Seed improvement techniques (selective breeding, interspecies crosses, mutagenesis and genetically modified organisms [GMOs]) have helped society flourish for centuries. It all started 10,000 years ago when people started domesticating plants in Mesopotamia.1 They began by collecting and planting seeds from wild plants, making sure they had enough water and the right amount of sunlight to grow. Weeks or months later, the plants would blossom and people would harvest the crops for food.
The first farm plants grown in Mesopotamia were wheat, barley, lentils and peas. People in other parts of the world, including eastern Asia, Africa and North and South America, also farmed plants, such as rice and potatoes. But plants were not only harvested for food, they also were also harvested for other domestic purposes.
Cotton plants were grown for fiber, which is used in cloth. Flowers, such as tulips, were grown for decorative reasons.
The domestication of society started taking place. As a result, people began moving from a hunter-gatherer society to a settled agricultural society. This change would eventually lead, about 4,000 to 5,000 years later, to the first city states.
During this time, growers noticed that some plants displayed different physical characteristics due to spontaneous genetic changes in the DNA. For example, more kernels per plant, bigger grains and a higher tolerance. Because of these unique traits, farmers repeatedly selected the improved plants to feed the growing population.
Today, corn is no longer hard and has more seeds per cob. Watermelons are hundreds of times bigger than their original ancestors. As the selection continued, the plants accumulated several genetic changes that distinguish them from their original ancestors. This strategic approach to farming allowed societies to create settlements, which eventually contributed to the rise of civilization.
With more modern genetic engineering tools (when people generally think of when discussing GMOs) we are still selecting the plants with the best genetic traits for farmers and consumers, but in a more precise, controlled way. Plants generated using genetic engineering look and taste the same as their non-GMO counterparts (but sometimes have characteristics that enhance their appearance. For example, the arctic apple, won’t turn brown after a couple of minutes, but it will look and taste like those obtained through traditional breeding and is equally as safe to eat.)
Genetic engineering can also happen through natural processes: Researchers from the University of Washington found that the majority of cultivated sweet potatoes they tested contained a bacterial gene that was naturally acquired 8,000 years ago. This gene allowed sweet potato roots to proliferate and grow to their current sizes. Farmers likely noticed a plant that grew bigger, edible roots and started growing it
This interesting discovery is now changing the perception that food grown through seed improvement techniques are unnatural. The original technique, selective breeding, has been used for centuries to naturally produce food that will satisfy and nourish the world’s growing population.
Now, there are a variety of seed improvement techniques that make the creation of new and improved plant varieties possible. These techniques pair with applicable foods to continue addressing farming challenges and consumer preferences.
So, when you go to the store or your local farmer’s market, most of the things you will see probably originated from a seed improvement technique and are no different than those obtained by modern plant breeding techniques.
2 Kyndt, Tina, Dora Quispe, Hong Zhai, Robert Jarret, Marc Ghislain, Qingchang Liu, Godelieve Gheysen, and Jan F. Kreuze. "The genome of cultivated sweet potato contains Agrobacterium T-DNAs with expressed genes: an example of a naturally transgenic food crop." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112, no. 18 (2015): 5844-5849.
David Pinzon grew up in Bogota, Colombia and moved to Canada in 2009 with his wife to study a PhD at the University of Alberta. They had their first child 6 months ago. “It is a constant learning to find out what’s the best for her, that’s why being able to share my experience with other parents is gratifying.” David dedicated 12 years of his life to become a scientist, no one taught him to be a dad, other than the example of his parents, with these many challenges and new opportunities to learn came up, with the priority to do the best for his daughter. “Now I have the pleasure to see the huge amount of scientific support needed to prove GMOs and pesticides are safe for humans and the environment, so I can take decisions and pass along my knowledge to hose that are eager to learn.