The word “biotechnology” was not coined until 1919, but ever since the first human civilizations began actively farming crops and domesticating animals, biotechnology applications have been used to enhance peoples’ lives. Biotechnology is much more than genetic manipulations such as cloning and gene therapy, and encompasses many agricultural practices and techniques in addition to those used to enhance human health and medicine.
Biotechnology in Ancient Agriculture
Ancient cultures used biotechnology applications without ever having heard the word, or knowing that their methods would be refined and expanded upon over thousands of years to result in highly sophisticated farming techniques. Throughout history farmers have domesticated animals, selected for high-yield, hardy plant crops, used techniques such as crop rotation, and added fertilizer to soils to improve the quality of crops. All of these practices are examples of agricultural biotechnology.
Improving Crop Yield and Stress Resistance
Throughout history farmers have selectively bred crops to improve yield as well as factors such as drought tolerance, salt tolerance, and pest resistance. These days, however, scientists can do this much more quickly by transferring the relevant genes from one species to another (the process of introducing genetic material from one species into another is called transgenics).
The problem with this field of study is that the approach is that for many plant species, yield is controlled not by one single gene, but by several genes. That makes it more difficult to isolate and transfer genes which can substantially improve crop yield.
Most current commercial agriculture applications focus on genetically engineering crop species which are more resistant to pests, or are resistant to herbicides. One example is the development of plants which can produce an insecticidal protein derived from a bacterial species called Bacillus thuringiensis.
Traditionally, bacteria and yeast have most often been used to produce large quantities of biopharmaceuticals (proteins and other biological molecules used to treat or prevent disease), a relatively new agricultural biotechnology application is the use of plants to produce these molecules. This practice has been dubbed “pharming.”
Pharming involves the genetic manipulation of plants or animals to cause them to produce medically useful proteins. The transgenic species is grown and harvested, and the protein is extracted and purified for medical use. The potential for pharming is huge, as proponents of these methods say that the global demand for a given biopharmaceutical could be met from the output of just a few acres of a single crop.
Controversy in Agricultural Biotechnology
There is, of course, some controversy surrounding the development of plants and animals with foreign genetic material. Opponents of transgenic methods fear that the foreign genetic material may find its way into food supplies, or into wild plant species. If, for example, resistance genes were transferred to weeds or insects, they might then become resistant to pesticides or herbicides.
Another controversial issue in the field of agricultural biotechnology is the fact that creating plants which are resistant to herbicides and pesticides allows farmers to use unlimited amounts of those substances on their crops. Opponents of the practice fear that eating these plants may be harmful due to residues or build-up of the toxins that washing is unable to remove.