Subcommittee A: Section 3
Benefits of Selective Breeding
by Jessica Raymond
The genetic enhancement of agricultural products may be one of the oldest human activities. Crops have been bred to improve yields, enhance taste, and extend the growing season. Each of the 15 major crop plants, which provide 90 percent of the globe's food and energy intake, has been extensively manipulated, hybridized, inter-bred and modified over the millennia by countless generations of farmers intent on producing crops in the most effective and efficient ways possible.
Here are a few of the current benefits. It is possible for better-tasting tomatoes to grow year round. Because the fruit softens more slowly, tomatoes bred through biotechnology can stay on vines longer before shipping to market and, in the meantime, gain added flavor and color. This benefit will potentially be possible with other fruits such as peaches, bananas and strawberries. Also, crops are becoming more environmentally friendly. Crops will be resistant to plant virus disease through a process of giving the plant a genetic "vaccine." That means farmers will require less chemical spray to control the spread of crop disease. Disease resistance will help crops such as squash, melons, bananas, cucumbers, lettuce, alfalfa and more. Plants like potatoes and cotton are able to resist insects on their own. New varieties of these crops will produce natural substances to ward off destructive insects. The plants will produce their own Bacillus thuringiensis or "Bt," which currently is a popular home gardener's biological remedy to control insects. Crops are then more tolerant to herbicides. Soon, genetically modified crops such as cotton, corn, and soybeans will give farmers a choice to make fewer applications and to use more environmentally friendly herbicides, which will mean reduced overall chemical use and less damage to the environment.
Researchers hope to accomplish many more benefits by the year 2000. Biotechnology can make more foods healthier and more nutritious. Fruits and vegetables will contain higher levels of certain nutrients such as Vitamins C and E, and beta-carotene. These food components may help reduce risk of chronic diseases such as some cancers and heart disease. French fries and potato chips will contain less fat. A higher starch potato will mean fries and chips made from these potatoes will absorb less oil when fried. Better methods can be developed to identify and locate toxins, pathogens or contaminants in food.
There is also environmental protection; environmental stresses from frost to insects to plant diseases all demand responses from growers. Often there is little alternative but to use sometimes harsh chemical products to prevent dramatic crop losses. Biotechnology can increase the ability of many crops to withstand challenges in nature. Examples include the facts that more crops will be developed to ward off destructive insects and plant disease, reducing the need to use pesticides, breeding more herbicide, insecticide, and fungicide tolerant crops that will allow more selective application of agricultural chemicals, and plants enhanced to withstand low-temperatures and frost by modifying their production of linoleic acid.
These methods can potentially positively influence world food production in these ways: improved quality of seed grains, increased levels of proteins in forage crops, drought and flood tolerance, salt and metals tolerance, and heat and cold tolerance. Further, increased ability of crops to withstand environmental factors could allow farming in regions not suitable for food production now. Also, almost half of the $12 billion American farmers spend each year on fertilizer simply evaporates or washes away. Some plants, such as corn, might be modified to draw nitrogen from soil and air, thereby dramatically reducing the need for fertilizer.
The use of herbicides for controlling weeds or plants in crops has become almost a universal practice. Crop hybrids or varieties with resistance to the compounds would provide an attractive solution by allowing the compounds to be used without risk of damage to the crop. Using maize, researchers were able to create an invention that utilizes cell culture technology to isolate, characterize, and develop herbicide resistant maize lines which genetically transmit this herbicide resistance characteristic to their progeny. Thus, the problem with the crops is solved, herbicides that kill only the weeds can be used, and damage to the environment is limited. Further, less herbicide has to be used, and this practice lessens the amount of pollution.Jump to Table of Contents