The Rise of Bioengineered Food and Agricultural Biotechnology

By: Jonathan Strickland & Austin Henderson  | 
Ripe red cherry tomatoes
Some tomatoes are bioengineered to delay ripening and therefore extend their shelf life. Other genetically modified foods appear as bioengineered food ingredients, such as different ingredients in veggie patties. Aleksandr Zubkov / Getty Images

For thousands of years, humans have manipulated nature to grow the best crops and livestock. This was often achieved through conventional breeding or found methods inherent in traditional practices. By matching together various strains of crops or animals, we've guided the developmental path of countless organisms, leading to the development of bioengineered food.

If you were to step back in time thousands of years, the crops you'd see would look very different. In some cases, they'd be unrecognizable, and it's all due to agricultural biology.


What Is Agricultural Biology?

Agricultural biotechnology is a set of tools and disciplines meant to modify organisms for a particular purpose. That purpose can include anything from coaxing greater yields from genetically modified crops to building in a natural resistance to certain diseases.

Though there are multiple ways to accomplish this goal, the method that tends to get the most attention from the public is genetic modification, distinct from genetically engineered crops.


Understanding Genes

Genes are the basic units of hereditary information. A gene is a segment of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) that expresses a particular trait or contributes to a specific function. Genes determine everything from the color of your eyes to whether or not you are allergic to certain substances.

As we learn more about which genes affect different aspects of an organism, we can take steps to manipulate that feature or function. One way to do this is to take genetic information from one organism and introduce it into another — even if that organism belongs to a completely different species. This process has been pivotal in the rise of bioengineered food.

The Era of Bioengineered Food

We are in an era where bioengineered food plays a pivotal role in our global food supply, especially given the looming global food shortages. Bioengineered foods are products of organisms with modified genetic material to enhance characteristics like nutritional content, resistance to pests and adaptability to environmental changes. Here is a list of bioengineered foods:

  • Golden rice: Enhanced with Vitamin A
  • Bt corn: Genetically engineered to resist certain pests, categorized with other GMO foods
  • Soybeans: Engineered for herbicide resistance
  • Papaya: Modified to be ringspot virus resistant
  • Tomatoes: Developed to delay ripening and increase shelf life
  • Canola: Engineered for altered oil compositions and herbicide resistance
  • Potatoes: Modified to reduce bruising and to produce fewer carcinogens when fried

With the potential to address global shortages in the non-GMO food supply, bioengineered foods also face skepticism and concerns, especially related to long-term effects on human health and the environment.

Addressing these concerns with transparent research, food labeling and the bioengineered food disclosure standard can pave the way for the sustainable incorporation of bioengineered foods in our diets.

For example, if you found out that a particular bacterium had a resistance to a certain herbicide, you might want to lift those genes so that you could introduce them into crops. Then you could use herbicides to wipe out pest plants such as weeds while the crops remain safe.

Historical Context

While some people might think that changing organisms at such a fundamental level is unnatural, the truth is that we've been using a much cruder method of shaping organisms for centuries. When farmers crossbreed plants, they are engaging in a primitive form of this methodology.

Crossbreeding introduces all the genes of one type of organism to all the genes of the second organism. It's not precise, and it can take generations of plants before farmers arrive at the desired result. Agricultural biotechnology lets scientists pick and choose which genes to introduce to an organism.


Benefits of Agricultural Biotechnology

The applications of agricultural biotechnology are nearly limitless. Your own diet may include many products that are the result of agricultural biotechnology projects. Produce, milk and other processed foods may be in your store courtesy of agricultural biotechnology.

Through genetic manipulation, scientists can create crops that produce more than their unmodified counterparts. It's also possible to introduce genes so that a crop has more nutritional value.


Adapting to Varied Environments

Another useful application of agricultural biotechnology is to give plants the ability to grow in a wider range of environments. Some plants do well only in certain climates or soil conditions. By introducing genes from other organisms, scientists can alter these plants so that they'll grow in climates that normally would be too harsh for them.

Bioengineering can also make plants more resistant to disease, pests and chemicals. Genes can give plants a defense against threats that could normally wipe out an entire generation of crops. Genetic manipulation can lead to plants that are toxic to pests but still safe for human consumption.

Alternatively, scientists can develop genes that will make crops resistant to pesticides and herbicides so that farmers can treat their crops with chemicals.

Altering Appearance and Taste

Genetic manipulation doesn't stop there. By introducing new genes — or turning off existing genes — scientists can change everything from the appearance of food to its taste.

But while genetic engineering and modification has many benefits, the practice isn't free of criticism. Some scientists, agriculturalists and activists worry about what genetic modification could produce in the long term.


Criticisms of Agricultural Biotechnology

Critics of agricultural biotechnology say it's unnatural and dangerous.

Any time a process involves manipulating living organisms for a specific purpose, criticism is sure to follow. Some may feel that any sort of genetic manipulation is wrong. Scientists working on agricultural biotechnology point out that we've been genetically modifying organisms for generations — we're just much more precise now.

Controversy Over Genetic Modification Methods

There are other, more specific criticisms that aren't as easy for scientists to dismiss. One is that genetic modification often requires scientists to take genes from one organism and insert them into a completely unrelated organism.


This wouldn't necessarily happen otherwise, and so the counterargument that we've been doing this for centuries doesn't really apply.

Another objection is that we aren't really sure what the long-term effect on the environment will be. What happens if genes from modified crops find their way into the wild species?

It's difficult to assess exactly what impact modified crops might have on indigenous species of plants. It could be possible that other species of plants could develop similar traits to modified crops. If weeds develop resistance to herbicides, we're back to square one on that front.

Health and Environmental Concerns

Some fear that by introducing genetic material into crops, scientists may also create new allergens. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration places strict regulations on genetically modified food that include extensive allergenic tests. (On the flip side, it may even be possible to remove the allergenic components in existing foods to make them safe for people who otherwise would have to avoid that type of food.)

Pest-resistant crops might lead to a few problems. Farmers might use more chemicals to treat crops genetically engineered to resist poisons. These chemicals could build up toxins in the soil or seep into groundwater. Genetically modified crops with toxic proteins designed to ward off pests could also affect other species.

On the other hand, farmers wouldn't need to use as much pesticide when growing crops with a built-in pest repellent. Some studies suggest that by decreasing the reliance on pesticides, some species may actually benefit from a switch to genetically modified crops.

Biodiversity and the Way Forward

There's also a fear among some agriculturalists that biotechnology could lead to a decrease in biodiversity. If we find a particular crop to be profitable and easy to grow, farmers may abandon other varieties in favor of the modified crop.

Decreasing diversity could lead to dangerous consequences. Entire populations of crops could die out if hit by disease. Diversity can also help keep soil healthy and prevent toxins from building up over time.

Ultimately, we must weigh the potential benefits of agricultural biotechnology against the risks. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has tight regulations on genetically modified crops designed to ensure scientists use safe protocols when developing new crops.

If we trust in science while remaining vigilant, we may find that agricultural biotechnology could help feed the world.

This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.


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