Traditional breeding boosted by genetics

Gene research | Better understanding of how plants work aids conventional breeding

PARIS, France (Reuters) — Advances in understanding the genetic makeup of plants could ultimately help produce more resilient, higher-yielding crops, says the head of French seed company Limagrain.

Such a move ultimately has the potential to end the heated debate over genetic modification.

Distrust of crops produced using GMOs has marginalized the technology in Europe, where politicians recently moved closer to giving countries the ability to ban such crops even when they have regulatory clearance.

GM crops, which now account for about half of a global seed market estimated at US$40 billion, have divided opinion between proponents who cite improved yields at a time of shrinking natural resources and opponents who point to environmental risks, food safety concerns and unfair terms for farmers.

However, Limagrain president Jean-Yves Foucault said the controversy clouds the potential of plant gene research to bring improved results by traditional methods.

“If you get an intimate understanding of a plant, you may get answers via traditional selection without using GMOs,” Foucault said.

“GMOs are an important question, but one that shouldn’t be dramatized.”

Limagrain, a farmers co-operative that is the world’s fourth largest seed maker by sales through its subsidiary Vilmorin, sells GM crop varieties in the Western Hemisphere and is developing its own GM corn as it competes with larger rivals such as Monsanto.

However, the company still generates nearly two-thirds of its overall sales in Europe, where use of GM crops is minimal. Last year it achieved record sales of corn seed in Europe.

Researchers have mapped the genome of several crops and are working on deciphering that of wheat, the world’s most widely grown crop and one that has a particularly complex genetic makeup.

Vilmorin, like its peers, is working on GM wheat as part of the push to boost yields but has cautioned that a commercial launch is unlikely this decade.

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