Plant breeding has been practiced for thousands of years, since near the beginning of human civilization. It is practiced worldwide by individuals such as gardeners and farmers, and by professional plant breeders employed by organizations such as government institutions, universities, crop-specific industry associations or research centers.
International development agencies believe that breeding new crops is important for ensuring food security by developing new varieties that are higher yielding, disease resistant, drought tolerant or regionally adapted to different environments and growing conditions.
Plant breeding started with sedentary agriculture and particularly the domestication of the first agricultural plants, a practice which is estimated to date back 9,000 to 11,000 years. Initially early farmers simply selected food plants with particular desirable characteristics, and employed these as progenitors for subsequent generations, resulting in an accumulation of valuable traits over time.
Gregor Mendel's experiments with plant hybridization led to his establishing laws of inheritance. Once this work became well known, it formed the basis of the new science of genetics, which stimulated research by many plant scientists dedicated to improving crop production through plant breeding.
Modern plant breeding is applied genetics, but its scientific basis is broader, covering molecular biology, cytology, systematics, physiology, pathology, entomology, chemistry, and statistics (biometrics). It has also developed its own technology.
One major technique of plant breeding is selection, the process of selectively propagating plants with desirable characteristics and eliminating or "culling" those with less desirable characteristics.
Another technique is the deliberate interbreeding (crossing) of closely or distantly related individuals to produce new crop varieties or lines with desirable properties. Plants are crossbred to introduce traits/genes from one variety or line into a new genetic background. For example, a mildew-resistant pea may be crossed with a high-yielding but susceptible pea, the goal of the cross being to introduce mildew resistance without losing the high-yield characteristics. Progeny from the cross would then be crossed with the high-yielding parent to ensure that the progeny were most like the high-yielding parent, (backcrossing). The progeny from that cross would then be tested for yield (selection, as described above) and mildew resistance and high-yielding resistant plants would be further developed. Plants may also be crossed with themselves to produce inbred varieties for breeding. Pollinators may be excluded through the use of pollination bags.