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Your Questions About Biotechnology, Answered.

For centuries people have been modifying plants to express desired characteristics (e.g. sweetness, colour, disease resistance, etc.) through selective breeding. This often took long periods of time and a trial and error approach to match different “parents” and track the characteristics in “offspring.” Selective breeding is still used today but technology now offers a better understanding of genetics. With this knowledge and access to specialized tools, plant modification can be much more precise than it is with selective breeding. This modern technique is known as plant biotechnology.82

What is plant biotechnology?

Plant biotechnology is a term that refers to a number of lab-based techniques developed to introduce desirable traits (or characteristics) into crops. The techniques include Genetic Modification (GM), Genetic Engineering (GE), and Mutagenesis.83

How does it work?

Chromosomes are made up of genes containing DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). These genes may work individually or as a group to determine how an organism responds to specific conditions, like resistance to a disease. Understanding DNA makeup allows researchers to study an organism’s cell composition and modify genes (e.g. add, remove, or alter) to make them express the desired trait. Some examples of traits are resistance to pests, drought resistance, and tolerance of herbicides.

Why plant biotechnology?

One of the key points of biotechnology is that the modification is done to produce something which is useful for society or has an important purpose, such as increasing yield or reducing impact on the environment. For example, through biotechnology, insect-resistant corn plants have been developed. There is a natural insecticidal protein which is found in soil bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). The Bt gene that expresses the Bt protein has been inserted into the genes of the corn and becomes part of the tissue of the plant. Insects which consume parts of the Bt corn plant will die because that protein is toxic to them (Bt is not toxic to humans, animals or beneficial insects).84 Because the plant resists the insects, fewer pesticides may be necessary. Should a farmer need to spray fewer pesticides (and less volume), this means he or she would also be spending less time on a running tractor, therefore reducing fossil fuel use and saving the soil from compaction.

Fast Fact:

11.6 million hectares of biotech crops were grown in Canada in 2012, an increase of of 12 percent from 2011. The four main biotech crops grown in Canada are: corn, soybean, sugarbeet, and canola. Biotech canola accounts for 97.5 percent of canola planted in Canada. 85

 

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