The goal of GM and conventional plant breeding is to produce crops with improved characteristics by changing their genetic makeup. GM achieves this by adding a new gene or genes to the genome of a crop plant. Conventional breeding achieves it by crossing together plants with relevant characteristics, and selecting the offspring with the desired combination of characteristics, as a result of particular combinations of genes inherited from the parents.
Both conventional plant breeding and GM deliver genetic crop improvement. Genetic improvement has been a central pillar of improved agricultural productivity for thousands of years. This is because wild plants make very poor crops. Natural selection tends to favor plants that can compete with neighboring plants for light, water and nutrients, defend themselves from being eaten and digested by animals, and disperse their seed over long distances.
New characteristics can be introduced into crops using either conventional or GM approaches. This raises the question of when a plant breeder might choose a GM approach versus a conventional approach. GM can only be used to introduce a new characteristic into a crop if two requirements are met. Firstly, it is necessary that the characteristic can be introduced by adding only a small number of genes, and secondly, it is necessary to know what gene or genes those are.
Many genes contribute to improving sustainable food production. With improvements in our knowledge about which plant genes do what, we now know which genes that could contribute to improving sustainable food production.
In some cases, conventional breeding will be the best way to deploy these genes – that is by cross-breeding with the plant that contains the genes providing these characteristics. In other cases, GM, where scientists take a gene and insert it directly into a plant, might be easier, or indeed the only way they can be deployed.
ASRBC, ACI LTD.