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Genetic Engineering

Plant traits are encoded in the DNA of their genes. In 1973 it became possible to identify and splice, or recombine, specific DNA molecules, leading to recombinant DNA technology, or genetic engineering, which allows scientists to copy and exchange genes among organisms to introduce new characteristics, such as resistance to herbicides or insects. Plants developed using genetic engineering are often called transgenic plants.

Although genetic engineering of foods was commercialized first in yeast to produce rennet for making cheese in the late 1980s in Europe, the first commercial genetically engineered crop was the FLAVR SAVR tomato from Calgene Inc., first sold in 1994. The first large-scale introduction of a transgenic crop occurred in 1995 with the release of herbicide-tolerant soybeans.

Along with insect resistance conferred by the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) protein, this first generation of genetically engineered crops exhibited improved agronomic traits.

ISAAA Brief 39: Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2008

that 68 percent of soybeans, 26 percent of corn and 69 percent of cotton in the United States were planted with varieties enhanced by genetic engineering.

Worldwide, 130 million acres of transgenic crops were grown in 2001. Genetically engineered crops have continued to increase 10-15% annually, with over 300 million acres (120 M ha) grown in 25 countries in 2008 (ISAAA 2009).

The second generation of transgenic crops to enter the market is expected to incorporate many value-enhanced qualities, such as higher nutrient contents, increased fertilizer use efficiency and resistance to environmental stresses such drought.

One example of quality enhancement is Golden Rice, a rice variety that accumulates beta-carotene (the precursor to vitamin A) and iron in the grain, potentially reducing childhood blindness and anemia in countries where rice is a staple food.


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