The Importance of Plant Breeding
When visiting the grocery store or deciding what to plant in your garden, you might notice the multitude of vegetable varieties. A perfect example is the pepper. Jalapeño, bell, habanero, poblano, cayenne, serrano – it is usually easy to tell them apart based on their shapes, sizes, colors and tastes. Beyond using your five senses, different varieties can be distinguished by their abilities to withstand challenging growing environments and use natural resources more efficiently. But did you know that many peppers were bred through traditional and advanced breeding techniques for a specific reason?
For example, the roulette pepper is a red habanero that has been bred to maintain fruity flavor of a traditional habanero without the heat. The mini bell pepper was created as a way to reduce food waste when an entire large bell pepper would leave leftovers. Additionally, many of the world’s hottest peppers were bred to withstand water restrictions – a mechanism used to stress the peppers increasing their capsaicin production.
Plant breeding, in its simplest definition, is crossing two plants to produce offspring that, ideally, share the best characteristics of the two parent plants. Throughout the history of civilization, plant breeding has helped farmers solve complex challenges while also appeasing the appetites of consumers.
Most of the fruits and vegetables we eat today are the result of generations of plant breeding. In fact, some of the most popular fruits and vegetables originated from plants that would be almost unidentifiable now. Cabbage, kale, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, broccoli and kohlrabi all share a common ancestor in the wild yellow mustard plant. Carrots were originally yellow and purple, and watermelons began as a small, bitter fruit.
Grains are no different, though their varieties can be a little harder to spot. Corn as we know it originated from Teosinte, a plant with small, thin “cobs” covered in kennels so hard they would crack your teeth. Today, we have different varieties of corn to suit different purposes.
Sweet corn is bred for both taste and appearance. Plant scientists work to ensure each cob is packed from end-to-end with sweet, soft, juicy kernels, making it look as good as it tastes. Popcorn is another type of corn altogether. Its tough outer shell and low soft starch content make it great for this favorite movie-time snack.
In addition, corn is optimized for more than just human consumption. Dent corn, or field corn, is bred to contain higher levels of starch. This corn is used for animal feed, syrup production and conversion to ethanol for fuel. Even within the dent corn family, there are several different varieties that are bred for increased nutritional benefits to livestock and ease of syrup or fuel production.
All plants, whether grain, fruit or vegetable, also have varieties that improve their chances in the field. Many plants are bred to withstand drought and use natural resources like water more efficiently. Additionally, Bayer is exploring the possibilities of short stature grains to protect crops from severe weather and strong winds.
There are many ways to ensure a certain trait is present in a plant. As innovations advance the fields of science and agriculture, plant breeders use technologies like marker assisted breeding to create new plant varieties and hybrids in more efficient and precise ways than in years past. Leveraging these innovations, we’re working to improve the lives of consumers and farmers alike by creating more sustainable, resource efficient and nutritious crops.