Biotechnology in the Produce Aisle
Imagine you’re about to enjoy a mid-morning snack. So you reach for a banana, pull back the peel and bite into large, hard seeds.
What you’re experiencing is not the banana we’ve come to know and love today, but rather what the first banana was like – before farmers used biotechnology methods and tools like seed selection, cross-pollination and hybridization to give them the best eating characteristics. Farmers are always learning, combining the best methods previous generations have perfected, while taking advantage of what’s new in plant breeding technologies and innovations.
First, some examples of traditional methods. Other fruits and vegetables – from apples to tomatoes – have also changed significantly over the years (actually, centuries) to be tastier, more colorful and provide higher yields:
- All those apple varieties you see in the store are a result of cross-pollination to create unique varieties within the same fruit species.
- Ever heard of the tangelo? It’s a hybrid of a tangerine and grapefruit that combines the best of both fruits: sweet, seedless and easy to peel.
- A grape tomato is very different from a roma tomato – that’s a function of selective breeding: identifying desirable traits and continually cross-pollinating plants with those traits to eventually create a variety with desirable characteristics.
Fast-forward to the 21st century, and biotechnology is a faster, more precise way of achieving what farmers have been doing for thousands of years. Today, it has provided traits and uses for 12 GMOs. But what does that mean for our fruits and vegetables?
Currently, you will find just a few produce items that benefit from biotechnology:
- Squash: A handful of squash varieties are genetically modified for disease resistance to three damaging plant viruses.
- Papaya: Production was on the verge of total destruction in the late 1990s due to a plant virus that devastated papaya yields. Thanks to Rainbow Papaya, a genetically modified variety that is resistant to the ringspot virus, we’re able to enjoy papaya today.
- Sweet corn: Some sweet corn varieties have been genetically modified for insect resistance and herbicide tolerance, which provides an opportunity for farmers to reduce chemical use when growing sweet corn.
- Apples and potatoes: While many purposes behind genetic modification are for on-farm benefits, like protection against insects and other diseases, the Arctic Apple and a couple varieties of potatoes have been modified to bruise and brown less – that means less food waste in your kitchen.
There are even more ways that biotechnology could benefit our produce in the future, from traits that keep food fresher longer, to ones that enhance nutrition and reduce allergens. Biotechnology can be used to save other fruits and vegetables, too, like the banana – keeping it seed-free and around for us to enjoy whenever we want. Whether it’s a thousand-year-old approach or a modern, technology-based tool, farmers, scientists and regulators are working to provide us with the safest, freshest, most nutritional fruits and vegetables possible.