What’s so “natural” about “natural crop breeding”?

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One of the most popular arguments of critics of crop biotechnology is the claim that conventional breeding is more “natural” than genetic engineering. Does that claim hold up under the microscope of science?

Kevin Folta, department chair in horticultural sciences at the University of Florida, makes a strong case that such distinctions are an artifact of argument, reflecting an ignorance of how our fruits, vegetables and grains have evolved over the centuries.

“No plants commonly used for food are “natural,” whether they were bred using transgenics or not,” he says. “The process of crop domestication was a human-mediated process. Only through agriculture, and breeding and selection, selecting elite plants from those that weren’t as good, were humans able to improve crops. This underlines everything we eat. Nothing is in its original form.”

We have two charts to illustrate Folta’s point. The first compares the amount of genetic “scrambling” using various breeding techniques: traditional breeding, mutagenesis, RNA Inteference and Trasgencis–genetic engineering.

(Click to view high resolution image)

GLP-Infographic

Traditional breeding of crops existed since the beginning of human civilization. Today, it encompasses a whole range of techniques, including high-tech ones like marker-assisted breeding. In traditional breeding, lots of genes are swapped at once, a process that can be “messy,” as described by Cornell plant breeder Margaret Smith. While breeders have been able to cross plants with their wild relatives (called a wide cross) to produce hybrids, the possibilities of using genes from distantly-related or other species are limited.

In the 1920s and 1930s, scientists explored the effect of radiation on a wide variety of plants. They found that applications of radiation produced mutations in plant genomes, creating plants that were different from the original. The Rio Star grapefruit was developed when Texas scientist Richard Hensz irradiated Ruby Red grapefruit seeds with X-rays. The new grapefruit had darker flesh and greater resistance to cold, which helped it survive a severe freeze in 1983 that killed other grapefruit trees. Since the 1940s, thousands of other crops have been produced with mutagenesis.

As molecular techniques in biology became available around the 1970s, scientists began to look more precisely at ways to alter genes in plants. RNA interference techniques allow scientists to switch off genes coding for undesired traits precisely, while recombinant DNA techniques allow them to insert genes coding for desired traits precisely. Other than allowing more precision in genetic modification, these molecular techniques also open up the possibilities of using genes from other species.

When compared to older breeding techniques, the transgenic method is much more precise and controlled; “Breeding has always been more of an art than a science,”

When compared to older breeding techniques, the transgenic method is much more precise and controlled, notes Folta (see chart at right.)

“Breeding has always been more of an art than a science,” Folta says.

Any plant breeder will tell you that. It has been based on very careful observations, good statistics, and large populations, but it still has a certain degree of randomness and weirdness to it. GM technology is quite different in that we know precisely which gene is being used, what that gene does and where it lands in the genome. It’s a precise extension of regular plant breeding.

Any plant breeder will tell you that. It has been based on very careful observations, good statistics, and large populations, but it still has a certain degree of randomness and weirdness to it.”

“GM technology is quite different in that we know precisely which gene is being used, what that gene does and where it lands in the genome. It’s a precise extension of regular plant breeding.”

Folta prepared this chart to prepare various forms of breeding:folta_comparing_breeding_techniques

 

  • Kevin Folta recently gave a talk on the importance of defending the science of genetic engineering. But he failed to mention the fact that it’s the ORGANIC industry that’s behind the anti-GMO movement in Canada and everywhere else in the world.
    I asked him why, and he basically said he does not want to offend the organic industry. But as a former member of the organic industry (I was an organic farmer and inspector) I say offend them!
    Anyone who’s opposed to science needs to be offended!

    • Kevin Folta

      No, it is not about “not offending” anyone. This is a simple point that in order to communicate about the value of transgenic technologies to the most recalcitrant opponents, you don’t start by invalidating their beliefs. Instead, you explain that you understand them. Once they see that you at least can follow where they’re coming from, you now have a conduit for information flow.

      I know your idea is to play hardball and beat them to death with science. I know your technique includes publicly shaming me, Karl and any scientist that does not agree with your heavy handed techniques that are emailed to everyone ever involved in this discussion.

      It makes YOU look like an asshole, and you are a detriment to our efforts to communicate science. You violate everything we have learned from the decades of pounding opponents with facts. That’s not me speaking, it is the sentiment of many involved in this discussion.

      I’m done with you personally. Your emails go directly to the trash, your tweets are blocked and I don’t care what you think. You make our job harder. How much is Jeffery Smith paying you?

      • I’m sure glad you didn’t work for the State Department during the Cold War Kevin.

        While you’re busy cozying up to anti-GMO organic activists, pretending to “understand” them, GMO flax, wheat and Golden Rice have all been sitting on the back burner for over a decade now. That’s failure my friend. There’s no way around it.

        Pretending to “communicate science” when the organic movement no longer has any basis in science is like pretending Communism had some economic benefits for those imprisoned by it.

        Wise up. And stop with the swearing Kevin. You’re better than that.

        • andy

          sure sounds like he played hardball with you.