DNA-Based Approaches Offer Improvements in Crop Science
While debate around DNA engineering in crops continues, it is worth remembering that one of the greatest accomplishments of the 20th century came from a plant biologist and geneticist who would go on to win the Nobel Prize and be called “The Man Who Saved a Billion Lives.”
That man was Norman Borlaug, a plant scientist who used the cutting-edge genetic techniques of the 1940s and 1950s to develop several varieties of high-yielding, semi-dwarf wheat that were resistant to disease. At the time, these crops provided a path forward for Mexico, India, and Pakistan — countries that were importing wheat or whose populations were facing the very real scenario of starvation. Wheat production more than doubled as these countries converted to the Borlaug wheat, which was later introduced throughout Asia and Africa. In 1970, Borlaug was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of the agricultural wonders he had worked.
As the world population booms, it is critical that each arable acre yield more and more food than ever before. By some estimates, just 15 crops represent 90 percent of the world’s food supply — putting remarkable pressure on every one of those crops to produce reliable yields with every planting.
Agricultural biologists have a tremendous imperative to develop higher-yielding, nutrient-rich crops that resist pests, drought, and disease. In Borlaug’s day, this entailed a long and complex process of backcrossing, shuttle breeding, and using multiline varieties to create plant strains with favored traits, such as shorter stalks or resistance to rust. Today, new DNA-based technologies have been brought to bear on this important work. Scientists can more precisely target favored traits by studying the genetics of crop plants and altering strains to carry a particular gene or variant of interest. In other studies, agbio companies can take seed samples from farmers, perform genetic assessments of them, and report back to the farmer which seeds are most likely to succeed in particular environmental conditions and for certain crop goals.
The introduction of biotechnology to agricultural studies will be remembered as a major revolution in understanding and developing crops best suited to feeding the world’s people and animals. We are witnessing the earliest stages of it, but recent advances in agbio show just how promising these improved crop science approaches will be. As we look ahead, new technology innovations will enable progress at an even faster rate than we see today.
Crop Science and DNA
The earliest days of using DNA-targeting technologies allowed crop scientists to make major improvements with key plant traits, from production to flavor and more. According to Paul Schickler, president of DuPont Pioneer, the average corn yield in the United States was about 30 bushels per acre in the 1920s. With the introduction of hybrid corn and other improvements, today that number is 160 bushels per acre. In a recent interview with Bloomberg, Schickler said, “I hesitate to think what we’d be faced with today, around the world and in the United States, if we were using practices and seeds from one hundred or two hundred years ago.”