Plant breeding, application of genetic principles to produce plants that are more useful to humans. This is accomplished by selecting plants found to be economically or aesthetically desirable, first by controlling the mating of selected individuals, and then by selecting certain individuals among the progeny. Such processes, repeated over many generations, can change the hereditary makeup and value of a plant population far beyond the natural limits of previously existing populations. This article emphasizes the application of genetic principles to the improvement of plants; the biological factors underlying plant breeding are dealt with in the article heredity. For a discussion on transgenic crops, see genetically modified organisms.
Plant breeding is an ancient activity, dating to the very beginnings of agriculture. Probably soon after the earliest domestications of cereal grains, humans began to recognize degrees of excellence among the plants in their fields and saved seed from the best for planting new crops. Such tentative selective methods were the forerunners of early plant-breeding procedures.
The results of early plant-breeding procedures were conspicuous. Most present-day varieties are so modified from their wild progenitors that they are unable to survive in nature. Indeed, in some cases, the cultivated forms are so strikingly different from existing wild relatives that it is difficult even to identify their ancestors. These remarkable transformations were accomplished by early plant breeders in a very short time from an evolutionary point of view, and the rate of change was probably greater than for any other evolutionary event.