Chapter 10: Feeding the World

2 10.3 Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering

Agricultural biotechnology is a range of tools that include both traditional breeding techniques and more modern lab-based methods. Modern biotechnology today includes the tools of genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is the name for the methods that scientists use to introduce new traits or characteristics to an organism. This process results in genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. For example, plants may be genetically modified to produce characteristics to enhance the growth or nutritional profile of food crops.


Advocates of modern biotechnology and generic engineering say that the application of biotechnology in agriculture has resulted in benefits to farmers, producers, and consumers.

Enhanced nutrition

Advances in biotechnology may provide consumers with foods that are nutritionally-enriched (Figure 1), longer-lasting, or that contain lower levels of certain naturally occurring toxins present in some food plants. For example, developers are using biotechnology to try to reduce saturated fats in cooking oils, reduce allergens in foods, and increase disease-fighting nutrients in foods. Biotechnology may also be used to conserve natural resources, enable animals to more effectively use nutrients present in feed, decrease nutrient runoff into rivers and bays, and help meet the increasing world food and land demands.

Figure 1. White rice and Golden rice. Genetically engineered “Golden Rice” contains up to 35 μg β-carotene per gram of rice, which could prevent millions of cases of blindness worldwide.

Cheaper and more manageable production

Biotechnology may provide farmers with tools that can make production cheaper and more manageable. For example, some biotechnology crops can be engineered to tolerate specific herbicides, which makes weed control simpler and more efficient. Other crops have been engineered to be resistant to specific plant diseases and insect pests, which can make pest control more reliable and effective, and/or can decrease the use of synthetic pesticides. These crop production options can help countries keep pace with demands for food while reducing production costs.

Improved pest control

Biotechnology has helped to make both pest control and weed management safer and easier while safeguarding crops against disease. For example, genetically engineered insect-resistant cotton has allowed for a significant reduction in the use of persistent, synthetic pesticides that may contaminate groundwater and the environment. In terms of improved weed control, herbicide-tolerant soybeans, cotton, and corn enable the use of reduced-risk herbicides that break down more quickly in soil and are non-toxic to wildlife and humans.

Concerns about Genetically Modified Organisms

The complexity of ecological systems presents considerable challenges for experiments to assess the risks and benefits of GMOs. Assessing such risks is extremely difficult, because both natural and human-modified systems are highly complex, and fraught with uncertainties that may not be clarified until long after an experimental introduction has been concluded. Critics of GMOs warn that the cultivation of GMOs, with their potential benefits and hazards to the environment, should be carefully considered within broader ecosystems. A number of European nations, including France and Germany have banned GMOs to varying degrees.

Interbreeding with native species

When the genetically modified organisms are allowed to breed with the organisms which are not genetically engineered, these organisms may then affect the genetics of non-genetically engineered organisms. Due to this reason the whole ecological system might get affected. The main concern is that genetically modified organisms might lead the non-GM organisms to extinction and reduce biodiversity.

 Consumers right to choose 

The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement has made stringent efforts to keep GMOs out of organic production, yet some US organic farmers have found their corn (maize) crops, including seeds, to contain detectable levels of genetically engineered DNA. The organic movement is firm in its opposition to any use of GMOs in agriculture, and organic standards explicitly prohibit their use. The farmers, whose seed is contaminated, have been under rigid organic certification, which assures that they did not use any kind of genetically modified materials on their farms. Any trace of GMOs must have come from outside their production areas. While the exact origin is unclear at this time, it is most likely that the contamination has been caused by pollen drift from GMO-fields in surrounding areas. However, the contamination may have also come from the seed supply. Seed producers, who intended to supply GMO-free seed, have also been confronted with genetic contamination and cannot guarantee that their seed is 100% GMO-free.

Ecological long-term effects

Early studies indicated the pollen from a particular type of genetically modified corn was harmful to the caterpillars of Monarch butterflies.  This type of corn, known as Bt corn, is genetically modified to produce a bacterial protein that acts as a insecticide. This trait is favorable because it reduces the amount of insecticides used by farmers. Pollen from Bt corn can be harmful to caterpillars, but only at very high concentrations. These concentrations are seldom reached in nature and follow-up studies have found the effect of Bt corn to be negligible.

Another issue is that of superweeds. These are species of weeds that gain resistance to herbicides from GMO crops. GMOs that are modified to be resistant to herbicides can pass their genes to weeds, making them herbicide-resistant. Weeds that cannot be easily controlled can cost farmers time and money, and lead to reduced productivity of their fields.

Human health risk

At least some of the genes used in GMOs may not have been used in the food supply before, so GM foods may pose a potential risk for human health. Much of the GM production currently grown worldwide is destined for animal feed. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has concluded that risks to human and animal health from the use of GMOs are negligible. But scientists acknowledge that little is known about the long-term safety of consuming food made from GMO products. The World Health Organization recognizes the need for continued safety assessments on genetically modified foods before they are marketed to prevent risks to human health and for continued monitoring.

The potential of GM crops to be allergenic is one of the main suspected adverse health effects. Some scientific evidence indicates that animals fed by GMO crops have been harmed or even died. Rats exposed to transgenic potatoes or soy had abnormal young sperm; cows, goats, buffalo, pigs and other livestock grazing on Bt-maize, GM cottonseed and certain biotech corn showed complications including early deliveries, abortions, infertility and also many died. However, this is a controversial subject as studies conducted by companies producing the biotech crops did not show any negative effects of GM crops on mice.

Although Agricultural biotech companies do not accept the direct link between the GMOs consumption and human health problems, there are some examples given by the opponents. For example, foodborne diseases such as soy allergies have increased over the past 10 years in the USA and UK, and there was an outbreak of Morgellons disease in the US. There are also reports on hundreds of villagers and cotton handlers who developed skin allergies in India. Recent studies have revealed that Bt corn expresses an allergenic protein which alters overall immunological reactions in the body. The aforementioned reports performed by independent GMO researchers have lead to a concern about the risks of GMOs and the inherent risks associated with the genetic technology.

Intellectual property rights

Intellectual property rights are one of the important factors in the current debate on GMOs. The GM crops are patented by agribusiness companies leading to monopolization of the global agricultural food indstury and controlling distribution of the world food supply. Social activists believe that the hidden reason why biotech companies are eager to produce GMO crops is because they can be privatized, unlike ordinary crops which are the natural property of all humanity. It is argued for example that to achieve this monopoly, the large agri-biotech company, Monsanto, has taken over small seed companies in the past 10 years and has become the biggest agri-biotech corporation in the world. The patent right for vegetable forms of life also affect the livelihoods of family farmers as they are required to sign a contract preventing them from saving and re-planting the seeds, thus they have to pay for seeds each year.

Critics thus advise that the risks for the introduction of a GMO into each new ecosystem need to be examined on a case-by-case basis, alongside appropriate risk management measures.


Essentials of Environmental Science by Kamala Doršner is licensed under CC BY 4.0. Modified from the original.

“Genetically Modified Foods and Social Concerns” by Behrokh Mohajer Maghari and Ali M. Ardekani is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0. Modified from the original.


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Environmental Issues Copyright © 2019 by Andrew Frank is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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