The picture-perfect, straight, bright orange carrots that we recognise aren’t actually how carrots looked just 1,000 years ago – and it’s all a result of plant breeding.
A millennium ago there were purple carrots flourishing in Afghanistan, and yellow and white carrots could be found in other areas of the world. It wasn’t until the 16th century in the Netherlands that orange carrots were bred into the modern crop that we see today.
Modern plant breeders have further refined the carrot, improving its flavour, texture, colour, shape and reducing its bitterness. There have also been significant advancements in disease and pest reduction in this crop, resulting in ever increasing yields.
Plant breeding isn’t new. In fact, it has been around for almost 10,000 years. Since then, the techniques have changed but the aim is the same – to grow crops that are hardy, high yielding and can be produced efficiently.
The first plant breeding involved farmers selecting seeds that grew the best crops to plant for the next season. Scientist Gregor Mendel revolutionised plant breeding in the mid-1800s when he discovered dominant and recessive genes and developed the science behind selective breeding. Today, plant breeding is extremely precise and scientists have the ability to incorporate desirable traits into specific species using gene transfer technologies — there are new advances occurring constantly.
Plant breeding has uses other than just growing desirable-looking vegetables – it is also part of the solution against future food shortages. Plant breeding has raised crop yields, lowered wastage, increased pest resistance and resulted in crops that can grow in remote and challenging environments. As well as reducing food shortages, plant breeding has also contributed to alleviating poverty across the world.
Modern agriculture has a strong focus on sustainability and growing more food with less resource. Plant breeding has allowed for enhanced traits, such as drought tolerance, nitrogen-fixing abilities and photosynthesis maximisation. This all results in crops that are able to generate higher yields with lower inputs of water and nutrients. Plant breeding advances can also reduce the need for tillage, which aids in protecting soil structures. All of these contribute to a more sustainable farming system.
Carrots aren’t the only crop to benefit from plant breeding; almost every large-scale agricultural product has undergone some form of selective growing, and scientists continue to discover new and exciting ways to advance plant breeding.
Crafting perfectly straight, bright orange carrots is impressive, but it’s the ability of plant breeding to make food production more efficient and sustainable that ensures it will remain an exciting and essential part of modern agriculture.
Continue here to find out more about Monsanto’s plant breeding research.