Biotechnology

Producing Food and Fiber More Sustainably. 

Biotechnology in its broadest sense includes any use of an organism, gene or gene product to produce or improve a product or practice as one’s intellectual property, for personal use, or for the public good.  In this sense, biotechnology includes such age-old practices as the use of a yeast to make wine or beer or an enzymes to make cheese.  However, modern-day use of this term is invariably intended to mean genetic modification of an organism by spicing in a gene from another organism through so-called recombinant DNA technology, meaning a gene from a donor organism—any organism but so-far mainly a microorganism—is copied and then transferred by use of a vector into the genetic code of the recipient organism.  By analogy, think of the copy and paste tools used in word processing to move words or text from one document to another. Organisms with one or more genes inserted and stably passed to their progeny are referred to scientifically as transgenic and in the popular press as genetically modified or GMO.

According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Ag-Biotech Applications, Biotech crops reached 160 million hectares (408 million acres), up 12 million hectares (30.6 million acres) on 8% growth, from 2010, as the global population reached a historical milestone of 7 billion on 31 October 2011.  This increase in farm land planted to biotech-derived crops represents a 94-fold increase in acreage since these crops first went commercial in 1996.  These crops are now planted and the grain or other products produced by them harvested in 29 countries, of which 19 are developing countries.  The rate of adoption of biotech-derived crops by farmers world-wide exceeds the rate of adoption of any other technology since the beginning of agriculture, with thus far no documented harmful effects on people and overwhelmingly beneficial effects on the environment because of less use of insecticides and greater use of no-till.

While the acreage planted to biotech-derived crops is large, at least 95 and more likely 98% of this acreage is planted to biotech varieties and hybrids of just eight crops, namely corn, soybeans, canola, cotton, sugar beet and alfalfa gene-spiced for resistance to insects, Round-up or both.   Of the minor crops, only papaya grown in Hawaii, squash grow in the Atlantic east of the US, both genetically modified for virus resistance, and potato grown for starch in Europe fall into the category of biotech-derived crops.  Hundreds of other examples of biotech-derived varieties of minor crops as well as wheat are “on the self” owing to lack of market acceptance combined with the high cost of regulatory approval.