Plants – feeding the world

Where does our food come from? It might pass through a fish, a cow, or a factory, but our food first became food in plants. Plants use the energy in sunlight to join small molecules together to make bigger ones like sugar, protein and starch.

We would not be here without plants. We mustn’t forget that. I was disturbed to read that it’s no longer possible to do a Botany degree at a British University.

But old-fashioned knowledge of plants is valuable. It seems that in the many efforts to make more efficient food crops, traditional plant breeding techniques are winning over genetic manipulation of plants.

Genetic engineering can make changes to the way a plant or animal works by adding a gene here, taking out another one there. It’s been used to solve some tricky problems. And it makes for vigorous debate and compelling news stories.

A common bean plant of the type used by Lynch's team. The common bean plant is not well adapted to grow in phosphorus deficient soil.
A common bean plant of the type used by Lynch’s team. It’s not well adapted to grow in phosphorus deficient soil.

But this is a story about plant breeders doing a version of what people have done for centuries to improve food crops – selective breeding, also known as artificial selection (as opposed to natural selection). Jonathan Lynch and his team at Pennsylvania State University looked at bean plants carefully, and asked what’s different about the plants that grow better than others in soils low in phosphorous. Their answer was in the root structure. And so they selected plants with better roots and bred them with each other for a few generations, improving the roots at each generation.

The result – bean plants that yield three times as much food in phosphorus-deficient soil.

And it was done the old-fashioned way, with careful observation and smart science.

The Nature article gives other examples of successful crop improvement using traditional plant breeding techniques. One of the problems with using GM to try and improve crops is that some characteristics, like root structure, are controlled by many genes. It’s hard to work out all the genes that are involved, and making the right improvement is not as simple as adding one gene.

I’m all for research and using technology to solve problems, but let’s not forget that some of the old ways of doing things are still valuable.


The race to create super-crops

Plants are our lifeline – but we’re letting them die – Michael McCarthy

Image By wanko from Japan ( – image description page) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Cross-posted to Real Science and Other Adventures.

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