Healthy and Safe Food

GMOs, plant breeding and genetic engineering

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More than 10,000 years ago, the earliest plant breeders were knowingly and unknowingly selecting plants that had desirable traits, including those needing a shorter growing season, or producing higher yields, or larger seeds or fruits.
Traditional plant breeding is a very long and expensive process that involves cross breeding two plants, growing new plants from the seeds produced, and painstakingly selecting the offspring with the desired combination of traits — over, and over, and over again. It can take many years to get the right combination of traits, and for new varieties to become available. What’s a GMO? GMO stands for genetically modified organisms. It’s a term that technically could be applied to
almost all plant-based food we eat today, as they’ve all been modified over time, but when people talk about GMOs, they’re most often referring to genetic engineering. Genetic engineering, or genetic modification, is a form of biotechnology in which laboratory methods bring together genetic material from multiple sources. What distinguishes genetic engineering from conventional breeding is the use of recombinant DNA technology. An example: a gene from another species is added to a crop’s DNA to make it more functional, such as corn that produces a toxin that is lethal to certain crop-killing bugs—meaning that farmers can reduce their insecticide use. Genome editing, by comparison, typically involves targeting and changing specific genes within a plant. To edit genes, scientists use a sort of molecular pair of scissors to cut DNA in a desired spot, and then make use of the plant’s own natural DNA repair mechanism. CRISPR-Cas9, the most well-known gene editing technology, is an example of this method. It could potentially be used to make milk, eggs, or peanuts safe for everyone to eat, saving people from allergies that could be life-threatening. Gene editing is able to leverage the breakthroughs in genome sequencing that have occurred in the last decade, which provide a better understanding of what genes do what and enable targeting specific edits to get the desired result.

Six GMO crops are commercially grown in Canada:

  1. canola
  2. corn (grain and sweet)
  3. potatoes
  4. soybeans
  5. sugar beets
  6. alfalfa

A further eight are grown in other parts of the world, including apples, cotton, eggplant, papaya, pink pineapple, squash, wheat and sugarcane.

The bottom line:

GMO crops have been grown in Canada for over 25 years. New crops produced using modern biotechnology methods have the potential to help reduce food waste, improve flavour, be more disease resistant, and much more.

Quick fact:

Eating a genetically modified crop will NOT affect a person’s genes. The human body can’t absorb DNA through digestion.