What is agricultural biotechnology?
Agricultural biotechnology is an advanced technology that allows plant breeders to make precise genetic changes to impart beneficial traits to the crop plants we rely on for food and fiber.
For centuries farmers and plant breeders have labored to improve crop plants. Traditional breeding methods include selecting and sowing the seeds from the strongest, most desirable plants to produce the next generation of crops. By selecting and breeding plants with characteristics such as higher yield, resistance to pests and hardiness, early farmers dramatically changed the genetic make-up of crop plants long before the science of genetics was understood. As a result, most of today's crop plants bear little resemblance to their wild ancestors.
The tools of modern biotechnology allow plant breeders to select genes that produce beneficial traits and move them from one organism to another. This process is far more precise and selective than crossbreeding, which involves the transfer of tens of thousands of genes, and provided plant developers with a more detailed knowledge of the changes being made.
The ability to introduce genetic material from other plants and organisms opens up a world of possibilities to benefit food production. As an example, "Bt" crops that are protected against insect damage contain selected genes found in the common soil bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis. The Bt genes contain information that the plant uses to produce a protein toxic to the larvae of certain plant pests but is safe for humans, animals and other insects. Pest-protected Bt plants stop these insects from eating and destroying the plant, which improves yields and reduces the need for pesticide applications, saving the farmer time and money. Organic farmers use this same Bt to protect their crops from insects.
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Is biotechnology fundamentally different from other breeding techniques, and does it pose unacceptable risks?
No. Biotechnology is a refinement of breeding techniques that have been used to improve plants for thousands of years. The 20th century, in particular, saw the development and application of many new techniques to transfer genes between related and even unrelated species for crop improvement. Biotechnology is the latest in a long line of increasingly powerful tools for enhancing crops.
Many scientific groups have concluded that the risks associated with crop plants developed using biotechnology are the same as those for similar varieties developed using traditional breeding methods. In a 1987 report, the National Academy of Sciences (part of what is now called the National Academies) determined that "There is no evidence that unique hazards exist either in the use of r-DNA techniques or in transfer of genes between unrelated organisms. The risks associated with the introduction of r-DNA organisms are the same in kind as those associated with the introduction in the environment of unmodified organisms and organisms modified by other genetic techniques." Subsequent reports by the National Academies and other scientific bodies have reaffirmed this view. This scientific consensus continues to inform the U.S. regulatory policy, which focuses primarily on the characteristics of the new crop variety, not the method used to produce it.
Are crops developed using biotechnology as safe for the environment as crops developed using traditional breeding practices?
Yes. Extensive scientific evaluation worldwide has not found any examples of ecological damage from biotechnology crops. Many published studies-from the National Academies, the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation, the Council on Agricultural Science and Technology, and others-have arrived at the same conclusion: Biotechnology-derived crops pose no unique risks to the environment compared with similar crops produced using traditional techniques.
To ensure that the new plant is safe for the environment, extensive field-testing is conducted under USDA and EPA oversight. To date, there have been no instances of a biotechnology-derived plant approved for field-testing either creating an environmental hazard or exhibiting any unpredictable behavior compared with similar crops modified using traditional methods.
Agricultural biotechnology has tremendous potential to reduce the environmental impact of farming. Current crops designed to resist pests and tolerate herbicides have already cut chemical usage on farms significantly, and the herbicide-tolerance trait promotes conservation agricultural practices like no-tillage farming that reduce soil erosion, prevent water loss, and even limit release of greenhouse gases.
Future crops designed to tolerate environmental stresses, such as salty or toxic soils, drought, and freezing temperatures, will make agriculture more efficient and sustainable by producing more food and fiber on less land. These and other traits also will allow farmers to bring currently nonarable land into production, reducing the pressure to convert threatened ecosystems, such as rainforests, to farmland. Biotechnology can also be used to produce renewable plant-based energy and industrial products and biological agents to clean up contaminated soils.
To learn more about the environmental benefits of agricultural biotechnology, click here.