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].
Author's Note: 5 Farming Technologies that Changed the World
Farmers may still watch the weather forecasts with great anticipation, but their success is hardly left up to the right amounts of sun, rain and luck. Many of today's farmers rely on technology to help them outwit pests and derive greater yields. From milk cows with barcoded tags to tractors that steer themselves, technology is driving farming into the future.
- American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers. "First Self-Propelled Combine." (May 25, 2014) http://www.asabe.org/awards-landmarks/asabe-historic-landmarks/first-self-propelled-combine-49.aspx
- Agriculture in the Classroom. "Historical Timeline — Farm Machinery and Technology." (May 25, 2014) http://www.agclassroom.org/gan/timeline/farm_tech.htm
- Agro Services International. "Environmental Benefits of Using Fertilizers." (May 25, 2014) http://www.agroservicesinternational.com/Environment/Benefits.html
- Ganzel, Bill. "Harvest Technology from 1970 to Today." (May 25, 2014) http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe70s/machines_10.html
- Harris, B.L. "Reducing Contamination by Improving Fertilizer Storage and Handling." (May 28, 2014) http://blackland.tamu.edu/decision-aids/texasyst/reducing-contamination-by-improving-fertilizer-storage-and-handling/
- Modern Marvels. "Farm Plows Kick Up Dirt." (May 25, 2014) http://www.history.com/shows/modern-marvels/videos/farm-plows-kick-up-dirt
- Moore, Sam. "10 Agricultural Inventions That Changed the Face of Farming in America." Farm Collector. August 2008. (May 25, 2014) http://www.farmcollector.com/equipment/ten-agricultural-inventions-in-farming-history.aspx
- The Fertilizer Institute. "Statistics FAQs." (May 25, 2014) http://www.tfi.org/statistics/statistics-faqs
- U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. "Agricultural Biotechnology." (May 25, 2014) Dec. 30, 2013. http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?navid=BIOTECH
- U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. "Biotechnology Frequently Asked Questions." (May 28, 2014) http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?navid=AGRICULTURE&contentid=BiotechnologyFAQs.xml
- WebMD. "Genetically Modified Foods (Biotech Foods) Pros and Cons." (May 28, 2014) http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/are-biotech-foods-safe-to-eat
- Wieczorek, Ania. "History of Agricultural Biotechnology: How Crop Development has Evolved." Nature. 2012. (May 25, 2014) http://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/history-of-agricultural-biotechnology-how-crop-development-25885295
HowStuffWorks investigates how global warming is causing temperatures in America's national parks to increase much faster than in the rest of the U.S.