During the mid-nineteenth century, Johann Gregor Mendel experimented with pea plants to develop a theory of inheritance. In 1843, while a monk in the Augustian St Thomas's Abbey in Brünn, Austria, now Brno, Czech Repubic, Mendel examined the physical appearance of the abbey's pea plants (Pisum sativum) and noted inconsistencies between what he saw and what the blending theory of inheritance, a primary model of inheritance at the time, predicted. With his experiments, which he recored in "Versuche uber Pflanzenhybriden" ("Experiments in Plant Hybridization") in 1865, Mendel discredited the blending theory of inheritance, and from them he proposed laws for inheritance patterns. Despite the fact that Mendel's work did not define all aspects of inheritance, his ideas and laws contributed to later concepts of traits, specifically that offspring inherit traits from their parents via genes, that an offspring has at least two genetic factors for any given qualitative trait, and that the offspring inherits the genetic factors in equal proportion from both parents.

Golden Rice was engineered from normal rice by Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer in the 1990s to help improve human health. Golden Rice has an engineered multi-gene biochemical pathway in its genome. This pathway produces beta-carotene, a molecule that becomes vitamin A when metabolized by humans. Ingo Potrykus worked at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland, and Peter Beyer worked at University of Freiburg, in Freiburg, Germany. The US Rockefeller Foundation supported their collaboration. The scientists and their collaborators first succeeded in expressing beta-carotene in rice in 1999, and they published the results in 2000. Since then, scientists have improved Golden Rice through laboratory and field trials, but as of 2013 no countries have grown it commercially. Golden Rice is a technology that intersects scientific and ethical debates that extend beyond a grain of rice.

Farmers have long relied on genetic diversity to breed new crops, but in the early 1900s scientists began to study the importance of plant genetic diversity for agriculture. Scientists realized that seed crops could be systematically bred with their wild relatives to incorporate specific genetic traits or to produce hybrids for more productive crop yields. The spread of hybrids led to less genetically diversity than normal plant populations, however, and by 1967, plant scientists led an international movement for conservation of plant genetic resources through the United Nations's Food and Agricultural Organization, and later through the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, both of which are headquartered in Europe. To conserve plant genetic resources, researchers must collect and store plant germplasm-the genetic material required to propagate a plant-usually in the form of a seed.

In the early twentieth century, scientists and agriculturalists collected plants in greenhouses, botanical gardens, and fields. Seed collection efforts in the twentieth century coincided with the professionalization of plant breeding. When scientists became concerned over the loss of plant genetic diversity due to the expansion of a few agricultural crops around mid-century, countries and organizations created seed banks for long-term seed storage. Around 1979, environmental groups began to object to what they perceived as limited access to seed banks, and they questioned the ownership of the intellectual property of living organisms. Controversy also ensued over the uneven flow of genetic resources because many of the seed banks were located in the global North, yet plants were collected largely from countries in the global South. The environmental groups' campaigns, which some called the seed wars, and the movement for biodiversity conservation intersected in ways that shaped debates about plant genetic material and seed banking. Several significant shifts in governance occurred in 1994 that led to the creation of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute in Italy, and to changes in the governance of several international seed banks.

Johann Gregor Mendel studied plants and their patterns of inheritance in Austria during the nineteenth century. Mendel experimented with the pea plant, Pisum, and his publication, 'Versuche uber Pflanzenhybriden' (“Experiments on Plant Hybridization”), published in 1866, revolutionized theories of trait inheritance. Mendel’s discoveries relating to factors, traits, and how they pass between generations of organisms enabled scientists in the twentieth century to build theories of genetics.

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