TRADITIONAL AND ‘NEW’ BIOTECHNOLOGY:
NEED, ACCEPTANCE, AND THE NEGATIVE EXTERNALTIES
DEFINITION OF BIOTECHNOLOGY
The knowledge of how things grow is called biology, and putting that knowledge to use is called technology; forming the term, biotechnology -or- biotech.
Traditional biotechnology started with the domestication of plants and animals, and led to the settlement of humans and agriculture. Agriculture is biotechnology and humans have been manipulating agriculture for centuries (giving the human race many advantages the worlds populations needed to survive in their climate/region). The new biotechnology began with genetically modified organisms in the late 20th century- from seedless fruits, to gene-splicing and transgenic crops. There are/were risks and benefits associated with both the traditional biotechnology and the new biotechnology, but the need for biotechnology is indisputable. I will discuss some of the benefits and some of the negative externalities of this biotechnological revolution.
TRADITIONAL BIOTECHNOLOGY/BREEDING: NEED AND ACCEPTANCE
Traditional biotechnology started with the domestication of plants and animals over 8000 years ago. Our ancestors saw the need to produce a surplus of food, for the communities growing population and for preservation for the long winter months to sustain the settlement. This need for a surplus of food started agriculture; and thus, started the biotechnological revolution. Wild ancestors of the plants one see’s today (edible parts), were much smaller and weedier then before traditional breeding practices took place. Shortly after the domestication of plants occurred around the world, ‘modifications‘ to those plants by humans followed- marking the beginning of traditional biotechnology. Those who grew food, would take the best plants (ones with the most fleshy material-edible portions), and breed them with other plants with more of the desired fleshy material. Over the course of the next 800 centuries, crops continued to grow much bigger, and the fleshy, edible material was able to sustain the growing populations of the world as a result. Most of what one consumes today comes from years of genetic control; for example, apples- would only be 1 inch in diameter, strawberries- would only be the size of one’s fingertip, the insides of pumpkins, watermelons, and pomegranates would be almost all seeds with very little flesh, and potatoes would be nothing more then bumps on a root, had it not been for genetic modifications in traditional breeding- i.e. biotechnology. Seedless fruit was also introduced in the 1970’s, and provided a new option for breeders and consumers. Seeded fruits have only 2 chromosomes, 1 from each parent, where as, seedless fruits have 3 chromosomes; and therefore, do not reproduce, so they do not have seeds. These are only a small few of the examples of how humans have manipulated plants in their favor over time.
The whole world adopted agriculture, and the sedentary lifestyle that came with it. Humans once nomadic existence was abandoned for a settled lifestyle, and humans were now free for other activities; such as, the development of civilization. Because of the overall acceptance of the domestication of plants and animals as a way of life- civilizations thrived, and humans inhabited every inch of the globe.
THE NEW BIOTECHNOLOGY/BREEDING: NEED AND ACCEPTANCE
Traditional breeding technologies were used up until the late 20th century, and most of the materials that humans used up until then were made from plants and animals; such as, cotton, leather, or wool for clothes, plant and animal materials for medicines and food (plus much more), and trees for lumber and paper. The 20th century witnessed The New Biotechnological revolution- the invention of synthesized raw-materials; such as, polyester and nylon for clothing, medical innovations using synthesized materials, petroleum (the material plastic is made from), synthetic rubbers that were only available previously from the rubber-tree-plant, synthetic oils, and biotechnology could potentially turn the population to using grains to fuel automobiles in the future, rather then the non-renewable earth-resources automobiles rely on today. The ’new’ biotechnology of the 20th century introduced genetically modified organisms as well -genetic material that changes the ”recipe” of a plant/species‘ DNA/offspring. With traditional breeding, many genes had to be transferred just to be sure the ‘right ones’ were included; where as, genetically engineered crops of today have a much more specific process. Using precognitive DNA, called gene-splicing, scientists improve crop vitality, edible portions of plant parts increase, possible vitamin content increases in some crops, they can now crossbreed plants; where as, previously this was not an option with traditional breeding, and they can cut traditional breeding times from 8 years to 2 years or less. Corn, beans, and soy are being used by scientists to make not only fuels; but, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, detergents, paints, inks, insulation for packaging, and lubricants. Soy and recycled paper are being used to make a durable flooring material, citrus-fruits oils (in the rind), are being used to make environmentally-friendly cleansers (without a petroleum base), and soil microbes in sugar, are being used by microbiologists to make a natural gum substance that can be used to thicken food, make adhesives, and even can be used as a blood-plasma extender. Biotechnology can also help to make biodegradable plastics and many of the other materials used today- to name only a few of the thousands of the innovations of the new biotechnology.
