With an ever-growing global population and rising food prices, the task of feeding the world is going to become more challenging and is just one reason to capitalize on the benefits of biotechnology. Food biotechnology can help us meet this challenge. Use of biotech plants can produce more food on less land, by reducing the amount of crops lost to disease and pests. It can reduce CO2 emissions from the farming process, the amount of pesticides used to produce foods, and in the future, the amount of water needed to grow crops. Researchers are also continually looking at ways they can enhance the nutritional value of foods. This fact sheet will examine how biotechnology contributes these benefits and what they mean for the environment, the consumer and the farmer.
What is Food Biotechnology?
Modern food biotechnology increases the speed and precision with which scientists can improve food traits and production practices. For centuries prior to the development of this technology, farmers have spent generations crossbreeding plants or animals to obtain the specific beneficial traits they were looking for and avoid the traits they did not want. The process not only took a lot of time and effort, but the final outcome was far from guaranteed. Today, food biotechnology utilizes the knowledge of plant science and genetics to further this tradition. Through the use of modern biotechnology, scientists can move genes for valuable traits from one plant to another. This process results in tangible environmental and economic benefits, that are passed on to the farmer and the consumer1.
Agricultural Biotechnology Benefits the Environment
Protection of the environment is one area where biotechnology is playing an important role. Scientists are using biotechnology to improve the process by which food is being produced in order to make it more environmentally friendly. For instance, certain biotech foods are designed to be resistant to pests and diseases. This allows farmers to use fewer chemicals, such as pesticides and herbicides, while still maintaining a healthy, high-yielding crop. The reduction in chemical usage is beneficial for water and wildlife, as well as for those consumers who may worry about ingesting chemicals when they eat fruits and vegetables.
Another major advantage to biotech crops is they require less tilling, or plowing, to control weeds since many are modified to be inherently resistant to herbicides, which can be used more selectively. The use of conservation tillage, where much or all of the crop residue is left in the field and tilling is reduced or eliminated, helps to conserve water from rainfall and irrigation, increase water absorption, limits soil erosion and compaction, and creates healthier soil. All of these benefits aid in maximizing crop yields and minimizing water usage2. Additionally, conservation tillage releases less carbon dioxide, or CO2, into the environment compared to conventional tillage and helps to sustain habitats beneficial for insects, birds, and other animals3. Finally, biotechnology can help to limit deforestation. This is due to the fact biotech crops produce higher yield and therefore require less acreage to produce the same amount of product. In addition, researchers are working on modified growing traits, such as drought resistance, to aid in growing food in less arable areas.
Agricultural Biotechnology Provides Benefits for Consumers Now and In the Future
Food biotechnology can benefit the consumer in two main ways: by aiding in growing more food on less land and through new nutritionally enhanced foods. As of July 2008, over twenty different food biotech products were on the market and numerous more were in development. The majority of the products presently available have modified growing traits, like pest and disease resistance, which can help prevent crop loss and therefore help grow more food.
Nutritionally enhanced biotech food is currently a major area of research that has already produced a few promising products. Examples include cooking oils with unique fatty acid profiles and less then one percent trans fats and corn with higher concentrations of amino acids, certain oils and minerals ideal for animal feed. Furthermore, many products in development are being engineered to confer nutritional benefits, such as the new “golden rice” which contains added beta-carotene and iron. Scientists are conducting research on ways to make foods, such as soy and peanuts, with fewer allergens by removing the offending proteins which cause the majority of allergic reactions in people. Also in development are fruits and vegetables with higher levels of nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, and protein4. These second generation biotech foods promise to provide consumers with products that stay fresh longer, contain less allergens, and have higher levels of healthy fats, like omega-3 fatty acids, while still having the first generation growing traits, which give rise to hardy, high-yield crops.
Would consumers be likely to eat biotech foods? According IFIC’s 2008 Food Biotechnology: A Study of US Consumer Trends, the majority (53 percent) of consumers have neutral impressions of plant biotechnology. A majority would purchase foods produced through biotechnology for specific benefits including providing more healthful fats (78 percent), like Omega-3, reducing trans (76 percent) and saturated fat (75 percent); and making foods taste better or fresher (67 percent).
