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Biomedical, Health-Beneficial and Nutritionally Enhanced Plants

Plants are a major part of our diets. For example, fruits and vegetables, bread, cereals, pasta, and many processed foods are made directly from plants or from ingredients that come from crop plants.  In addition, most of our animal-based food products such as meat, eggs, dairy products and fish are produced by animals that eat plants. 

Scientists have made tremendous advances in understanding what makes food nutritious.  The roles of vitamins, minerals and other compounds found in plants are becoming clear.  Plant breeders have been improving the crop plants we depend on for food for thousands of years, making them more productive, nutritious and easier to grow and harvest.  Nearly all of the plants we eat or feed to animals have been improved to some extent by plant breeders.  With the help of reliable methods to measure various compounds in plants, plant breeders are more effective than ever at producing plants that are more health-promoting and nutritious.

 Plant breeders have developed plants with increased concentrations of essential nutrients like vitamins and minerals.  One example of this is “Golden Rice”, a genetically modified rice that can make beta-carotene (a source of vitamin A) in its grains.  Breeders have also developed crop varieties with diminished levels of undesirable compounds, such as allergens or toxins.  Much of this work has occurred in cooperation with crop physiologists and molecular biologists, who have helped to uncover the genes and the biochemical pathways that contribute to these advances.

Plant breeders use many methods to improve plants.  The earliest plant breeders kept plants that were easy to grow, store, and tasted good, without knowing that they were improving their crops by a method breeders now call selection.  More sophisticated understanding of genetics allowed breeders to apply selection more efficiently so the rate of change from breeding became greater.  Similarly, enhanced understanding of molecular genetics has enabled biotechnological methods that have allowed even more rapid improvements.  Nutritionally enhanced plants have been successfully produced using all types of breeding methods.   New technologies such as genome editing will undoubtedly allow development of new types of nutritionally enhanced plants.

Scientists and the public are justifiably wary of new breeding technologies and their products, so these products are carefully evaluated by many experts before being made available to the public.  Scientists confirm that no allergens are introduced, and when the technology results in elevated levels of a nutrient, researchers assess and ensure that toxic levels would not be reached in commonly consumed amounts of that food product.  Researchers continue to study these plants to ensure they are a safe and beneficial component of our diets.    

The need for nutritionally enhanced plants is great.  The population of the earth is predicted to grow by 2 billion people in the next 3 decades, while agriculture continues to strain our natural resources.  By allowing growers to produce high levels of nutrients on a small amount of land, nutritionally enhanced plants will play a central role in meeting the global demand for safe, healthy and plentiful food.