Plant breeders developing many new food crops without GMOs

Proponents of agricultural biotechnology claim that genetically modified crops are needed to “feed the world.” As the world’s population continues to grow, better “technologies” will be needed to produce more food.

The media has publicized “breakthroughs” in GM crops such as “Golden Rice,” a rice variety genetically engineered to produce beta-carotene and increase vitamin A levels, a tomato that has 25 times the normal amount of the nutrient folate, and a soybean genetically altered to produce oil with higher levels of healthy Omega-3 fatty acids.

While these GM crop developments are highly publicized, there are many plant breeding efforts not involving genetic engineering that don’t get as much publicity. Plant breeders are using conventional plant breeding methods and newer techniques such as marker assisted selection, which greatly accelerates classical breeding through genetic analysis and selection of existing natural diversity in various crops without having to resort to foreign genes.

This article contains a few examples of breakthroughs being achieved with non-GMO breeding methods.

Boosting vitamin A and protein in corn

An initiative by HarvestPlus, an international research program that aims to reduce micronutrient malnutrition, has produced new corn varieties that could reduce vitamin A deficiency, a leading cause of blindness, among people in developing countries. Scientists have identified rare variations of a gene known as crtRB1, which occur only in corn plants from temperate regions. These result in much higher production — up to 18 fold — of beta-carotene, the precursor and main source of dietary vitamin A. Using natural plant breeding, the researchers have now introduced these variations into tropical corn strains that are commonly grown in developing countries.

HarvestPlus has set a target level of 15 micrograms of beta-carotene per gram of grain, sufficient to prevent vitamin A deficiency in areas where maize is a staple crop, such as many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and India.

Meanwhile, plant breeders at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) developed a non-GMO corn variety with higher protein levels called quality protein maize (QPM).

It looks and tastes like normal maize, but QPM contains a naturally-occurring maize gene that increases the amount of two amino acids—lysine and tryptophan—necessary for protein synthesis in humans.

Salt-tolerant wheat

Researchers at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) achieved a major breakthrough for wheat farmers in salt-affected areas by developing a salt-tolerant durum wheat that yields 25% more grain than the parent variety in saline soils.

The breakthrough will enable wheat farmers to achieve higher yields of durum wheat in saline soils. Although durum wheat is less salt tolerant than bread wheat it attracts a premium price because of its superior pasta making qualities.

Through traditional, non-GMO breeding methods aided by molecular markers the team was able to introduce the salt exclusion genes into durum wheat lines.

Salinity, a major environmental issue affecting much of Australia’s prime wheat-growing areas, often prevents farmers from growing durum wheat.

Drought-tolerant rice

While rice is second to corn as the most widely grown grain the world, it is probably the most important grain in human nutrition.

Researchers at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) are developing new varieties that are drought tolerant.

Drought can cause major problems for rice farmers since the grain requires so much water, about 3,000 liters to make a kilogram of rice.

According to IRRI, there are 23 million hectares (56.8 million acres) of drought-prone rice in Asia.

The new rice varieties developed by IRRI don’t require special inputs and are not genetically modified. They can tolerate a dry spell of 10 to 12 days and produce twice the yield per hectare of conventional rice varieties under drought conditions.

High-yielding lentils

The US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service recently developed a new lentil variety called “Essex” that offers high seed yields for farmers, nitrogen-fixing bacteria for wheat crops, and a tasty source of protein for consumers.

In field trials Essex averaged 1,220 pounds of seed per acre, which is 20% more than two leading commercial varieties.

Essex also enjoys a symbiotic relationship with beneficial soil microbes—specifically, root-colonizing Rhizobium bacteria, whose ability to take nitrogen from the atmosphere and turn it into a form plants can use for growth helps naturally replenish the soil’s fertility for subsequent crops of wheat and other grains.

Derived from conventional breeding, Essex will be grown primarily in Washington State, Idaho, North Dakota and Montana. In 2008, the four states combined produced an estimated $87 million worth of lentils, about 78% of which was exported.

(Sources:, Reuters UK)