moving genes between plants
Once the genes carrying the beneficial traits have been identified, the next step is to insert them into the plant.
Modern genetic researchers use a revolutionary technique developed by Marc Van Montagu of the University of Ghent. Montagu’s method utilizes agrobacterium, natural bacteria that can pass on genes to plants. The agrobacterium acts like an automobile, with the genes as its passengers. The genes are attached to the agrobacterium and carried into the seed, where they integrate with the rest of the plant’s genetic material.
This technique, known as horizontal gene transfer, is a natural evolution from the plant breeding pioneered by Mendel and other researchers. Mendel’s breeding techniques were often imprecise, with thousands of genes transferred in each experiment. Modern plant biotechnology, however, can achieve precise transfers of as small as a single gene.
Marc Van Montagu - Van Montagu, a Belgian molecular biologist, is considered the father of modern biotechnology. Van Montagu discovered how to transfer useful genes from one plant to another utilizing agrobacterium, a natural bacteria that can pass on genes to plants. His method uses the agrobacterium like an automobile, with the genes as its passengers. The genes are attached to the agrobacterium and carried into the seed, where they integrate with the rest of the plant’s genetic material. This provided researchers with a precise and effective way to develop the biotech plants farmers around the world are planting today. In 2013, he, along with Dr Robert Fraley and Dr Mary-Dell Chilton, fellow biotech pioneers were awarded the World Food Prize, considered the Nobel Prize of food & agriculture, for their groundbreaking contributions to plant biotechnology development.
How much of a seed does plant biotechnology change? To put it into perspective, in an average meal, you eat around 150,000 km (or more than 93,000 miles) of DNA, while the genes inserted into a plant using biotechnology would represent just a handful of genes in that 150,000 km long string.
Testing times for seeds
After planting in the lab, biotech seedlings are moved to greenhouses, where further tests will be performed in a controlled environment.
To ensure a biotech seed offers maximum farm benefits and that there are no unintended effects, hundreds of thousands of plants will be grown and studied over several years. Only after rigorous tests for the safety and reliability of the biotech trait are complete, will the top performing plants be selected to produce the crop that will be made available to farmers around the world.
The research and development required to deliver a biotech crop from the testing lab to a farmer’s field will, on average, take more than 13 years and $136 million dollars. During this period the process is overseen by government regulatory bodies that make the final decision on when a new biotech crop can be marketed to farmers.
Into the Field
The development phase of a biotech crop is lengthy, but produces significant benefits for farmers once complete. Over the past 17 years, tens of millions of farmers in approximately 30 countries worldwide have grown 1.7 billion hectares of biotech crops. The crops have enabled these millions of growers to improve their incomes and help meet rising food demand as populations grow. This has resulted in improved farms, families and rural communities, all while protecting our natural environment.
Adoption of Plant Biotechnology
Each year the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) releases an report on the global adoption of plant biotechnology. The report demonstrates farmer enthusiasm for biotechnology as biotech acreage continues to rise. This is especially evident in the developing world which now grows more biotech crops, and experiences greater benefits, than the developed world. Photo Credit: ISAAA 2013
Benefits of Biotechnology
Improving harvests - Weeds and bugs are the two biggest threats to a farmer’s livelihood. Biotech crops can reduce both insect and weed pressure for farmers, enabling crops to thrive. This has allowed growers to produce an extra 328 million tonnes of food, fuel and fiber from 1996 to 2011.
Protecting our Environment - No-till agriculture, enabled through biotech and herbicides, has allowed farmers to reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture by reducing fuel use and pesticide applications. A recent study estimated that this input reduction saved 23 billion kg of CO2 in 2011 alone – that’s the equivalent of removing 10.2 million cars from the road!
Boosting Rural Communities - In their first 16 years of availability, biotech crops provided farmers with an extra $100 billion in economic gains due to lower input costs and higher yields.
Time, money and care
Each year, millions of farmers around the world plant biotech crops for higher yields, improved crop quality and the ability to use sustainable farming practices such as no-till. However, bringing these innovative new traits from the lab to the field requires a tremendous investment of time and resources.
On average, it takes more than 13 years and $136 million dollars to bring a biotech crop to market, with the majority of time and resources spent meeting regulatory requirements of government agencies. Ensuring regulations are clear, predictable and efficient is essential for farmers to receive the benefits of biotech crops in time to meet the growing challenges agriculture faces.
Sophisticated seeds for our changing world
Plant biotechnology is just the latest evolution in mankind’s never-ending quest to improve how we produce an abundant and safe food supply. Just as our farmer ancestors chose their best plants to produce the next year’s crops, traits in today’s biotech seeds enable farmers to produce better harvests on less land than ever before, all while protecting the environment around us.
Continued research and the application of biotechnology will be essential in developing varieties of seeds that can not only survive but also maintain high yields in harsher environments. This is even more critical as our warming world experiences more frequent droughts, floods and higher temperatures.
Future biotech traits that enable crops to thrive in drought conditions or provide greater nutrition to children offer agriculture powerful tools with which to face these coming challenges.
Plant Science Industry
The plant science industry is partnering with public sector institutions worldwide to address local agricultural challenges through innovative agricultural solutions. These public-private partnerships share resources and expertise to ensure that innovations reach and benefit farmers in developing regions while helping to build agricultural knowledge at a local level. As a result greater innovation can be put in the hands of our world’s farmers. Explore the partnerships the industry is engaged in at https://croplife.org/global-issues/public-private-partnerships/.
Plant biotechnology innovations that can help farmers improve their lands and livelihoods are being continually developed by the industry. Download the Plant Biotech Product Pipeline to learn about the benefits farmers will realize in the coming years.