“Engineering crops for our basic needs could revolutionize biotechnology, instead of an economy built on hydrocarbons, we can have an economy built on carbohydrates“ (Video: Brave New Foods: The Biotech Revolution).
Crops have come exceptionally far in the past few decades (and will continue to excel), and scientists say “…that with new research methodologies, biotechnology can be used to develop new crop varieties that are drought tolerant, resistant to insects and weeds, able to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, and increase the nutrient content in the edible portions of plants” (Miguel A. Altieri, Document: Genetically Engineered Crops).
Transgenic Crops (transgenic- meaning the gene has been transported), are a genetically modified crops that have been altered to resist insects. Transgenic crops have become an indispensable alternative for crops for several reasons; for example, vaccines that normally have to be refrigerated to transport (causing a lack of vaccines in developing countries due to the cost of $100.00 per dose), can be ’grown’ into these transgenic crops, so when consumed (the coded proteins), a child could be inoculated. The transport and total cost of this new vaccine/food is only a few cents- studies show encouraging results for this. Another good example for the need for these transgenic crops (new biotech), is a possible cure for the peanut/shellfish allergy- species of the crops offspring are born without the allergenic gene. Transgenic crops are also being bred to withstand drought temperatures that are associated with climate change- to name a few.
DEBATE: THE NEGATIVE EXTERNALTIES OF THE NEW BIOTECHNOLOGY
A debate in recent years has begun about the need of biotechnology.
Due to the lack of ‘qualities’ in traditionally bred crops; such as, having to rely on chance when breeding plants and animals- accompanied by the need to transfer many genes to be sure of accuracy, the inability to crossbreed species (no GMO’s), and the fact scientists only had plant and animal materials to work with (no synthetics), scientists soon realized, these methods would not be able to support the growing worlds population, so a need for a new biotechnological revolution arose. With the emergence of the new biotechnology, came opponents of the science.
Many opponents of the new biotechnology fear misuse, the economic effect, and some mistakenly see the future as a choice of organic or genetically modified- black and white- with no gray: They both hold promise and both present risks. Biotechnology comes with risks; however, there is also a danger that misunderstanding GMO’s will destroy a valuable gift to humanity (Video: Brave New Foods: The Biotech Revolution).
Opponents of GM crops (genetically modified), objective is to stop genetic research, calling the genetically modified crops “Franken foods”- imbedding a negative reaction to GM crops within the consumer population.
Areas/causes for concern of the new biotechnology (and GM’s), for opponents include:
A loss of biodiversity with plant species due to genetic pollution of GM crops- genetically modified traits are easily transferred to traditional cultivators‘ crops, via cross-pollination. One example of this is in Mexico, where traditional varieties of Mexican corn have been polluted with BT corn after neighboring villagers planted genetically modified corn from the U.S.. Traditional cultivators maintain a diverse genetic bank of characteristics with their multiple plant species, for the multiple different varieties prove valuable in traditional breeding. Scientists still use traditional species’ in new biotechnology (when breeding new species), as an undiluted map of the genetic code. Such diversity loss by genetic pollution dilutes the visible genetic code and limit’s the ability of the plant/crop to adapt to future environmental changes (i.e.-breeding for drought resistance due to climate change).
Another example of a concern for opponents of the new biotech revolution is; a projected negative impact on food production that is expected in the developing world, with a 20% increase in malnutrition by 2050 (Aaron Hoshide, Lecture Unit: ECO 190: World Food Supply).
A final concern I will mention for opponents of GM crops is that genetically modified crops are also equipped with a bacterial toxin that kills crop-destructive-pests; however, these toxins may inadvertently kill necessary-non-target insects that are vital for the plants production. Farmers have to plant non-genetically modified crop refugees, where crops are not exposed to the pollen of the GM crop- to prevent resistance to these insects and genetic pollution.
There are/were risks and benefits to both the traditional biotechnology and the new biotechnology, but the need for biotechnology is indisputable. The traditional biotechnology has opened up the healthy choices for ones diet, sustained populations around the world, and given the human race many advantages the worlds populations need to survive. Without this technology, the human race could not sustain itself due to rapid population growth, medical advances and individual health would suffer, and I personally would not want to live in a world without biotechnology, and the future promise the science brings.