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The Role of Biotechnology in Agriculture

by Yahya Mubarak Imonikhe
The Role of Biotechnology in Agriculture

Biotechnology is the manipulation of living organisms. It also includes manipulating their components to create new products or processes. Biotechnology has recorded tremendous success in various industries. In Agriculture, it holds great potential. 

Biotechnology harnesses the natural strengths of living organisms to develop innovative solutions. In agriculture, it harnesses the power of science to improve farming practices. It also addresses global challenges like food insecurity and environmental sustainability. In this article, we’ll explore the role biotechnology plays in developing agriculture.

Historical Context of Biotechnology in Agriculture

Agricultural biotechnology traces its roots back to the mid-20th century. This era coincides with the advent of scientific discoveries and technological advancements.  During this period, farming practices enjoyed several revolutions that would change agriculture forever. 

The Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s marked a significant milestone. Scientists developed high-yielding crop varieties and improved agricultural techniques. These developments addressed food shortages and alleviated poverty in developing countries.

During this period, researchers focused on breeding crop varieties with desirable traits. For example, disease resistance, high yields, and adaptability to various environmental conditions. These conventional breeding methods laid the foundation for later biotechnological innovations. They demonstrated the potential of science in enhancing agricultural productivity. As a result, livelihoods worldwide improved.

Visualization of biotechnology, agriculture.

Source: iStock

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In the 1980s, genetic engineering emerged as a transformative tool in agricultural biotechnology. Scientists began to manipulate the genetic makeup of crops. They introduced novel genes to confer beneficial traits. 

These traits ranged from pest resistance and herbicide tolerance to improved nutritional content. This breakthrough paved the way for the commercialization of genetically modified (GM) crops. GM crops marshalled a new era in agricultural innovation. and changed the course of history.

GM crops were an early success story of genetic engineering in agriculture. In 1996, the introduction of Bt cotton revolutionised cotton cultivation. Most prominent in the US and India, scientists engineered Bt cotton to produce toxic protein to pests. As a result, farmers saw significant reduction in pesticide use. They recorded reduction in production cost and increase in yields. Generally, this led to economic gains and environmental benefits. 

Herbicide-tolerant crops like glyphosate-resistant soybeans also enabled farmers to control weeds better. This allows farmers simplified weed management practices and reduced labour costs. These early successes demonstrated biotechnology’s potential to address long standing challenges in agriculture. They also call for further research and investment in the field.

As biotechnology advanced, new tools and techniques emerged. One of the most prominent examples include genome editing technologies like CRISPR-Cas9. Unlike traditional genetic engineering, genome editing allows for precise modifications to existing genes. It offers unprecedented control over crop traits.

Today, agricultural biotechnology encompasses a diverse array of technologies and applications. Genetic modification and genome editing stand as the most recent of such technologies. Pest/disease management, soil health improvement, and nutritional enhancement are other applications in agriculture where biotechnology thrives. 

Despite the immense benefits biotechnology poses, it still attracts some reservations. So, is biotechnology a magic bullet or a double-edged sword? Let’s delve into the promises and pitfalls of biotechnology in agriculture.

The Promises of Biotechnology in Agriculture

Biotechnology involves several techniques that manipulate living organisms or their components. The end goal is often to create new products or processes. It offers many approaches to global challenges of food security and environmental sustainability.

Boosting Food Production

Biotechnology has led to development of high-yielding disease resistant crops. Traditional breeding methods have been slow and cumbersome. Advanced gene editing offers a faster and more precise method to introduce new traits. 

For example, scientists in Bangladesh developed a flood-tolerant rice variety using CRISPR. This effort saved millions from hunger during floods.  This technology can also revive heritage crops with valuable traits but lower yields. With CRISPR, scientists can reintroduce desired genes. As a result, foreign varieties can receive certain traits to improve their competitiveness.

Enhancing Nutritional Value

Biotechnology allows scientists to tinker with the nutritional makeup of crops. Golden rice is a prime example. It is genetically modified to produce beta-carotene. This beta-carotene combats Vitamin A deficiency – a major cause of blindness in developing countries.

However, biofortification efforts aren’t limited to single vitamins. Scientists are now looking at creating crops with complete protein profiles. The initiative is aimed at reducing our reliance on animal-based protein. More so, it leads to reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from farm animals. 

Minimising Environmental Impact

Chemical fertilisers and pesticides are essential for modern agriculture. However, they come with a hefty environmental cost. Biofertilisers, made from living organisms like nitrogen-fixing bacteria, offer a more sustainable alternative.  They improve soil health and nutrient availability for plants. They also serve as more eco-friendly options, reducing reliance on chemical fertilisers. 

Similarly, biopesticides derived from natural predators are effective in pest control. The biomaterials are derived from natural pest enemies producing harmful toxins. While they control pest populations, they are harmless to beneficial insects and pollinators.  

Bioremediation is another important benefit of biotechnology. It involves techniques using microbes to clean up agricultural waste and contaminated land.  For instance, a consortium of bacteria is being used to break down spilled oil at oil well sites. This offers a more natural solution than traditional cleaning methods.

Scientist checking plant using a microscope in biotechnology, agriculture

Source: iStock

Challenges and Considerations

Despite its promise, biotechnology in agriculture faces significant challenges:

Ethical Concerns

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) raise ethical concerns about their impact on the ecosystem. Although there’s currently no scientific evidence of their effect on human health. Yet, the long-term effects are still being studied. 

We need a balanced approach to studying GMOs. We should actively develop safe and sustainable GMOs. At the same time, we must have robust regulations for thorough testing and risk assessment. 

Corporate Control

There are concerns that large corporations could dominate the agricultural biotechnology sector. Many expect this to lead to increased costs for seeds and patented technologies. This could limit access for small farmers, particularly in developing countries. 

To counter this, we must consider improving investment in biotechnology. This could be in the form of open-source biotechnology platforms or collaborative research projects. They can help ensure fair access to these technologies for all farmers.

Unforeseen Consequences 

We do not know the long-term impact of biotechnologies on the ecosystem. While CRISPR offers immense potential, there’s a risk of unintended mutations.  Whole-genome sequencing helps us understand the risks and benefits of gene editing.  So, ongoing research is key to ensure the safe development and use of these technologies.

Biotechnology in agriculture represents a paradigm shift in farming practices. It offers solutions to complex challenges. As we await the future of food, it’s essential to harness the potential of biotechnology. We must also do so responsibly, ensuring environmental sustainability is not compromised.

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