Pocket K No. 2: Plant Products of Biotechnology

Plant products of biotechnology have been available in the market for more than a decade now. These modified crops look like their traditional counterparts, but they possess special characteristics that make them better and benefits both farmers and consumers. Farmers gain higher crop yields and have increased flexibility in management practices while consumers have “healthier crops” (i.e., crops grown with fewer pesticides and/or with healthier nutritional characteristics).

Plant products of biotechnology approved for food use have been modified to contain traits such as:

  • Insect resistance
  • Disease resistance
  • Herbicide tolerance
  • Altered nutritional profile
  • Enhanced storage life


Biotech Soybean

Soybean is the oil crop of greatest economic relevance in the world. Its beans contain proportionally more essential amino acids than meat, thus making it one of the most important food crops today. Processed soybeans are important ingredients in many food products.

Herbicide-tolerant soybean

Herbicide-tolerant soybean varieties contain a gene that provides resistance to one of two broad spectrum herbicides.

This modified soybean provides better weed control and reduces crop injury.  It also improves farm efficiency by optimizing yield, using arable land more efficiently, saving time for the farmer, and increasing the flexibility of crop rotation. It also encourages the adoption of no-till farming-an important part of soil conservation practice.

These varieties are the same as other soybeans in nutrition, composition, and in the way they are processed into food and feed.  *Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, the European Union (EU), Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Paraguay, Philippines, Russian Federation, South Africa, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, United Kingdom (UK), United States of America (USA), and Uruguay.

Insect resistant soybean

This biotech soybean exhibits resistance to lepidopteran pests through the production of Cry1Ac protein. Insect resistant soybean was developed to reduce or replace high insecticide applications and at the same time maintain soybean yield potential. .  * Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Taiwan, USA.

Oleic acid soybean

This modified soybean contains high levels of oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat. According to health nutritionists, monounsaturated fats are considered “good” fats compared with saturated fats found in beef, pork, cheese, and other dairy products.

Oil processed from these varieties is similar to that of peanut and olive oils. Conventional soybeans have an oleic acid content of 24%. These new varieties have an oleic acid content that exceeds 80%.

*Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand and the US.

Examples of plant products of biotechnology




Herbicide tolerance


Herbicide tolerance, modified fatty acid content, male sterility


Herbicide tolerance, insect resistance

Flax, Linseed

Herbicide tolerance


Drought tolerance, herbicide tolerance, insect resistance, male sterility, fertility restored, altered amino acid content


Delayed ripening


Virus resistance


Virus resistance


Insect resistance, virus resistance, modified amylase


Herbicide tolerance, insect resistance, cedar pollen peptide


Herbicide tolerance, insect resistance, modified fatty acid content


Virus resistance

Sugar Beet

Herbicide tolerance


Delayed ripening, Insect resistance


Herbicide tolerance

*Source: ISAAA GM Approval Database.


Biotech Maize

Maize is one of the three most important grains of the world. It is used as livestock feeds, processed as cooking oil and food additives, and currently as feedstocks for biofuels.

Herbicide-tolerant maize

These maize varieties work in a similar manner to herbicide-tolerant soybean. They allow growers better flexibility in using certain herbicides to control weeds that can damage crops. *Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, El Salvador, EU, Honduras, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Philippines, Russian Federation, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Taiwan, Thailand, USA, and Uruguay.

Insect-resistant maize

This modified maize contains a built-in insecticidal protein from a naturally occurring soil microorganism (Bt) that gives maize plants season-long protection from corn borers. This means most farmers do not have to spray insecticide to protect maize from harmful pests, which can cause significant damage and yield loss in many areas. Bt maize also reduces toxin contamination arising from fungal attack on the damaged grain. The Bt protein has been used safely as an organic insect control agent for over 40 years.  * Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Czech Republic,  Egypt, EU, Honduras, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russian Federation, Singapore, Slovak Republic, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan, UK , USA, and Uruguay.


Biotech Papaya

Virus-resistant papaya

This Hawaiian-developed papaya contains a viral gene that encodes for the coat protein of papaya ringspot virus (PRSV). This protein provides the papaya plant with built-in protection against PRSV. This biotech papaya works in a manner similar to virus resistant potato. * Canada, China, Japan, and USA.


Biotech Squash

Virus-resistant squash

A biotech yellow crookneck squash is now able to resist watermelon mosaic virus (WMV) and zucchini yellow mosaic virus (ZYMV). These new varieties contain the coat protein genes of both viruses. This biotech approach bypasses aphid control, which may reduce or eliminate the use of insecticides.  *Canada and USA.

Biotech Cotton

Herbicide-tolerant cotton

This cotton works in a manner similar to other such crops. For benefits, see herbicide-tolerant soybean. * Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, EU, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, South Africa, and USA.

Insect-resistant cotton

This modified cotton works in a manner similar to insect resistant corn. It contains a protein that provides the plant with season-long protection from budworms and bollworms. The need for additional insecticide applications for these pests is reduced or eliminated.  * Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Canada, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, EU, India, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Myanmar, New Zealand, Pakistan, Paraguay, Philippines, South Africa, and USA.


