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The Science Behind GMOs

As we celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on the 11th of February, we take you through the science behind GMOs and modern agriculture, in an effort to demystify the process and correct some misinformation about the technology. 


How We Got Here: The Science Behind Genetic Modification in Crops


Farmers have grown commercial GM crops for about 25 years, but genetic modification in crops is much older. Farmers have been intentionally changing the genetic makeup of all domesticated crops for about 10,000 years. Every fruit, vegetable, and grain that is commercially available today has been altered by human hands, including organic and heirloom seeds.

history of GMOs

Then, in the late 20th century, advances in technology enabled us to expand the genetic diversity of crops through genetic engineering; a major result of this was GM seeds. Kent Bradford, director of the University of California, Davis Seed Biotechnology Center explains, "From the scientists’ point of view, [genetic engineering] was just an obvious extension of breeding and crop improvement methods that they were excited to utilize."

CropLife International's "Seed Story" takes us on a journey about seeds, from very early breeding methods and adaptations to today's technologically sophisticated seed research and development. Check out this interactive infographic to follow the story of plant biotechnology in agriculture. This infographic also explains the many breeding techniques utilized to develop seeds for modern agriculture, including selective breeding, advanced breeding and GM plant breeding.

Plant bleeding infographic


What's the difference between genetic engineering and other plant breeding methods?


While genetic engineering is the latest technique used in the long evolution of plant breeding, it differs from other techniques by enabling specific, predictable changes to be made to a plant.

In this video, Kevin Folta, Professor and Chair of the University of Florida Horticultural Sciences Department explains the differences between various types of breeding methods.

He explains, "...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." 

Curious about what different types of breeding look like? This infographic from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration uses segments of DNA to demonstrate how genetic engineering compares to traditional breeding.

Methods of plant breeding


How do we use science to ensure that GMOs are safe for use and consumption?


Before they reach the market, crops from GM seeds are studied extensively to make sure they are safe for people, animals and the environment. Today’s GM products are the most researched and tested agricultural products in history. Learn more by checking out this infographic that explains how a GMO gets to market.

More on GMO Safety

  • Safe for the environment: In this post, Graham Brookes, Agricultural Economist, PG Economics Ltd, highlights how biotech crops have actually improved the environment by explaining that, “In addition to the reduction in the number of insecticide applications, there has been a shift from conventional tillage to no/reduced tillage facilitated by GM HT technology. This has had a marked effect on tractor fuel consumption because energy-intensive cultivation methods have been replaced with no/reduced tillage and herbicide-based weed control systems. … In 2012, the permanent CO2 savings from reduced fuel use associated with GM crops was 2,111 million kg. This is equivalent to removing 9 million cars from the road for a year.” And this infographic from ISAAA discusses the contribution of biotech crops to sustainability by reducing fuel usage and the environmental impact from herbicide and insecticide use, as well as conserving biodiversity.
  • Safe to grow: GM plants are extensively tested, and researchers look for any difference between the GM plant and conventional plants to make sure the GM variety grows the same as the non-GM variety. They’re also tested to make sure that they demonstrate the expected characteristic (e.g. insect resistance). More about the characteristics GM crops exhibit is available in our Get to Know GMOs - GMO Basics.


What do the GMOs of the future look like?


GM technology can help provide plant solutions for many types of real-world problems. For example, a GM tobacco has been used to develop a treatment for the Ebola virus. GM citrus could help fight citrus greening, a plant disease that is devastating the citrus industry. A research center is developing BioCassava Plus - more nutritious, higher-yielding, and more marketable cultivars of cassava, a staple crop consumed by more than 700 million people worldwide. We may also be able to restore a near-extinct plant species in genetically modifying the American chestnut tree to withstand the blight that has nearly wiped out this iconic hardwood tree. Herbicide and insect resistance might be the most well-known applications for genetic engineering right now, but the technology has endless potential applications for human and environmental benefit.

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