Corn grows in the Columbia Basin
Washington Friends of Farms & Forests educates people about biotechnology and provides factual information so that decisions can be made now that will allow us to meet food and fiber challenges in the not so distant future.
What is Biotechnology?
Break biotechnology into its root words and you have: bio—the use of biological processes; and technology—to solve problems or make useful products. Using biological processes is hardly a noteworthy event. We began growing crops and raising animals 10,000 years ago to provide a stable supply of food and clothing. We have used the biological processes of microorganisms for 6,000 years to make useful food products, such as bread and cheese, and to preserve dairy products.
Biotechnology products solve specific problems with less uncertainly than older methods. Specific, precise, predictable are the words that best describe today’s biotechnology.
Biotechnology in Everyday Life
In 2005, the 10-year anniversary of commercialized biotech crops, the one-billionth biotech acre was planted. Farmers in 17 countries are growing more than 200 million acres of crops improved through biotechnology. More than 70 percent of the processed foods purchased in the supermarket contain ingredients improved through biotechnology – oil and meal from soybeans, corn and cottonseeds. Biotech crops improve yields, cut costs and reduce pesticide applications.
Biotech enzymes are used to remove lactose from milk to help people who are lactose intolerant. Other enzymes are used in brewing beer or in making flavors like vanilla. For more than 20 years, cheese has been made with a biotech enzyme, chymosin that replaced the original ingredient, rennet, which came from calves’ stomachs.
How Biotechnology Works
Cells are the basic building blocks of all living things. All cells have the same basic design, are made of the same construction materials and operate using essentially the same processes. DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) directs cell construction and operation, while proteins do all the work. All cells speak the same genetic language. The DNA information manual of one cell can be read and implemented by cells from other living things. Because a genetic instruction to make a certain protein is understood by many different types of cells, technologies based on cells and biological molecules give us great flexibility in using nature’s diversity.
Farmers and plant breeders have relied for centuries on crossbreeding, hybridization and other genetic modification techniques to improve the yield and quality of food and fiber.
As our knowledge of plant genetics improved, we purposefully crossbred plants with desirable traits to produce offspring that combine the best traits of both parents. In today’s world, virtually every crop plant grown for food or fiber is a product of crossbreeding, hybridization or both. These processes are often costly, time consuming and inefficient.
The tools of biotechnology allow plant breeders to select single genes that produce desired traits and move them from one plant to another. The process is far more precise and selective than traditional breeding in which thousands of genes of unknown function are moved into our crops.
Among other things, biotechnology makes it possible to make plants tolerant of specific herbicides. When the herbicide is sprayed, it will kill the weeds but have no effect on the crop plants. This lets farmers reduce the number of times herbicides have to be applied and the cost of producing crops.
Recombinant DNA Technology
Recombinant DNA technology is viewed by many as the cornerstone of biotechnology. The term recombinant DNA literally means the joining or recombining of two pieces of DNA from two different species.
Genetic modification through selective breeding and recombinant DNA techniques fundamentally resemble each other, but there are important differences. Genetic modification using recombinant DNA techniques allows us to move single genes, whose functions we know, from one organism to any other. In selective breeding, large sets of genes of unknown function are transferred between related organisms. Biotechnology decreases the risk of producing organisms with unexpected traits and avoids the time-consuming, trial and error approach of selective breeding. By increasing the breadth of species from which we can obtain useful genes, we can access all of nature’s genetic diversity.
Regulation of Crop Biotechnology
Since combining specific genes from donor and host plants does not alter the basic nature of the host plant; the result of genetic modification is predictable and can be carefully controlled. As with any new variety of food, the developers test extensively for safety, quality and other factors.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves the safety of all foods and new food ingredients. The FDA also requires labeling of any food product produced through biotechnology that significantly alters the host food’s nutritional value or uses material from a known allergen.
The biotech industry is also regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Health and Nutritional Benefits from Biotechnology
As obesity rates climb, biotechnology is helping to create a new generation of healthier oils from soybeans, canola and sunflowers. These oils are free of the trans fats that can raise cholesterol and contribute to heart disease. Scientists have also increased the conversion of linoleic acid to the type of fatty acid found mainly in fish that is associated with lowering cholesterol levels.
Researchers at Purdue University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have created a tomato variety that contains three times as much of the antioxidant lycopene as the unmodified variety. Lycopene consumption is associated with a lower risk of prostate and breast cancer and decreased blood levels of “bad cholesterol.”
In some cases, biotechnology can improve a food by removing an allergen. Biotechnology scientists are working to isolate the specific proteins that trigger allergic reactions and modify the foods to eliminate the health risk.
DNA probes are being developed that will be used to determine the presence of harmful bacteria that cause food poisoning and food spoilage. Once the bacteria can be identified, food poisoning can be prevented.
Agricultural Biotech Products Already on the Market
A naturally stable canola oil that contains virtually no trans fats is currently being marketed. This makes it a very attractive oil for baking, frying, snack food and other uses. Also, a variety of sweet corn that protects itself from insects, reducing the need for insecticides and increasing yields.
Many More Crops are in the Research and Development Stage
A few include:
Apples that contain built-in protection against codling moths;
Corn with improved drought resistance to produce high yields with limited water;
Corn with amylase to reduce the costs of ethanol production;
Wheat that resists the fungal disease Fusarium will provide growers with another tool for protecting both quality and yields.
What Else Does Biotechnology Produce?
There are more than 300 biotech drugs and vaccines currently in clinical trials targeting more than 200 diseases, including various cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, AIDS and arthritis.
Biotechnology is responsible for hundreds of medical diagnostic tests.
Environmental biotechnology products make it possible to clean up hazardous waste more efficiently by harnessing pollution-eating microbes.
Industrial biotechnology applications have led to cleaner processes that produce less waste and use less energy and water in such industrial sectors as chemicals, pulp and paper, textiles, food, energy, and metals and minerals. For example, most laundry detergents produced in the United States contain biotechnology-based enzymes.
After more than two decades of success in health care and food production, scientists are now looking for ways to use biotechnology to make manufacturing of common products – like plastic and fuel – cleaner, more efficient and more sustainable using renewable resources. Corn is already being used to produce biodegradable plastics.
Biotechnology in Washington Agriculture
Biotech corn and other field crops have been grown in Washington State for several years. Washington State University, the University of Washington, Pacific Northwest National Lab and many private companies are researching biotechnology applications from pharmaceuticals to crops to industrial uses.
Source: Guide to Biotechnology, Biotechnology Industry Organization, 2005.