Providing Safe, Nutritious Food

Better Food, By Design

Packing your kids’ lunch probably isn’t the most stressful part of your morning, but it isn’t always easy. It’s no small feat to keep everybody fed and find healthy, affordable options each kid will actually eat. An apple a day might keep the doctor away, but good luck getting any kid to eat one that’s turned brown after a few hours in a lunchbox.
Thankfully, there’s a bunch of smart people out there working to get us out of this stress. These saints plant breeders are making fruits and veggies better, tastier, and healthier.

Summer-sweet cantaloupes year round — check. Apples that won’t brown by lunch time — oooh yeah. Snack sized vegetables made for kid-sized hands — mind blown.

So how do these geniuses make the magic happen, and what does it mean for your lunch-packing routine? Let’s go behind the scenes.

Plant breeders gave us Seyran F1 tomatoes, which have intense flavor and can withstand transport and storage for more than 20 days.

What do Plant Breeders Do?

They’re sort of like a cross between a designer and an engineer. Like designers, they think about the next big thing to meet our needs. Like engineers, they’re able to science their way into making it a reality.
The cool part is that plant breeding has been going on for as long as people have been growing crops. Farmers are always refining plants to make them hardier, tastier, and more productive, and that quest continues today. Modern plant breeding plays a big role in meeting both today’s challenges and the ones we’re expecting in the future:
  1. Providing healthy, affordable food options for you, your family, and families like them across the planet
  2. Providing consistent, reliable harvests
  3. Conserving resources like water
  4. Minimizing use of pesticides
Plant breeding gives crops traits that meet your needs:
Better nutrition
Better taste
Longer shelf life
Larger size
More varieties (So you have more choices at the supermarket!)
It helps farmers grow plants that produce better food, more efficiently:
Increased yield (more food per plant)
Pest resistance
Disease resistance
Herbicide tolerance
Faster growth
Drought resistance
Adaptations to the environment of different areas
Easier harvesting
And it can make farming more environmentally friendly and sustainable:
Water conservation
Soil conservation (less erosion)
Healthy soils (helping the soil retain a diverse range of microbes)
Efficient use of land

How Do Plant Breeders Do What They Do?

The concept of plant breeding probably started when a farmer noticed that one of his plants produced better food than its neighbors — maybe it was bigger or tastier, or maybe it survived some kind of infestation.

The farmer replanted seeds from that overachieving plant to produce more like it — and then did it again with the stars of the next generation. Plant, watch, select, repeat.

That’s the simplest form of plant breeding: taking a plant with some positive characteristic and replanting those seeds to produce more like it. And over many generations, this process can create pretty big changes in plants. After a while, many are almost unrecognizable when compared to their original, wild form.

Over the years people got smarter and figured out new, better ways to do this, so that they weren’t so susceptible to the whole random chance thing. Plant breeders are constantly developing new crops and new plant breeding techniques, just as they always have. Each breakthrough gives farmers new ways to feed more people, grow better food, and use fewer resources.

Corn with more than a handful of kernels?Plant breeding.

Grapes with no seeds to chip your teeth?Plant breeding.

Ripe tomatoes that can survive a trip to the grocery store?Plant breeding.

Avocados that come pre-filled with guacamole?Well, we can dream.

While the principles are the same, the toolbox has changed a lot. You probably don’t use paper scrolls or rotary phones at your job (hipsters excluded), and farmers have better, smarter tools too.

While there are a bunch of plant breeding approaches, they all fall into three basic categories:

Domesticated crops are often very different from their wild ancestors. From left to right: corn’s wild cousin, teosinte; a hybrid corn and teosinte; and domesticated corn (maize). Photo by John Doebley
Classical Breeding
As we noted above, classical breeding started with farmers gradually changing crops over time by picking the best plants in a crop and planting more like them. Then, in the past 120 years or so, scientists developed new ways to accelerate the process and cross a greater variety of plants. These innovations had a big impact on how farmers grow food.
A plant breeder removes stamens from a wheat ear, to keep it from self-pollinating.

But classical breeding has its limits. It’s a bit like using one of those claw machines at the mall — you may not always pick up the exact genes you’re looking for, or you might get some genes you don’t want mixed in with the ones you do. Take corn for instance — it has 32,000 genes. (No offense, but you only have about 20,000.) So, when you cross two corn plants with all those genes, the outcome is tough to predict. Plus, the whole process moves at the speed of ... well, corn growing ... and who has time for that?

“There HAS to be a better way”, someone (probably) said.

Genetic Engineering
Science to the rescue! After scientists figured out that nifty double helix, DNA, our understanding of how plants are built changed dramatically. Now they knew which genes were responsible for which traits, and they could be much more precise. It’s like swapping out that mall claw machine and reaching in with your hands to pick out your favorite prize instead.

Genes are, quite literally, the building blocks of life, so some other smart people figured out that you could take one piece from one thing and put it in another.

Here's how it works:

Genetically Engineered Foods

Farmers have already been growing genetically engineered crops, improved through this process, for more than 20 years. So far, ten genetically engineered crops are available, with more on the way:
Sweet and field corn – Improved insect resistance and herbicide tolerance, so they can be grown with fewer pesticides.
Soybeans – Improved insect resistance and herbicide tolerance.
Canola – Improved herbicide tolerance.
Alfalfa – Improved herbicide tolerance.
Sugar beets – Improved herbicide tolerance.
Papaya – Improved disease resistance, increasing supply and decreasing price.
Potatoes – Improved blight resistance and reduced bruising.
Squash – Improved disease resistance.
Apples – Resists browning after it’s cut so it still looks appetizing, reducing food waste.
Cotton – Improved insect resistance and herbicide tolerance.

Growers are seeing great success with genetically modified foods (which also go by the name “GMOs” — genetically modified organisms). They’re passing on the benefits to your dinner table by using less pesticides, providing greater amounts of food, and cutting down on unappetizing traits like browning. And over many years of study, leading scientific organization in the world have consistently found that GMO foods are just as nutritious and just as safe to eat as other any other food.

Of course, many people still have some concerns about genetically modified food. We’re going to use this site to explore some of those topics. The smart people over at GMO Answers are a great resource to check out, too.

Gene Editing
In 2012, scientists discovered the next big opportunity in plant breeding: They learned how to replace small pieces of a plant’s genetic code, so they can remove unwanted traits or add positive ones. This technique is based on a natural process bacteria use to protect themselves from viruses. Scientists use specialized proteins, which act sort of like molecular scissors, to cut or “edit” DNA directly.

With this technique, scientists can develop plants with specific qualities, such as drought resistance, higher yield, and pest resistance. Gene editing is more precise than other plant breeding techniques, so scientists and growers can develop and test crops more quickly and tailor crops to meet specific needs. What once took many years and thousands of random crosses can now be done in a fraction of the time. We’re only beginning to understand the possibilities.

Looking Ahead
Over centuries, plant breeding has made life better and better for all of us who like food, as well as the farmers who grow it. And we’re not done! New plant breeding methods are helping us protect against changing pests and weather, preserve our environment, and fill shelves with more tasty, nutritious food options than ever.