How is agricultural biotechnology being used?

Agricultural biotechnology provides farmers with tools that can make production cheaper and more manageable. For example, some biotechnology crops can be engineered to tolerate specific herbicides, which make weed control simpler and more efficient. Other crops have been engineered to resist certain plant diseases and insect pests. Genetically engineered plants are being developed to detoxify pollutants in the soil. And researchers are at work to produce hardier crops that will flourish in even the harshest environments and that will require less fuel, labor, fertilizer, and water, helping to decrease the pressures on land and wildlife habitats.

What are the benefits of agricultural biotechnology?

Applications of biotechnology in agriculture have helped to make both insect pest control and weed management safer and easier. It can make farming more profitable by increasing crop quality and may in some cases increase yields. Biotech crops may provide enhanced quality traits such as increased levels of beta-carotene in rice and banana, to improved oil compositions in canola, soybean, and corn.

Agricultural biotechnology has been used to protect crops from devastating diseases. The papaya ringspot virus threatened to derail the Hawaiian papaya industry until papayas resistant to the disease were developed through genetic engineering. Research on potatoes, squash, tomatoes, and other crops continues in a similar manner to provide resistance to viral diseases that otherwise are very difficult to control.

The tools of agricultural biotechnology have been invaluable for researchers in helping to understand the basic biology of living organisms. For example, scientists have identified the complete genetic structure of several strains of listeria and campylobacter, the bacteria often responsible for major outbreaks of food-borne illness in people.

What are the safety considerations with agricultural biotechnology?

Breeders have been evaluating new products developed through agricultural biotechnology for centuries. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) work to ensure that crops produced through genetic engineering for commercial use are properly tested and studied to make sure they pose no significant risk to consumers or the environment.

With respect to food safety, when new traits introduced to biotech-derived plants are examined by the EPA and the FDA, the proteins produced by these traits are studied for their potential toxicity and potential to cause an allergic response. It is useful to note that while the particular biotech traits being used are often new to crops in that they often do not come from plants (many are from bacteria and viruses), the same basic types of traits often can be found naturally in most plants. These basic traits, like insect and disease resistance, have allowed plants to survive and evolve over time.

How widely used are biotechnology crops?

According to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), biotechnology plantings as a percentage of total crop plantings in the U.S. in 2012 were about 88 percent for corn, 94 percent for cotton, and 93 percent for soybeans. NASS conducts an agricultural survey in all states in June of each year.

Biotechnology consultations on food derived from genetically engineered plants and for more information.