and literature to engineering and medicine. The science of biotechnology does the same thing by using living systems and organisms to develop or make products. Indeed, according to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, biotechnology is “any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use 1.”
One of the earliest applications of biotechnology, in its simplest form, was in agriculture. For centuries, farmers manipulated plants and animals through selective breeding in order to create and enhance desired traits. As the science of plant breeding was further developed, the 20th century saw a big change as we were able to more quickly pick out traits such as increased yield, pest resistance, drought resistance, and herbicide resistance. But our technology has since moved even further which resulted in first food product produced through biotechnology in 1990.
The growth of agricultural biotechnology, also known as agritech, was such as by 2003, seven million farmers were utilizing biotech crops with more than 85% of these farmers located in developing countries 2.
But is agritech a technological revolution which we should be welcoming or are there hidden risks in artificially changing foodstuff?
The clear difference between agritech and traditional practices used by farmers to enhance beneficial traits is the fact that scientific tools and techniques, including genetic engineering, molecular markers, molecular diagnostics, vaccines, and tissue culture, are used to modify living organisms2. In other words, it is the fact that this is considered a scientific and very invasive process compared to traditional practice.
But as the Economist noted in a recent article, “If agriculture is to continue to feed the world, it needs to become more like manufacturing 3.” And this is what agritech allows for. With population rising, it is estimated that by 2050 we will be heading for a great food crisis as the world will need at least 70% more food. The 9.7 billion inhabitants of planet Earth will not only require more food by 2050, but also better food as by then most are likely to have middling incomes3. Agritech can help address this by increasing the productivity of crops and thereby meeting our nutrition needs. This is particularly important given the increased frequency of extreme weather phenomena as well as the difficult conditions under which many nations need to grow food.
One such example is the development of drought resistant crops 4. By changing the genes of some crops, it is possible for them to grow in unfavourable conditions and different types of soil which means that countries that suffer from drought might be able to expand their agricultural activities as well as use land where it was previously not possible to cultivate anything.
Advantages of using biotechnology in agriculture
The use of biotechnology in agriculture does not only allow for crops to grow more and under more difficult circumstances, it can literally make them better. In other words, science now allows us to introduce specific genes to increase the nutritional value of the crops. This has been attempted with rice, one of the world’s most eaten food, where scientists used genetic engineering to produce rice rich in vitamin A. What scientists noticed is that while rice already contains the genes that produce vitamin A, these get turned off as the rice grow; so what the scientists did was to reverse that process so that the vitamin A genes get turned on5.
As such, agritech can help in resolving hunger but also malnutrition. This is therefore not a solution we can afford to ignore when so many hundreds of people, many young children, suffer from malnutrition.
Proponents of agritech, however, believe that their technology can introduce truly sustainable farming practices and even reduce the environmental impact of agriculture. One form of technology, called conservation tillage, allows farmers to plant seeds without them having to till the soil which they contend disturbs the organisms living within the soil and results in 21.1 billion kilos less CO2 being released into the air; this is equivalent to 9.4 million less cars on the road5.
What is more, supporters of agritech also believe that their technology can also reduce waste and optimise the food available to us in supermarkets. This is because genetically modified produce can be given properties that allow it to be harvested when ripe but then the ripening process can be stopped which means consumers can have access to fresher produce with a longer shelf life. This also minimises the amount of food that could go back before even reaching retailers6.
But if there are so many benefits, what is holding back further pick-up of these practices by farmers?
Disadvantages of using biotechnology in agriculture
In the first place, there is a knee-jerk reaction against genetic manipulation. While we have genetically modified our crops and breeds for centuries, there is some hesitation about the more intrusive albeit more targeted way biotechnology does this. Another aspect that is worth noting is that this genetic engineering is so extreme that we are essentially taking genes from one organism and inserting them into a completely different organism; in all probability, this would not have happened using the traditional approaches used by farmers before.
Perhaps part of the apprehension is owed to the fact that genetically modified food has only been available since the early 1990s. Given the relatively short time they have been cultivated, scientists cannot draw firm conclusions about their potential long term effects to the environment and health. However, some scientists have found that genetically modified plants have altered the life span, disease process and cognitive abilities of insects that feed on these plants6.
The extensive use of agritech has also created some fear among agriculturalists that it could lead to a decrease in biodiversity. If farmers were to find a particular crop more profitable and easy to grow, farmers would likely switch to this and abandon other varieties. So the modified crop would dominate and other local varieties would be marginalised or even grow extinct. Biodiversity loss is a dangerous trend as it weakens the health of our ecosystems, puts food security at risk and minimises our ability respond to climate change5.
From a human health point of view, scientists are concerned that genetically modified food may create new allergens. This is why the United States Food and Drug Administration regulations for genetically modified food also includes extensive allergenic tests.
Even with all the evidence on the table, it is difficult to take a firm decision on the use of agritech. What is certain is that we need to remain vigilant regarding the health and environmental implications. If agritech companies are truly committed to helping people around the globe escape hunger and support sustainable farming practices, then they should certainly acknowledge the need to ensure that biotechnology products deliver on that without compromising our environment or health.