By Chris Adams

From the cumbersome and time-consuming method of developing new strains of plants by cross-breeding to the in-lab techniques of genetic modification, the agriculture industry has long sought ways to insert positive traits into crops.

Wendy Srnic, the director of integrated product characterization and development at ag science company DuPont Pioneer, gave National Press Foundation fellows a tutorial on how the process of genetic modification works.

Starting with a description of the basic building blocks of cell biology, she described how researchers map out a plant’s genome and then insert a copy of a gene for a desired trait from one plant into the target plant. The process is known as creating “genetically modified organisms” or “genetically engineered” plants.

The process has been hugely controversial among some consumers, leading to efforts to require labeling on foods with GMO ingredients and efforts by others to avoid eating them. That said, the research community has generally supported GMOs, with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration saying, “Credible evidence has demonstrated that foods from the GE plant varieties marketed to date are as safe as comparable, non-GE foods.”

“It’s a tool,” Srnic said of the use of GMO technology, which allows plant breeders to grow crops that are weed-resistant or able to grow in different conditions. And while creating a GMO crop can be faster than breeding crops the conventional way, it doesn’t mean it’s always easy: Srnic said that for every one trait that is brought to market, more than 6,000 others are screened and tested.

Srnic was joined by Kevin Diehl, director of regulatory strategy and industry relations at DuPont Pioneer, who detailed some of the stats and challenges that make boosting yields necessary.

Over the last four decades, corn production has more than doubled world-wide. Only a small part of that is due to additional growing areas; most of it is due to genetics, better technology and better plant management.