Biotechnology can be defined as utilizing living organisms or their products toalter human health and the human environment. Agriculture is one such sector in which biotechnology has brought in marked innovations such as enhancing pest resistance, improving crop yields, and producing new varieties of plants and animals.
On the other hand, biotechnology also brings some challenges and risks namely ethical problems, environmental concerns, and social stigmas. This guide will explore the impact of biotechnology on agriculture, both positive and negative. Plus, we shall discuss some of the promises and challenges that it entails.
What is biotechnology in agriculture?
Farmers all across the world grow organic vegetables and other crops with the help of contemporary technologies and smart techniques. Biotechnology in agriculture is the application of technology and scientific tools to modify living organisms that are used for the betterment of farming. It can involve genetic engineering, molecular marker and diagnostics, vaccination, and tissue cultures. One of the primary objectives of agricultural biotechnology is to enhance crop production and improve yield quality by implementing desirable traits from different species or sources.
Some examples of biotechnology applications in agriculture are:
- Genetic engineering: the direct manipulation of an organism’s DNA to introduce or remove specific traits.
- Marker-assisted selection: the use of molecular markers to identify and select desirable traits in breeding programs.
- Genomics: the study of the structure and function of the entire genome of an organism.
- Proteomics: the study of the structure and function of the proteins encoded by the genome.
- Metabolomics: the study of the chemical processes and interactions of the metabolites produced by the organism.
- Bioinformatics: the use of computational tools and methods to analyze and interpret biological data.
Biotechnology in agriculture is used to protect crops from diseases, pests, and environmental adversity. Technology has many benefits; here are some other potentials for using this technology in cultivation and farming.
Biotechnology has the potential to increase food production
One application of biotechnology is to increase food production by enhancing crop yields and improving pest resistance. Using the same, we can also develop new varieties of plants and animals; additionally, agro-biotechnology can also address some of the challenges faced by food systems globally. For instance, changes in climate, overgrowing population, malnutrition, and wastage of food.
Here are examples of biotechnological innovations that can increase food production:
Genetically modified crops tolerate adverse conditions
Genetically modified crops (GM crops) simply means that plants are altered by biotechnology to improve their endurance against drought, salinity, or herbicide. These abilities can help the crops survive and produce in harsh environmental conditions or reduce the need for chemical inputs.
GM crops with drought tolerance have been developed by introducing genes that regulate plant water use, osmotic adjustment, or stress signaling pathways. For example…
- GM maize with drought tolerance has demonstrated a yield of 6–10% more than conventional maize under water-limited conditions.
- GM crops with salinity tolerance are engineered by transferring genes that modulate ion transport, detoxification, or osmoprotection.
- GM rice with salinity tolerance has exhibited improved growth and yield in saline soils.
- GM crops with herbicide tolerance created by inserting genes confer resistance to specific herbicides, such as glyphosate or glufosinate. These crops allow farmers to apply broad-spectrum herbicides to control weeds without harming the crops.
- GM crops with herbicide tolerance can also facilitate no-till farming, which can conserve soil health and reduce fuel and labor costs.
Biofortified crops can provide essential micronutrients
The biofortification technique uses conventional breeding methods to produce more nutritious crops that contain high levels of micronutrients including vitamin A, zinc, and iron. These micronutrients are responsible for various bodily activities in humans including development; nevertheless, it is evident that many people across the globe suffer from such deficiencies, especially in poor and developing countries. Biofortified crops come as a rescue for this problem as it provides more micronutrients in staple foods widely consumed by the poor. Some examples of biofortified crops are oranges, zinc rice, sweet potato, and iron beans.
Biofortification is also used to increase micronutrient intake as per several studies; additionally, it also has other benefits such as improved crop production and resistance. The technology is promising in handling micronutrient deficiencies and improving food security and health.
Biodegradable packaging can reduce food spoilage
Biodegradable means a kind of packaging that can be decomposed by natural processes such as bacteria, fungi, or sunlight. Biodegradable packaging has several benefits for both food preservation and environmental protection.
Biodegradable packaging reduces food spoilage as it creates a barrier against oxygen, dampness, and germs responsible for food deterioration. In addition, biodegradable packaging reduces environmental impact as it brings down the amount of waste that otherwise results in landfills or oceans.
Such packaging is also made from renewable materials such as cellulose, corn starch, or algae, reducing fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions. All in all, biodegradable packaging is adapted to improve food quality and sustainability.
Biotechnology also poses some challenges such as social, moral, economic, and environmental. For example, moral concerns may arise from gene manipulation and cells; also, there could be a grave concern for the creation of transgenic organisms along with the use of stem cells, and cloning.
Social issues may include the impact of biotechnology on human dignity, identity, privacy, and diversity. Economic issues could arise from the distribution of benefits and risks, protecting intellectual property rights, and also biotechnology market regulation. Environmental issues could concern the possible impact of biotechnology on biodiversity, ecosystems, and natural resources.
Ethical and social issues
Biotechnology may bring in ethical and social apprehensions about the safety, possession, and adequacy of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Some experts are concerned about the manipulation of life forms or the patenting of biological materials. Others may frown on the impacts of GMOs on animal welfare, human health, and biodiversity.
Governing and legal issues
Biotechnology requires a complex and dynamic regulatory framework that balances the risks and benefits of the technology. Different countries may have different standards and regulations for biotechnology products, which may create trade barriers or conflicts. Additionally, biotechnology may involve intellectual property rights and liability issues that need to be resolved.
Technical and economic issues
Biotechnology is a rapidly evolving field that requires constant innovation and adaptation. Its products may face technical challenges such as gene flow, pest resistance, or environmental stress; moreover, such technology asks for big investments in research and development, infrastructure, and education. This ultimately limits its availability and affordability for farmers.
Regulatory and safety concerns
Though the technology has the potential to offer benefits in agriculture, biotechnology also faces regulatory and safety challenges that require utter attention from the stakeholders and concerned people.
Some of the challenges include:
- Ensuring the ethical and social acceptability of biotechnology products and applications, especially those involving genetic modification, human health, and animal welfare.
- Developing and implementing appropriate regulatory frameworks and standards that balance the risks and benefits of biotechnology in agriculture. This should be done while respecting the diversity of national and regional farming contexts and perspectives.
- Assessing and managing the potential environmental and health impacts of biotechnology such as the effects of gene flow, biodiversity loss, biosafety, and biosecurity issues.
- Promoting public awareness and engagement on biotechnology issues, as well as fostering scientific literacy and education among the farmers and policymakers.
- Enhancing the capacity and collaboration of innovators, agriculturists, regulatory bodies, and other stakeholders in agricultural biotechnology development and governance.
Biotechnology in agriculture is a rapidly evolving field that has the potential to address some of the major challenges faced by humanitysuch as food security, climate change, and environmental degradation. However, it also has some socio-economic, moral, and ecological concerns that need to be carefully assessed and regulated. Despite everything, there is no denying that biotechnology in agriculture is a fascinating field and has stimulated agriculturists’ curiosity to learn more about it.