Consider the following scenario. You are able to:
- Grow crops in all of world's arid deserts and slushy swamps
- Harvest yields from existing fields three or more times what you get now
- Eliminate completely all kinds of crop damage - from weeds, pests, diseases, floods and drought.
That would mean plenty of food grown everywhere. And if you can distribute the food to all who need it, hunger would be banished from the world!
Utopian dream! Part of it could be, particularly the distribution part. However, biotechnology is promising to make the food production parts a reality. Until biotechnology arrived on the scene, crop improvement could be achieved only through cross breeding and traditional tissue culture, which had serious limitations. For example, cross breeding was possible only within the same or closely related species of plants.
What did Biotechnology do for Agriculture?
Modern biotechnology can work at the level of genes, which determine the varied characteristics of living organisms. By inserting a piece of DNA of one species into the DNA of another, possibly quite unrelated, species, it was now possible to change the characteristics of the recipient organism. New crop varieties could be created possessing such characteristics as:
- Resistance to diseases, pests and herbicides
- Tolerance to environmental stresses, such as flooding and drought
- Increased value such as better nutrition and longer shelf-life
- Transgenics or embedding DNA piece from one species into another is not the only way biotechnology works on crops.
Other techniques include among others:
- Artificial mutation: Mutation changes existing genetic structure leading to changes in characteristics of the organism. Naturally occurring mutation is thought to be the factor underlying evolution of species. However, natural mutation is too slow and infrequent. By using chemicals or radiation, mutation can be induced artificially. From the resultant varieties, one can select those with desirable characteristics for further propagation.
- Genome editing: Instead of inserting DNA from an external source, scientists use an enzyme system to work directly with existing DNA and genetic structure.
Traditional cross breeding depended on visible traits. You see an organism with desirable traits, and breed it with another which did not have those traits, hoping to pass the desirable traits to the latter. Modern biotechnology has made it possible to examine DNA and detect genes that produce desirable characteristics, even where these are not visible. Use of molecular markers in this way has made passing of traits much more precise and efficient.
Molecular diagnostics has made it possible to diagnose crop and livestock diseases much more accurately. Cure and prevention becomes more effective as a result.
Extensive Safety Assessments
While biotechnology has made it possible to change things for the good in many ways mentioned above, that does not mean the changed crops are always safe. For example, genes sourced from other species could introduce toxins and allergens that were not present in the original. Nutritional value can also change significantly in adverse ways to harm consumers. It is also possible that adverse characteristics affect only certain segments of the population.
The new biotech plant could also have unintended impact on the environment. It could affect other organisms adversely or turn out an invasive species destroying other valuable crops.
Because of these likelihoods, new biotech crops are subjected to extensive and time consuming safety assessments before they are allowed to be marketed commercially.