Modern biotechnology refers to various scientific techniques used to produce specific desired traits in plants, animals or microorganisms through the use of genetic knowledge. Since its introduction to agriculture and food production in the early-1990’s, biotechnology has been utilized to develop new tools for improving productivity. In 2005, twenty-one countries planted biotech crops covering a total of 222 million acres. These crops include soybeans, corn, cotton, canola, papaya, and squash that are improved versions of the traditional varieties. In addition, rapid-rise yeast and an enzyme used to make cheese are both commonly produced through biotechnology.
Biotechnology is a broad term that applies to the use of living organisms and covers techniques that range from simple to sophisticated. For centuries people have crossbred related plants or animal species to develop useful new varieties or hybrids with advantageous traits, such as better taste or increased productivity. Traditional crossbreeding produces changes in the genetic makeup of a plant or animal. The process can be very time consuming as it is necessary to breed several generations in order to not only obtain the desired trait, but also remove numerous unwanted traits.
In contrast, modern agricultural biotechnology techniques, such as genetic engineering, allow for more precise development of crop and livestock varieties.
The genes that directly express desired traits, such as agronomic performance, are identified more readily. Therefore, the genetic makeup of food-producing crops and livestock can be improved more efficiently. Gene technology not only provides the potential to select the exact characteristics desired, but it also enables us to transfer genes for desired traits more precisely.
There are three main categories of biotechnology-enhanced crops in use or development.
- Enhanced input traits, such as herbicide tolerance, insect and virus protection, and tolerance to environmental stressors such as drought.
- Value-added output traits, such as corn with higher amounts of lysine for animal feed, or vegetable oils with increased levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
- Crops that produce pharmaceuticals or improve the processing of bio-based fuels.
Today, crops in production are primarily those with enhanced input traits.
The use of genetic information to improve livestock selection and breeding, referred to as animal genomics, is an important tool in agriculture today. Genomics information can also help in determining optimum nutritional needs for animals. This aids in consistent production of high-quality meat, eggs, or milk.
Cloning is another modern technology that facilitates breeding of the healthiest and most productive livestock. The genetic makeup of the animal is not changed in any way. In fact, this form of assisted reproduction allows livestock breeders to produce an identical twin of the best available animals, which is itself used to breed future generations. As of 2005, foods produced from cloned animals or their offspring were not yet commercially available.
Genetic engineering is another potential tool being explored in breeding programs for food-producing animals. Potential benefits of such advances may include animals that mature more quickly or have enhanced nutritional characteristics, such as pigs that produce pork higher in omega-3 fatty acids. The product that would most likely be ready for commercialization in the near future is a variety of salmon, currently under regulatory review, that grows to maturity more quickly than its non-biotech counterpart.
Growth and Acceptance
According to a 2005 report by the International Society for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), crops enhanced through biotechnology were planted extensively in the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Australia. These seven countries planted 208.7 million acres of biotech crops, or about 94 percent of the worldwide biotech crop acreage.
The second leading biotech crop producers were small-scale farms in countries that need to increase production to improve incomes in rural areas and supply growing urban populations. These countries included China, India, South Africa, Mexico, Philippines, Columbia, Honduras, and Iran, with acreage of 13.2 million. Small farms in Spain, Germany, Portugal, France, Czech Republic, and Romania accounted for an additional 350,000 acres of biotech crops in 2005.
Farmers have embraced biotechnology because it provides agronomic (agricultural) benefits. The precise agronomic performance of a given variety depends on the growing location, weather, and other factors. Fortunately, the positive impact of biotechnology on crop performance translates into benefits for the environment.
The National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy (NCFAP) found that in 2004, compared to 2003, the combined impact of the 11 biotech crops used in the U.S. resulted in 62 million fewer pounds of pesticides used. According to a recent, peer-reviewed study by PG Economics, biotech crops have created significant economic and environmental benefits since they were introduced in 1996. Moreover, biotech crops have reduced pesticide applications by 379 million pounds – an amount that could fill a 15-mile train of railcars. NCFAP also found that planting herbicide-tolerant crops allowed farmers to conserve soil by avoiding tilling (plowing) the soil frequently. The study by PG Economics also found that biotech crops allowed farmers to reduce tractor usage for tilling the soil, due to more effective weed control. This change in procedure saved 464 million gallons of diesel fuel and decreased greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide) by 22 billion pounds. The reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is equivalent to taking five million cars off the road for a full year.