Agricultural Biotechnology Benefits the Farmer
Agricultural biotechnology has a positive impact on farmers’ well-being both in the United States and in developing countries. Biotech crops enable farmers to benefit economically, and at the same time, allow farmers to grow crops in a more sustainable manner. With rising food prices and a burgeoning global population, increased crop yields provided through agricultural biotechnology provide important economic, social and environmental benefits. A study released in 2005 by the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy found that biotech plants improved to resist herbicides and insects helped U.S. farmers reduce their annual production costs by $1.4 billion, contributing to an increase in net profits of $2 billion5. Biotech crop varieties that are designed to thrive even when grown under harsh conditions, such as severe heat or cold, flood or drought, and soils with high levels of salt or metals enable farmers to experience a decreased rate of crop losses during situations, like a drought, which historically have taken huge financial tolls on farmers.
In developing nations, the World Bank estimates that over one-half of the labor force is employed in the agricultural sector6. Higher crop yields can boost incomes for poor farmers and feed more people in these countries. Biotech seeds enable farmers to increase their agricultural productivity and provide a higher quality crop, which, in turn, translates into higher incomes. This cycle ultimately leads to a more consistent food supply which helps to stimulate local economies. For example, biotech cotton that is resistant to the often-devastating bollworm insect raised yields 29 percent in India, and contributed to a 78 percent increase in income for many of the country's poorest farmers7.
The ability to grow more biotech crops on less acreage also aids farmers in being good stewards of the land. The reduction in plowing made possible through biotechnology enables farmers to significantly reduce fuel use and decrease greenhouse gas emissions. Studies show that biotech crops have saved farmers 441 million gallons of fuel through reduced fuel operations – which in turn resulted in eliminating nearly 10.2 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions since 1996. This is equivalent to removing four millions cars from the road in one year8.
Looking to the Future of Biotech Foods
Over the years attitudes towards biotech foods have gradually become more favorable as people realize the environmental, economic, and nutritional benefits they can impart, and recognize the safety of these food products with respect to human health and the environment. Additionally, despite occasional reluctance from certain environmental groups, the rising food and bio-fuel demands world-wide are quickening the broader acceptance of biotech foods in the marketplace. As more and more products made through biotechnology are approved for sale, any stigmas related to biotechnology continue to lessen, as awareness increases and consumers reap the rewards of these enhanced crops and foods.
For More Information on Food Biotechnology, Visit:
1. International Food Information Council. Food Biotechnology: Enhancing Our Food Supply. Washington, D.C., July 2004 http://www.foodinsight.org/Resources/Detail.aspxtopic=Food_Biotechnology_Enhancing_Our_Food_Supply
2. Fawcell, Richard and Dan Towery, “Conservation Tillage and Plant Biotechnology”, Conservation Technology Information Center (2002), p. 14.
3. Ibid, page 1 for benefits to wildlife; pages 9-10 for reduction of CO2; http://www.whybiotech.com/resources/factsheets_drought.asp. Accessed 9/8/08.
4. Canadian Produce Marketing Association. Biotechnology and Genetically Modified Foods. 2004-2008. http://www.cpma.ca/en_gov_biotech_factsheet.asp
5. Sankula, Sujatha. 2006. Quantification of the Impacts on U.S. Agriculture of Biotechnology-derived Crops Planted in 2005 (Executive Summary), National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy.Economics.
6. International Food Information Council. Food & Agricultural Biotechnology: Health Impacts in Developing Nations. Washington, D.C. November 2007 http://www.foodinsight.org/Resources/Detail.aspx?topic=Food_Agricultural_Biotechnology_Health_Impacts_in_Developing_Nations_CPE_Program
7. James, C. 2004. Preview: Global Status of Commercialized Transgenic Crops: 2004. ISAAA Briefs No. 32. ISAAA: Ithaca, NY.
8. Brookes, Graham. 2006. Global Impact of Biotech Crops: Socio-Economic and Environmental Effects in the First Ten Years of Commercial Use. PG Economics.