Biotechnology is the use of living things to make or change products.
Many people see the science of “biotechnology” as a new and even controversial discovery. But biotechnology – the genetic enhancement of agricultural products – may be one of the oldest human activities. For thousands of years, from the time human communities began to settle, cultivate crops and farm the land, humans have manipulated the genetic nature of the crops and animals they raise through breeding. Breeding has been done to improve yields, enhance taste and extend growing seasons. All major crop plants, which provide 90 percent of the globe's food and energy intake, have been extensively manipulated, hybridized, inter-bred and modified over the millennia by countless generations of farmers intent on producing crops in the most efficient ways.
Modern agricultural biotechnology merely takes these breeding enhancements a step further, going directly to the plants’ DNA to make these enhancements more precise and easier to control. Crops resulting from modern agricultural biotechnology, which have been safely planted for more than ten years on over a billion acres.
Modern biotechnology has allowed scientists to develop a better understanding of the function, structure and evolution of plants and now, through gene technology, enabled scientists to switch off genes or copy them and move them between species.
In the case of agriculture, genes coding for specific traits are combined with existing varieties and hybrids to produce crop plants that are capable of performing even better. Good examples of these are insect protected cotton and maize, and herbicide resistant crops such as soya, maize and cotton. This technology also permits the combination of such traits into a single crop plant. In this way varieties and hybrids which are both herbicide and insect resistant are possible.
Given increasing demand for food, feed and fuel, agricultural biotechnology provides a way for farmers to produce more grain on the same amount of land, using fewer inputs. Ultimately, this technology helps farming become more sustainable. For farmers, biotech crops can reduce cost by raising yield, improving protection from insects and disease, or increasing tolerance to heat, drought and other stress. Value-added biotech traits can provide consumer benefits such as increased protein or oil, improved fatty-acid balance or carbohydrate enhancements.
The DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) from different organisms is essentially the same — simply a set of instructions that directs cells to make the proteins that are the basis of life. Whether the DNA is from a microorganism, a plant, an animal or a human, it is made from the same materials.
Throughout the years, researchers have discovered how to transfer a specific piece of DNA from one organism to another. The first step in transferring DNA is to "cut" or remove a gene segment from a chain of DNA using enzyme "scissors.”
The researcher then uses the "scissors" to cut an opening in the recipient DNA where the gene is to be inserted. Because the cut ends of both the gene segment and the recipient DNA are chemically "sticky," they attach to each other, forming a chain of DNA that now contains the new gene. To complete the process, researchers use another enzyme to paste or secure the new gene in place.
Monsanto scientists pioneered the application of this technique for use in plants. Subsequent decades of research have allowed Monsanto specialists to apply their knowledge of genetics to use these biotechnology techniques to improve large-acre crops such as maize, soybeans and cotton. Our researchers work carefully to ensure that, except for the addition of a beneficial trait, improved crops are the same as current crops.
Current population growth is already straining the earth's resources. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest projections, the population will increase to 9 billion by 2042, up 50 percent from 1999.
Agricultural biotechnology is one important part of sustainable development, helping farmers do more with less. For example, biotech crops can increase yields without requiring any additional farmland, saving valuable rain forests and animal habitats. Other innovations can reduce or eliminate reliance on pesticides and herbicides that may contribute to environmental degradation. Still others can preserve precious soil and water resources, one day even allowing plants to thrive in times of drought, heat and poor soil quality.
An additional benefit of agricultural biotechnology is the increased adoption of conservation tillage by farmers. Conservation tillage methods leave crop mulch covering the ground between growing seasons, providing a protective cover that holds soil in place, minimizes runoff and dramatically decreases erosion.
Most experts agree that plant biotechnology is safe and effective. Working to implement new agricultural technology and the infrastructure required to meet future food needs will improve the quality of life for people worldwide for years to come.