Plant breeding is the key to providing us with varied and better quality foods. Although conventional plant breeding has existed for hundreds of years, it was often time-consuming and labour-intensive. But, breeding methods have come a long way – it's becoming faster and more effective.
MAS, or marker-assisted selection, is a biotechnology that uses a traditional breeding approach. It's about finding genetic markers that are linked to the qualities you want; like disease resistance or climate adaptation which then enables plant breeders to breed plants with these desired traits. Through this approach, MAS is an excellent tool for accelerating conventional breeding efforts by increasing speed and accuracy. Smart Breeding: The Next Generation (authored by Benno Vogel, an independent scientist) is a new report that reviews the growing list of traits produced by MAS in an increasingly diverse array of crops across continents.
MAS, also referred to as "smart" conventional breeding, was in its infancy ten years ago. However, with advances in genome sequencing and gene (or marker) identification technologies, MAS has become a valuable tool and is becoming widely adopted. The list of plant traits developed using MAS is growing. It includes those that can help overcome challenges associated with climate change, such as drought and flood tolerance. MAS has also helped develop varieties of crops which are resistant to pests and diseases, give improved grain quality and enhance concentrations of vitamins and micronutrients (including pro-vitamin A). MAS is being used for farmers in China, India and Indonesia to deal with bacterial leaf blight in rice; in Nigeria and Tanzania to provide cassava resistance to African mosaic virus; and North American farmers to gain fungal resistance to wheat.
The full benefits of MAS, however, will only become clear if it is an open source technology without industry patents on the techniques, as is common with genetically engineered (GE) crops.
Genetic engineering is another type of biotechnology. It's often said that we need genetically engineered (GE) crops in agriculture to cope with the effects of climate change, or to increase yield. However, the reality is that genetic engineering is failing to deliver these traits. In fact, there is not a single commercial GE crop with increased yield, salt tolerance, enhanced nutrition or other attractive-sounding traits touted by the industry.
In contrast to the wide range of traits developed using MAS, GE crops currently are almost entirely dominated by only two traits: herbicide tolerance and insect resistance. GE crops raise environmental and health concerns whereas MAS respects species barriers, is more acceptable to consumers and is faster to market. MAS does not alter the breeding process; it is not genetic engineering. In light of the proliferation of MAS in plant breeding, and the successful delivery of useful traits, GE crops are simply not necessary.
It's clear that MAS can be directed to develop qualities that can assist with ecological farming. Ecological farming is diverse, complex, knowledge intensive and low in external inputs (e.g. pesticides and fertilizers) and fossil fuels. It requires crops with different traits to those used in intensive farming. There is no doubt that a global shift to ecological farming practices is now needed. MAS is a modern and innovative plant breeding tool that could be, and should be, orientated towards developing varieties that assist this shift, contributing to a healthy planet that feeds people with healthy food in a changing climate. This is what the world needs today, not GE crops.
Dr. Janet Cotter is a Senior Scientist at the Greenpeace International Science Unit.