Regular old plant breeding or genetic modification?

Today in class, while talking about  “the father of the green revolution” Norman Borlaug and the wheat he bred, Stefani used the phrase “genetically modified wheat.”  This made me pause.  Borlaug was working on the 1940’s and 50’s.  Was his wheat really genetically modified as we have come to understand the phrase today?  I’m really interested in the specificity of language and its effects on communication, but I’m bad at piping in and raising these sorts of questions when I have them in class, so I kept listening to see if the phrase was used again, and it was.  I made a note to check it out.

An initial googling of Norman Borlaug yielded a Scientific American article that talks about him “crossing” strains of wheat from around the globe.  The word crossing refers to the process of artificial selection that happens when humans select certain traits of a plant and breed it with another plant in the hopes of the preferred traits manifesting in the offspring.  While this is a form of modifying the genes of the plant, it’s not the same as the process of inserting genes from one organism into another that we have come to call genetic modification (GM) or genetic engineering (GE).

In looking for more information about when modern genetically modified organisms were first produced, I found this cheekily named article, “From Corgis to Corn: A Brief Look at the Long History of GMO Technology.”  It does give a useful brief history, and while I think the article does have its own biases, I really appreciate the question it ends on: “What is the future of GMO technology that we ourselves can’t foresee now?”  

I’m sure our GMO class in a few weeks will be an interesting one.



One comment

  1. stefani · February 16, 2016

    Katie – please learn to pipe = it’s valuable for the class, me and most importantly you. The good news is that this subject — and the language around it — will be unpacked on Wednesday – where we will parse the language and all of the implications attached to it. As for Borlaug’s wheat – yes he crossed strains but used molecular genetics to clone these organisms. The wheat itself is not bad (we’ll talk about that too) but most everything that sprung up around this high yield model of growth/output has become problematic.

    Great research here.


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