GM Beans and Beyond: How Does It Work and Why Does It Matter?

The application of biotechnology to agriculture has resulted in many benefits for producers and consumers which tend to be overlooked or unknown to the general public. This technology has helped make pest control and weed management safer and easier, while protecting crops.

In terms of improved weed control, herbicide tolerant soybeans allow the use of reduced risk herbicides that break down faster in the soil and are non-toxic at standard doses to wildlife and humans. Herbicide tolerant crops are particularly compatible with no-till or reduced-tillage farming systems that help preserve the topsoil from erosion.

Producers and consumers are also looking for ways to be better stewards of the environment and to make things safer for the farmer – this can be done with genetically modified crops – aka GMOs.

Image of Bobex-73, Shutterstock

Have you ever wondered about the future of soy and its parents? Soy is currently the only genetically modified organism (GMO) grain commercially available in the United States, but other new technologies are on the horizon! For example, Brazil is experimenting with the genetic modification of pinto beans due to a devastating virus; therefore, this GMO could significantly increase the yield of pinto bean while simultaneously decreasing wastes from contaminated crops.

In the United States, gene editing technology is on the rise compared to gene editing by other methods. Soybeans modified by the gene editing method may be the new industry standard for speeding up and streamlining soybean modification and production. In addition, genetic modification could also improve overall plant growth and the nutritional profile of the final food product.

Traditionally, soybeans have been modified using transgenic technology, which involves transferring genes (such as genes related to herbicide resistance) from one organism to another. It could be from another plant, soil, or another natural organism. Genome editing (also known as gene editing), however, is different and seems to be more accepted by the general public. Rather than inserting new genes into the existing genetic profile of soybeans, scientists are altering the genetic structure of soybeans. Genome editing makes it possible to add, remove or modify genetic material at particular locations in the genome.

In some cases, scientists “activate” part of the genome, which protects the plant from an insect!

One of the most popular methods used for gene editing is called CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats). The CRISPR protein used “searches” for the appropriate gene sought by the breeder in soybean and rearranges it such that the soybean then carries the desired trait. This could be herbicide resistance for example, without adding a new gene to the soybean plant. Some scientists believe that this could be a simpler and more efficient way to modify soybeans so that it has the qualities that benefit farmers and the general population.

Genetic modification through selective agriculture and traditional techniques of cross-pollinating plants have been around for generations, but modern biotechnology has made this process easier and more efficient for modern agricultural production. GM crops can benefit the United States’ food supply and the safety of producers and the environment. Genetically modified soybeans make up the majority of soybeans grown in the United States due to their usefulness and versatility in the food supply. This emerging new technology in gene modification makes this process even more desirable, as it can continue to drive progress with even greater efficiency than traditional plant breeding techniques.

What once took many years to achieve can now be achieved in a fraction of the time with GMO methods. One of the main goals of agricultural biotechnology is to feed a growing world population in a more sustainable way. Some current international farming methods are inefficient because they require larger amounts of water, fertilizers and pesticides. Biotechnology is “a tool in the toolbox” to solve these problems starting at the seed level. This helps the producer and the environment and lowers the cost of products or specialty products to the consumer.

This technology has the potential to revolutionize other fields beyond agriculture, including the field of medicine. For more information and FAQs on agricultural biotechnology, visit the US Department of Agriculture or the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Michelle Miller, The Farm Babe, is a farmer, speaker and writer who has worked for years with row crops, beef cattle and sheep. She believes education is essential to bridge the gap between farmers and consumers.

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