Crops improved through biotechnology not only improve farming efficiency, but also provide a softer environmental footprint than traditional agricultural practices. According to the National Center for Food and Ag Policy, U.S. farmers growing transgenic pest-resistant and herbicide-tolerant cotton, corn and soybeans reduced the total volume of insecticides and herbicides by more than 66 million pounds in 2004. Growing biotech crops also reduces soil erosion by up to 90 percent compared to conventional cultivation, saving valuable topsoil, improving soil fertility, and dramatically reducing sedimentation in lakes, ponds, and waterways.
In developing countries with growing populations, the greatest threat to wildlife habitat and biodiversity is the need to convert these fragile environments to farmland to feed people. By increasing yields on cropland already dedicated to farming, more of these remaining spaces can be preserved.
In 2005, the 10-year anniversary of commercialized biotech crops, the one-billionth biotech acre was planted. Farmers in 17 countries are growing more than 200 million acres of crops improved through biotechnology. Soybeans, corn, cotton and canola have been enhanced to resist insects and herbicides, allowing farmers to increase productivity.
Feeding the world's growing population is a challenge as the best farmland is already in production. Scientists are developing new crops that are salt and drought tolerant to produce higher yields in marginal cropland.
Biodefense and Public Safety
Military units and disaster responders face new and dangerous threats from biological and chemical agents. Biotechnology-produced enzymes can now break down toxic chemicals, including nerve gases such as sarin and somain, in a way that is effective, convenient and enviromentally benign. These enzymes can be added to water and sprayed at the site of attack.
Scientists are also modifying mustard plants to serve as "sentinel plants" that warn of chemical warfare agents or animal pathogens such as anthrax. Recently, a Danish company announced it had developed a plant that can be used to detect land mines by changing colors when its roots encounter a mine. DNA fingerprinting, a biotech process, has transformed criminal investigation and forensic medicine, as well as afforded significant advances in anthropology and wildlife management.
Tomorrow, biotechnology will bring you better health and treatments for disease using agriculture Ã± the ultimate sustainable manufacturing process. Right now, scientists are developing plants that produce medicines. Think of them as “green drug factories” that will produce all kinds of medical products you and your family may need.
Today, researchers are working with plants such as rice and tobacco to produce proteins for life-saving biotech drugs. One day, rice may be used to make enzymes that can treat iron deficiency, which affects 67 percent of the worldÃs population, and anemia. Researchers are also experimenting with tobacco plants as drug factories; the possibilities include “growing” a preventative treatment for ovarian cancer in tobacco leaves.
This kind of cutting-edge biotech research is under way all over the world, on every continent, including Antarctica, where researchers are searching for microbes with useful properties for manufacturing.
Back here at home, take one more look around. There are biotechnology benefits everywhere you look.
These benefits are just a small sampling of the enormous improvements brought by biotechnology over the past 50+ years, since James Watson and Francis Crick first described the DNA molecule. And even as you are reading this, scientists around the globe are imagining even more solutions, big and small, for the challenging world in which you live.