How far are we willing to move away from nature?

We all know what colour a carrot is. Or do we? We are used to them being orange, but carrots were once purple, white or yellow

How far are we willing to move away from nature?

People are quick to say “natural”. When it comes to food and agriculture, it’s very difficult to say what really deserves this word. Most of the plants we use to feed ourselves have been modified so much by humans over the history of agriculture that they are now very different from the wild varieties they derive from. They have become more productive, easier to harvest and eat, and more flavourful. Not to mention more uniform in terms of shape and colour.
Orange, yellow and purple… carrots
To find out more about the political aspects, and what the Netherlands and the House of Orange have to do with it, you can have a look at this article in the Washington Post.
How do you manipulate a plant?
Over the past 11,000 years, the techniques most commonly used to modify plants have been selection and cross-breeding, the same as those used to breed pedigree dogs. The starting point is wild plants, which have characteristics that differ considerably within a species as well, thanks to their natural genetic variability – and this is what allows the species to evolve. The most suitable plants are chosen (the largest, the ones with more grains or juicier fruits, the better-tasting ones, or simply non-toxic ones), they are separated from the others and their seeds are replanted. The same process is carried out with the next harvest, and so on. After a few harvests, there will be a population of much more uniform plants, where the characteristics that were initially rare have become much more common.
This how the first farmers in what is now Mexico created corn around 9,000 years ago from teosinte, a wild grass with a small number of grains, covered by a thick husk. However, sometimes a few mutant plants would be found with smaller grains in greater numbers, and a thinner husk. The ancient American harvesters couldn’t have known this, but all it takes is the random mutation of a single gene to cause these changes. By isolating the plants with these characteristics and only replanting them, modern grain was created. In practice, ancient farmers had forced the hand of natural selection by sending it in the desired direction.
Over time, humans have also learned to control pollination to create hybrids, i.e. carefully designed cross-breeds between two different plant varieties capable of fertilising each other: just like crossing a male donkey and a female horse to get a mule, in short. Finally modern genetic engineering arrived, producing what are known as genetically modified organisms. In this case, working in a laboratory, a plant’s genes are manipulated directly by eliminating or adding the gene connected to the relevant property. When the gene to be added comes from a different species, we talk about transgenic organisms. To find out more, the Wikipedia entry is a good place to start. It’s important to remember that the modern biotechnologies used in agriculture are not limited to GMOs. For example, the techniques of marker assisted selection are a middle way in which the genetic markers of a plant are analysed to guide selection and cross-breeding.
The debate on GMOs in agriculture is complex, multi-faceted and heated, and it will be one of the main themes before and during Expo2015. We will be following it and keeping you up to date, trying to make sure all perspectives are heard and always distinguishing the facts from the (often overly polarised) opinions.

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