QWhy not breed desired qualities into plants as we have for 10s of thousands of years?

Why not breed desired qualities into plants as we have for 10s of thousands of years?

AExpert Answer

Agriculture is commonly considered to have begun about 10,000 years ago, and crops have been continuously improved ever since. New crop varieties have been developed to improve such properties as nutritional quality, yield and harvestability, as well as to remove mammalian toxins. By identifying favorable traits in individual crop plants or their wild relatives, breeders can cross such individuals with commercial lines to create new, improved lines. Mutations―arising, for example, through chemical treatment or radiation―are also used to introduce new genetic variation that breeders can use when seeking new traits. Traditional breeding has a very safe history.


However, traditional breeding is typically slower, more expensive, less precise and often less effective compared with modern biotechnological techniques used to obtain similar desirable crop traits. Finding genes or mutations that achieve a desired phenotype by traditional means is often a very difficult process that can take many decades or longer. In traditional breeding, many genes are brought into crop plants that are unrelated to the desired phenotype. These unrelated genes (and even the genes responsible for the desirable phenotype) are typically unknown and untested for human safety. These genes may be very rare in the crop plant, may have been generated by intentional or unintentional mutation or may come from wild relatives of the crop having no history of safe consumption.

The gap left by this traditional process is precisely the reason that GM crops have been so successful. Indeed, many valuable traits, such as high levels of insect protection that have no effects on humans or other animals, are unlikely ever to be identified through conventional approaches. The full characterization of the transgenes, resulting gene products (usually proteins) and endogenous plant-DNA insertion site for a GM event makes modern biotechnological techniques more precise. The improved knowledge and ability to control the outcome of crop improvement through GM processes substantially increases the efficiency of crop improvement and reduces uncertainty with regards to the effectiveness and safety of the resulting crop lines. In conclusion, GM crops often offer a faster, cheaper, more precise and more effective means to obtain desirable and safe crop traits compared with traditional breeding methods.

Posted on February 2, 2018
Dr. Larry Gilbertson, PhD, Genomics Strategy Lead at Monsanto, explains how GMOs are “created” or made exactly, answering a lot of common questions about this process in this post. Watch as he prepares to create a GMO here.     Additionally, the below infographic details what a GMO is and the lifecycle it goes through to be developed.     Steve Savage, Consultant, Savage & Associates, explains what the future of GMOs may be like in this... Read More
Posted on February 2, 2018
A former response to a similar question answered by Dave Kovalic, Regulatory New Technology Lead at Monsanto, also provides information on scientific advancements and how they [Monsanto] affirm safety prior to targeted vector insertion.   “For context, it is important to recognize that random genome insertions have been naturally occurring in crops over the ~10,000-year history of agriculture.  In some crops, more than 90 percent of the genome consists of these... Read More
Posted on February 2, 2018
In terms of the science behind the technology to create GMOs, scientists have a much better understanding how a transgene is delivered and stably integrated into a chromosome (or genome). Many GMO products, such as Bt corn, were made using Agrobacterium cells to deliver useful trait genes into the plant cells. Scientists were able to dissect the different steps of this natural gene delivery system encoded by Agrobacterium. We now have a good understanding of the interactions between... Read More