Biotechnology in Agriculture
Broadly speaking, biotechnology is any technique that uses living organisms or substances from these organisms to make or modify a product for a practical purpose (Box 2). Biotechnology can be applied to all classes of organism – from viruses and bacteria to plants and animals – and it is becoming a major feature of modern medicine, agriculture and industry.
Agricultural biotechnology is a range of tools, including traditional breeding techniques, that alter living organisms, or parts of organisms, to make or modify products; improve plants or animals; or develop microorganisms for specific agricultural uses. Modern biotechnology today includes the tools of genetic engineering.
Modern agricultural biotechnology includes a range of tools that scientists employ to understand and manipulate the genetic make-up of organisms for use in the production or processing of agricultural products.
History of Agricultural Biotechnology
About 10,000 years BC, people harvested their food from the natural biological diversity that surrounded them, and eventually domesticated crops and animals. During the process of domestication, people began to select better plant materials for propagation and animals for breeding, initially unwittingly, but ultimately with the intention of developing improved food crops and livestock. Over thousands of years farmers selected for desirable traits in crops, and thus improved the plants for agricultural purposes. Desirable traits included crop varieties (also known as cultivars, from “cultivated varieties”) with shortened growing seasons, increased resistance to diseases and pests, larger seeds and fruits, nutritional content, shelf life, and better adaptation to diverse ecological conditions under which crops were grown.
Over the centuries, agricultural technology developed a broad spectrum of options for food, feed, and fiber production. In many ways, technology reduces the amount of time we dedicate to basic activities like food production, and makes our lives easier and more enjoyable. Everyone is familiar with how transportation has changed over time to be more efficient and safer (Figure 1). Agriculture has also undergone tremendous changes, many of which have made food and fiber production more efficient and safer (Figure 1). For example in 1870, the total population of the USA was 38,558,371 and 53% of this population was involved in farming; in 2000, the total population was 275,000,000 and only 1.8% of the population was involved in farming. There are negative aspects to having so few members of society involved in agriculture, but this serves to illustrate how technological developments have reduced the need for basic farm labor.
Examples of Agricultural Biotechnology
Genetically engineered crops, usually fruits or vegetables, designed to carry antigenic proteins from infectious pathogens, that will trigger an immune response when injested. An example of this is a patient-specific vaccine for treating cancer. An anti-lymphoma vaccine has been made using tobacco plants carrying RNA from cloned malignant B-cells. The resulting protein is then used to vaccinate the patient and boost their immune system against the cancer. Tailor-made vaccines for cancer treatment have shown considerable promise in preliminary studies.
Plants are used to produce antibiotics for both human and animal use. Expressing antibiotic proteins in livestock feed, fed directly to animals, is less costly than traditional antibiotic production, but this practice raises many bioethics issues, because the result is widespread, possibly unneccessary use of antibiotics which may promote growth of antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains. Several advantages to using plants to produce antibiotics for humans are reduced costs due to the larger amount of product that can be produced from plants versus a fermentation unit, ease of purification, and reduced risk of contamination compared to that of using mammalian cells and culture media.
There is more to agricultural biotechnology than just fighting disease or improving food quality. There are some purely aesthetic applications and an example of this is the use of gene identification and transfer techniques to improve the color, smell, size and other features of flowers. Likewise, biotech has been used to make improvements to other common ornamental plants, in particular, shrubs and trees. Some of these changes are similar to those made to crops, such as enhancing cold resistance of a breed of tropical plant, so it can be grown in northern gardens.