5 Farming Technologies That Changed the World

Plant specialist Dustin McMahon hand-pollinates genetically modified corn plants inside greenhouses located on the roof of Monsanto agribusiness headquarters in St Louis, Mo., 2009. Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Biotechnology has a number of applications in the agricultural industry -- and not all of them are cause for concern. Throughout history, farmers have selectively bred animals and propagated plants to promote certain traits.

However, using biotechnology to create genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is a relatively new practice. The first plants whose genes were manipulated hit fields in the mid-to late-1990s. Since then, the technology has been used to develop hybrids with higher yields, shorter life cycles and greater pest and disease resistance. For example, some strains of genetically modified cotton are so disease-resistant they require fewer pesticides to thrive, lessening the risk of groundwater contamination [source: USDA].

By 2012, 94 percent of cotton, 93 percent of soybeans and 88 percent of corn crops in the U.S. were planted using biotech seeds. Large percentages of other crops, such as alfalfa, are genetically modified, too [source: USDA].

As much as 70 percent of the foods on U.S. store shelves contain genetically modified ingredients, amid rising concerns about the introduction of potential allergens, changes in nutrient content and antibiotic resistance [source: WebMD].

Despite the questions about the long-term impact of biotechnology, one thing is clear: It does help boost agricultural production, and it is changing the way farmers help feed and clothe the world. This is especially important as the number of farmers dwindles. In 2000, for example, less than 2 percent of the U.S. population worked as farmers compared to 53 percent in 1870 [source: Wieczorek].

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