Moreover, crop performance and pest management, benefits of biotechnology, translate into economic benefits for farmers, as well as environmental benefits.
According to PG Economics, net income for farmers growing biotech crops increased by more than $27 billion globally over the period 1996-2004. U.S. farmers have planted more acres of biotech crops than any other country and consequently have received the largest additional income benefits, amounting to nearly $11 billion.
According to IFIC’s quantitative survey of US consumers (2006), overall, awareness of food biotechnology seems to incline consumers to be more, not less, favorably disposed to the technology. Specifically, these consumers are more likely to know these foods are in stores today, state likelihood to purchase the foods, and expect benefits from the technology.
Consumer opinion is split in regard to animal biotechnology. However consumers are more favorable once they understand “why” the technology is being utilized. For example, sixty percent of consumers confirm that the potential benefit of animal biotechnology improving “the quality and safety of food” would positively impact their impression of the technology. Furthermore, favorability may increase slightly with FDA assurances of safety of food produced using animal biotechnology.
An important aspect of the survey is that food safety and labeling concerns are solicited from consumers on an open ended basis, thereby allowing consumers to volunteer unprompted, top-of-mind concerns. On an open-ended basis, only one percent name biotechnology as a labeling issue. A majority of consumers state that there is no information that they would like to see added to food labels. Furthermore, more than half of consumers said they support the FDA’s current labeling policy for foods produced through biotechnology.
Food biotechnology meets with greater concern in some other world regions. Improved access to science-based, consumer-focused information about biotechnology is important in order to ensure that the global community realizes the benefits.
Regulation and Oversight
Three federal agencies share the regulatory oversight of biotechnology in the United States. Regulation is coordinated among the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), according to the intended use of the products. Throughout the regulatory process, each agency provides several opportunities for public comment.
Within USDA, the Biotechnology Regulatory Service (BRS), of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), regulates field testing, movement, and importation of biotech crops and seed. BRS assesses agricultural and environmental safety of newly developed varieties during field-testing and prior to commercialization.
The EPA regulates the safe use of pesticides in agriculture, including pest-protection properties of plants developed using biotechnology. Therefore, EPA oversees field testing, as well as sale and distribution, of such crops in order to ensure safety for the environment and human health.
FDA has primary responsibility for ensuring safety and appropriate labeling of plant-derived foods and feed, including those developed using biotechnology. Developers of bioengineered foods consult with FDA on a voluntary basis prior to commercialization. During a consultation, FDA evaluates safety and nutritional information provided by the developer, including information on the food safety of any newly expressed compounds, and any changes in the levels of important nutrients, endogenous allergens, and natural toxicants. FDA considers a consultation complete once all safety and regulatory issues have been addressed.
FDA does not require labeling to indicate whether a food or food ingredient is a bioengineered product, just as it does not require labeling to indicate which conventional breeding techniques were used in developing a food plant. Rather, any significant differences in the food itself have to be disclosed on the label.
Regulation of meat, dairy, and eggs produced through biotechnology is in development. There is strong indication, as of 2005, that regulation will be handled differently for foods derived from cloned versus genetically engineered animals.
Around the world, biotech crops and foods are regulated everywhere they are grown and/or consumed. Additionally, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the United Nations’World Health Organization have put forth statements of support and guidance for individual governmental bodies that are developing regulations to improve consistency throughout the global community.
Bridging to the Future
Biotechnology is making a significant impact on food production, with great potential for future advancements. A strong regulatory system is in place in the U.S., based on the broad consensus regarding safety among the scientific community. Public debate continues, as with any new technology. Of course, consumers want to know what biotechnology will mean for the food we eat. Therefore, the international scientific community continues to assess and challenge biotechnology’s role in improving the food supply by addressing safety concerns and seeking a variety of solutions to our evolving agricultural, food production, food enjoyment, and human health needs.