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What's the difference between GMO and cross-breeding? How prevalent is genetic modification?

Please explain the difference between GMO and cross breeding, or cross pollination and how prevalent genetic modification is.

Submitted by: Mmmddd123


Expert response from Kevin Folta

Professor and Chairman, Horticultural Sciences Department, University of Florida

Monday, 27/01/2014 08:41

Kevin Folta, Interim Chair and Associate Professor in the Horticultural Sciences Department at University of Florida, has created a video response to your question. Please view the video here:


A transcript of the video is included below:


So what are the big differences between GMO technology, cross-breeding and simple cross-pollination? Let’s start with the last one. Cross-pollination is simply a process where two sexually compatible plants happen to cross by virtue of pollen, which is the male contribution to this process, being carried by wind or insects or possibly by water – whatever process – to fertilize another member of the same species. So, cross-pollination happens all the time. And I shouldn’t say “same species” because sometimes plants can cross that barrier without much trouble.


The idea of cross-hybridization – or cross-breeding is the way that the question came in – is when scientists – or when plant breeders, could be farmers, could be scientists – deliberately select parents for their specific traits and then transfer the pollen from one plant to the pistillate parts of the other plant, in other words making a cross between two plants that may have never crossed naturally. We see this more and more in plant breeding. The idea is to create a plant which has outstanding attributes of both parents.


Nowadays, this is becoming a very common practice, even to take very wide crosses – meaning maybe plants that could have never crossed naturally. Maybe something from a mountainous region that carries a certain disease resistance or cold tolerance trait and cross that with something that comes from maybe a more coastal region that has superior quality food product. Maybe by incorporating these two, by crossing these two and incorporating and mixing all those genes, something favorable may come out. It may be a one-in-a million chance but that one-in-a-million plant could allow significant environmental advantages by being able to grow a plant in different environments and have resistance to that disease, maybe requiring less fungicide or insecticide. This is the idea of basic cross-pollination and the way it’s used as a tool, again, by humans. So, human intervention is involved.


Kind of the ultimate idea of in human intervention in plant cross-breeding is what we’re thinking of in terms of GMO technology. GMO technology can also be thought of – or I think of it as – precision cross-breeding. It’s where you’re able to take a single gene, or maybe a small set of genes, and transfer them into a new genetic background. So maybe something that has tremendous, elite qualities in terms of its traits – maybe has excellent ability to ship or be stored or maybe great flavor quality – but has some problems with disease susceptibility. And, maybe by adding one gene, you could solve that problem. In something like an apple tree, this might save 50 years of breeding time by being able to add that one single gene.


So this is the principle difference between cross-pollination, which just occurs naturally between sexually compatible plants, cross-breeding, which is a human-facilitated process by which humans do this, and GMO technology, where in a laboratory we’re able to move one trait with precision to confer some new quality or some new trait onto a plant product.


The last part of the question is, “How prevalent are GMOs?” And, what you find is that approximately 70 percent of food in our stores carry this technology, or at least has products that came through this technology. You’ll find that 90 percent of acreage of soy, corn, cotton and canola are all GM plants. There also are some GM sugar beets, papaya and some squash, but that’s very minor acreage. You’ll also notice that there aren’t that many horticultural crops available as GM – so things like tomatoes or strawberries just aren’t available. And that’s simply because of the regulatory process is so high. In the future you might see that change as we begin to understand further the safety of these technologies, and how they may be applied to solve significant problems in our society.