Biotech Rice

Rice is life for more than half of humanity. It is the staple food for over 3 billion people, more than 90% of whom are Asians.

Herbicide-tolerant rice

These rice varieties work in a similar manner to herbicide-tolerant soybean. They contain a gene that provides resistance to one of two broad spectrum, environmentally benign herbicides. * Australia, Canada, Colombia, Mexico, New Zealand, Russian Federation, and USA.

Insect-tolerant rice

This modified rice works in a manner similar to insect-resistant maize. It reduces yield losses caused by caterpillar pests, the most important of which are the yellow stem borer in tropical Asia and the striped stem borer in temperate areas. * China and Iran.


Biotech Alfalfa

Alfalfa is one of the most important legumes used in agriculture.

Herbicide-tolerant alfalfa

This alfalfa works in a manner similar to other such crops. * Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Philippines, and USA.


Biotech Sugar Beet

In 2008, an herbicide tolerant sugarbeet variety was planted in Canada and USA for the first time. The herbicide tolerant sugarbeet allows farmers to cut the number of required cultivations by half. * Australia, Canada, Colombia, EU, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, Philippines, Russian Federation, Singapore, and USA.


Biotech Canola

Photo courtesy of the Canola Council of Canada.

Canola is a genetic variation of rapeseed and was developed by Canadian plant breeders specifically for its nutritional qualities, particularly its low level of saturated fat.

Herbicide-tolerant canola

Herbicide tolerant canola contains transgenes conferring tolerance to herbicides. This is similar to the trait exhibited by herbicide-tolerant soybean. * Australia, Canada, Chile, China, EU, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, Philippines, South Africa, and USA.

High laurate canola

These canola varieties contain high levels of laurate. Oil processed from these novel varieties is similar to coconut and palm oils. This new canola oil is being sold to the food industry for use in chocolate candy coatings, coffee whiteners, icings, frostings, and whipped toppings. Benefits extend even to the cosmetics industry.  * Canada and USA

Oleic acid canola

This new type of canola contains high levels of oleic acid. For benefits, see oleic acid soybean.  *Canada.

Biotech Potato

Insect-resistant potato

This biotech potato works like insect resistant maize. It contains a protein that provides the plant with built-in protection from the Colorado potato beetle. Thus, this potato needs no additional protection for this pest, benefiting farmers, consumers, and the environment. * Australia, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, Philippines, Russian Federation, and USA.

Virus-resistant potato

Several potato varieties have been modified to resist potato leafroll virus (PLRV) and potato virus Y (PVY). In the same way that people get inoculations to prevent disease, these potato varieties are protected through biotechnology from certain viruses. Furthermore, virus resistance often results in reduced insecticide use, which is needed to control insect vectors that transmit viruses. * Australia, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, Philippines, and USA.


Biotech Tomato

Delayed-ripening tomato

The delayed-ripening tomato became the first genetically modified food crop to be produced in a developed country. These tomatoes spend more days on the vine than other tomatoes, thus resulting in better flavor. Furthermore, the longer shelf life has commercial advantages in harvesting and shipping that can reduce the costs of production. * Canada, China, Japan, Mexico, and USA.


* Approved for food use.






Herbicide tolerant soybean


Stacked traits maize


Bt cotton


Herbicide tolerant canola


Herbicide tolerant maize


Bt maize


Stacked traits cotton


Herbicide tolerant cotton


Herbicide tolerant sugarbeet


Herbicide tolerant alfalfa








*Million hectares

James, C. 2011. Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2011. ISAAA Briefs No. 43. ISAAA: Ithaca, NY.



In the developed world, it is evident that the use of GM crops has resulted in significant benefits. These “first generation” crops have proven their ability to increase crop yields, reduce farm costs, increase farm profit, and help protect the environment. Current research is focused on “second generation” GM crops that will feature increased nutritional, pharmaceutical and/or industrial traits. These varieties should prove valuable in countries where millions of people suffer from dietary deficiencies and have difficulties in accessing vaccines and medicines.

For more information, visit http://www.isaaa.org/kc


Bt: Bacillus thuringiensis, a common soil bacterium that produces a protein toxic to certain insects

Coat protein (CP):a major component of viruses. CPs protect viral genetic information.

Enzyme: a protein that regulates chemical reactions inside every living cell and organism

Gene: a biological  unit that determines an organism’s inherited characteristics

Herbicides: chemicals used in agriculture to control weeds that compete with crops for soil nutrients, water, and sunlight

Laurate: an important fatty acid used in the food industry, mainly sourced from coconut and palm oil

Oleic acid: a monounsaturated fatty acid found in animal and vegetable oils. Monounsaturated fats are the most benign of the fat sources and are generally considered safe as they do not cause disease or other health problems.

*Updated July 2012

Next Pocket K: Are Food Derived from GM Crops Safe?