For thousands of years, humans have used selection and breeding techniques to develop crops and animals and improve their contributions to mankind.
Centuries ago Central American natives used selective breeding to transform a spindly grass called teosinte into the plant that eventually became the productive corn plant we know today.
In the late 19th century, Austrian scientist Gregor Mendel discovered the fundamental laws of inheritance by working with pea plants. That led to traditional crossbreeding, which combines the desirable traits of two organisms to create a new, improved variety. Honeycrisp apples are an example. Chickens with large, meaty breasts are another.
A technique called mutagenesis uses radiation or physical or chemical agents to induce random mutations in plants. Seedless watermelons were created in this manner in the 1930s.
The 1990s brought genetically modified organisms — or GMOs — obtaining a beneficial trait from one organism and transferring it into a crop plant. This “transgenic” process has been used to create corn hybrids that fight rootworm, cotton that resists pink bollworm, papaya that resists disease, and potatoes resistant to Colorado potato beetles and two plant viruses, plus other significant crop improvements.
Today, new gene editing tools such as CRISPR act like molecular scissors, capable of targeting strands of DNA within an organism — allowing precise edits or deletions to achieve a desired result.
“You can’t get any closer to nature than by using science to improve an organism within itself, and that’s what the new gene editing tools allow us to achieve,” says Bethany Shively, vice president of strategic communications for the American Seed Trade Association.
Many in the scientific and agricultural communities admit that advocates have done an inadequate job of communicating the benefits — and the safety — of these innovations. As a result, science has outpaced consumer understanding and acceptance, and opponents have filled that vacuum with scare tactics and misinformation, Shively says.
Social media has added fuel to the GMO fire, says Michael Stebbins of the Council for Biotechnology. “We’re all familiar with Ruby Red grapefruit. It was created years ago by bombarding it with radiation in order to develop that pink hue we all know and love,” he says. “If we had social media back then, we likely wouldn’t enjoy that product today. In fact, we may not even have microwave ovens in our homes.”
The confusion and controversy around plant breeding innovation is hindering efforts to address key challenges such as feeding a growing global population, loss of agricultural land and improving human health, Stebbins says.
GMOs such as Golden Rice, with higher levels of beta carotene that converts to vitamin A to help prevent blindness in undernourished populations, have hit roadblocks caused in part by activist groups, he says.
“I’m concerned that the opposition to this technology in the West is poisoning the well among decision makers in developing countries, whose citizens could really benefit from these innovations,” Stebbins says.
“The impact is really felt in developing countries where smaller farmers are battling bad soils, inconsistent rainfall and disease,” says Karen Batra, managing director of agriculture and environment communications for BIO. “GMOs and genetic engineering could make a huge difference in the lives and diets of people around the world.”