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Agriculture scientist standing in a greenhouse with young bioengineered plants. Stock image by zhudifeng.

Agriculture experts currently use five methods to change or modify plants. Some of these changes are considered bioengineering. Bioengineered crops (BE crops) are crafted by scientists to be resistant to pests, disease, and herbicides or to enhance nutritional value. Farmers grew the first BE crops in the 1990s: papaya, corn, soybean, and cotton.

Methods Used to Change Plants

Traditional Breeding

  • Scientists select plants with desired traits. Then, they will cross breed the plants to produce several generations of hybrid offspring. The hybrid offspring will display the desired traits.
  • The federal government does not require testing of hybrid offspring.
  • Traditional breeding is an approved organic method to produce new crop varieties.
  • Traditional breeding affects the largest number of genes; between 10,000 to 300,000 genes.

Mutagenesis

  • Scientists will encourage random changes in the plant genome by using chemicals or radiation.
  • Mutagenesis is the most unpredictable method that producers use to modify crops.
  • Currently, the federal government does not require testing of mutagenesis modified plants.
  • Mutagenesis is an approved organic method to produce new crop varieties.
  • The number of genes affected by mutagenesis is unknown.

RNA Interference

  • Scientists can suppress a trait in a plant by turning off mRNA.
  • The federal government requires lengthy testing when producers use RNA interference to change a plant.
  • RNA interference is an approved organic method to produce new crop varieties.
  • RNA interference only affects 1-2 genes.

Transgenesis

  • With transgenesis, scientists add a new gene into specific locations in the plant’s genome. Future plant offspring can inherit these added traits from the transgenesis parent plants.
  • The federal government requires lengthy testing when producers use this method to change a plant.
  • Crops made through this method cannot be labeled organic.
  • This gene adding process only affects 1-3 genes.

Gene Editing

  • Gene editing occurs when scientists make specific changes to a plant’s genome (genetics).
  • The federal government is still determining the testing requirements when scientists use gene editing to change a plant.
  • However, there are currently no restrictions for organic use after changing a plant in this way.
  • The gene editing process affects around 1-3 genes due to the targeted approach to making changes.

Download PDF file publication: UPN-2135 – GMO Food Facts: Bioengineered Crops

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