Around 10,000 BC, people began to harvest food and domesticating animals.  Without conscious thought, families soon began to select better plants for propagation and better animals for breeding.  Over thousands of years farmers began selecting desirable traits in crops, including shortened growing seasons, increased disease and pest resistance, larger seeds and fruits, improved nutritional content, longer shelf life, and adaptation to ecological diversity in their surroundings.  Early plant crosses were made without a basic understanding of genetics until Gregor Mendel’s research began to explain how traits pass from parents to offspring.  

Mendel’s research provided the basis for traditional plant breeding in which new varieties are developed either by selecting plants with desirable characteristics or by combining qualities from two closely related plants through selective breeding.

Genetic Engineering
DNA provides the basic structure of all living organisms.  It’s DNA that determines hair color, height, build, etc.  In plants, it’s DNA that determines shelf life, disease resistance, drought tolerance, and pest resistance.  In animals, it’s DNA that determines size, build, and texture.

Biotechnology has developed to the point that scientists can remove one or more genes from a specific organism and introduce those genes into the genome of another organism.  Unlike traditional plant breeding scientists are able to determine quickly if their crosses had the desired effect.  In 1978, synthetic insulin was released after scientists were able to use recombinant DNA to produce insulin.  Up until 1978, the only sources of insulin outside the human body were pig and cattle pancreatic glands.  

Plant Breeding v Genetic Engineering
In the most basic form, all types of crops (organic and GMO) are modified.  The difference is that organic crops rely on traditional forms a plant breeding, which change the plant’s genome indirectly and in an uncontrolled manner.

Biotechnology allows scientists to specifically target traits that they wish to duplicate.  In addition, it allows scientists to track and recreate the transfer of genes.

Safety and Testing
Products derived from biotechnology are subject to extensive testing and review prior to being released on the market.  Testing is completed not only by the developing company but also by the US Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency, and Food and Drug Administration.  All three agencies must sign off on the product before it is released on the market.  

The safety and testing of biotech crops will be discussed further in the March edition of The Co-Operator.

Sources Include:
“Nature” magazine
College Agricultural Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois Urban-Champaign
Biotechnology Industry Organization