I am a plant breeder. Many people have no idea what that entails and I don’t blame them; but it’s bloody frustrating not being able to convey exactly what the hell I do! So I thought I’d give it a go on here.

When you go to the supermarket and pick up a vegetable, a fruit, a nut – all of it has been bred (probably) to look and taste exactly as it is. Have you ever noticed how carrots or cabbages are all roughly the same size? Again, that’s because of people like me breeding new varieties for people to pick up and eat. People want their food to look nice and to look the same each time they buy it. The process can take years or even decades because of the length of many plant life-cycles. I’m personally quite lucky in that I breed salad crops mostly and these have very short generation times, typically 4-6 months. Carrots or parsnips take much longer; up to two years!

So how is it done? Well to oversimplify it a bit, we find a trait of interest such as a nice colour in one plant and disease resistance in another. Then we cross pollinate the two to introduce the characters into an offspring population. This can then either be screened for the best individuals that have the two traits together (repeatedly through a process called backcrossing, which is what takes up most of the time!) or if you are lazy, pick out the best plants and produce some seed to sell to farmers or small producers. You would not believe the amount of time and effort that goes into producing the broccoli stick you’re munching on, or the lettuce in your salad..

So if it’s so slow why bother? Well up until recently only massive companies could afford the technology to speed things up a bit. This mainly involves a process known as Marker Assisted Selection (MAS for short) where the genetics of plants are screened to ‘see’ what characteristics the plants are likely to take on when they are fully grown and on the supermarket shelf; such as taste or nutrition content. This means all the crap plants can be filtered out before any of them are more than a few inches tall. If it’s done well, this can save huge amounts of time and money. But this is NOT genetic modification! It wouldn’t be a bad thing if it were in my opinion, but many misinformed and/or ignorant individuals tar everything with their same deluded brush.

MAS looks at the genetics and does not alter it in any way. GM typically introduces only one or two genes into a plant population, amounting to little more than a few hundred base pairs (the small molecules that make up DNA). When you consider a plants’ genome is usually several billion base pairs in length this is nothing in comparison. Mutations in the genetic code happen all the time. They are happening in your body right now. Are you being genetically modified? No; this is a natural process that can be used as a tool for breeders to make better crops, and to feed more people with in a growing world. How is that a bad thing?

But GM can give you cancer right!? The loon on the TV said so!!

‘Fraid not. You’ve probably more chance of getting cancer from your computer screen right now than from GM crops. How anyone ever surmised that introducing a gene for higher yield is somehow connected to cancer I don’t know. There has been no rigorous study thus far that has made any such link to my knowledge. There’s nothing that goes into GM that isn’t there to begin with; the only difference is how the plant interprets the information that is in the form of those 4 magic letters A,T,C and G. That’s DNA baby.

Most places in the world are starting to use GM now, except Europe. But it’s not the only way to get ahead. Theres a new fandangled method using Zinc Finger Nucleases that looks very promising but I won’t bore you with that…

Suffice to say that whatever vegetable, fruit (or meat for that matter) you decide to eat, it has been ‘made’ by breeders to be that way, whether you like it or not. Some companies use GM, others use bees to cross-pollinate flowers. In the end it’s all pretty much the same result. So next time you’re at the shop thinking what greens to buy you might have some idea of what it is I do for a living.