evaluation period is that it provides opportunities for greater assurance that deleterious features will be identified and potentially harmful new varieties can be eliminated before commercial release. As discussed more fully in Chapter 5, it is both prudent and preferable to identify potentially hazardous products before they are made commercially available, and with few exceptions standard plant breeding practices have been very successful in doing so.
The easiest method of plant genetic modification (see Operational Definitions in Chapter 1), used by our nomadic ancestors and continuing today, is simple selection. That is, a genetically heterogeneous population of plants is inspected, and “superior” individuals—plants with the most desired traits, such as improved palatability and yield—are selected for continued propagation. The others are eaten or discarded. The seeds from the superior plants are sown to produce a new generation of plants, all or most of which will carry and express the desired traits. Over a period of several years, these plants or their seeds are saved and replanted, which increases the population of superior plants and shifts the genetic population so that it is dominated by the superior genotype. This very old method of breeding has been enhanced with modern technology.
An example of modern methods of simple selection is marker-assisted selection, which uses molecular analysis to detect plants likely to express desired features, such as disease resistance to one or more specific pathogens in a population. Successfully applying marker-assisted selection allows a faster, more efficient mechanism for identifying candidate individuals that may have “superior traits.”
Superior traits are those considered beneficial to humans, as well as to domesticated animals that consume a plant-based diet; they are not necessarily beneficial to the plant in an ecological or evolutionary context. Often traits considered beneficial to breeders are detrimental to the plant from the standpoint of environmental fitness. For example, the reduction of unpalatable chemicals in a plant makes it more appealing to human consumers but may also attract more feeding by insects and other pests, making it less likely to survive in an unmanaged environment. As a result, cultivated crop varieties rarely establish populations in the wild when they escape from the farm. Conversely, some traits that enhance a plant’s resistance to disease may also be harmful to humans.