The field of agricultural biotechnology is mainly a collection of scientific techniques that are used to improve plants, animals and microorganisms. Agricultural biotechnology has many environmental and social impacts. Scientists constantly work on developing solutions to increase agricultural productivity based on the understanding of DNA. As expected, the issues associated with agricultural biotechnology are complex and varied. The complexities of this field arise from the creation and management of science, the intellectual property rights, public and private research interactions, safety concerns, marketing of products and the economic factors influencing industries participating in agricultural biotechnology (Carpenter J, 2001).
Different countries have vastly differing opinions and public policies towards agricultural biotechnology. For example, Americans mostly show positive views towards the field of agricultural biotechnology but the opinion of the public in most European countries is mainly against agricultural biotechnology. Thus, citizen’s opinion can change the trajectory of scientific development and technological adoption in the field of agricultural biotechnology (Brossard D, 2006).
A safe and sufficient food supply is essential for humanity and an increase in crop production is usually the most common goal of agricultural biotechnology. Besides this goal, agricultural biotechnology products also aims to improve crop quality, clean the environment, increase pharmaceutical production and improve livestock feeds (ISAAA Report, 2014). The methodology used in agricultural biotechnology includes genetic engineering, molecular markers, molecular diagnostics, vaccines and tissue culture. The process of genetic engineering requires six different steps: nucleic acid extraction, gene cloning, gene design and packaging, promoters and stable gene markers.
Important Issues Related to Agricultural Biotechnology
In the United States, the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) supports the safe and appropriate use of scientific technologies including biotechnology to increase agricultural output in order to meet the needs of the 21st century. The USDA has a responsibility to ensure that ‘biotechnology’ plants are safe to be grown and used in the US and thus to protect the public from genetically modified crops. Several of these ‘biotechnology’ modified crops grown in the US are exported to other countries (USDA website).
US farmers adopted genetically modified (GM) crops right from their introduction in the mid-1990s. The most commonly genetically modified crops grown in the US in 2000 were corn, soybean, potato, cotton crops that were modified to be resistant to insects and/or herbicides. These genetically modified crops provide a unique set of benefits to the growers who provide them (Carpenter J, 2001). Despite these benefits of better yields and insect resistance of genetically modified crops many people worry about the danger of genetic modification in plants and animals that are part of the food chain. In 2003, 7 million farmers in 18 countries or about 85 percent of farmers in the world at the time were planting genetically modified crops. Of this, one third of the global biotech crop was grown in developing countries (USAID, 2004).
Currently, the US is still the world’s largest exporter of agricultural products that helps feed the world’s population. In 2013, genetically engineered (GE) crops (mainly corn, cotton, and soybeans) were planted on about half of U.S. land used for crops approximately 169 million acres. Farmers have more choices as the research and development of GE varieties progresses. On average, it currently takes 7-10 years for the development of new crop varieties (ISAAA Report, 2014). The adoption of these GE crops has helped to save farmers time and reduce insecticide use. It has also helped farmers use less toxic herbicides (USAID, 2004). US consumers eat many products derived from GE crops such as cornmeal, oil and sugars and are largely unaware that they are derived from GE crops. However, studies in industrialized countries show that consumers are willing to pay a premium for non-GE foods (Fernandez-Cornejo J, 2014).
On the basis of field tests and farm surveys conducted in the US, pesticide use for GE crop adopters is lower than the pesticides used for conventional crops. In addition, the environmental effects for GE crops are substantially lower than for conventional crops. It is not possible to guarantee 100 percent safety of GE crops and plants just as it is not possible to guarantee 100 percent safety of conventional crops. Scientific testing and government regulations help to reduce the risks associated with GE crops but cannot completely eliminate it. Thus, the safety of genetically engineered crops and foods just as those created by classical breeding techniques are to be evaluated on a case by case basis. Till date there is no scientific evidence that food safety issues are of greater concern from GE crops than conventional crops (ISAAA Report, 2014).
There are several other factors to consider besides scientific facts and safety tests in relation to agricultural biotechnology products. Among these other factors, an important factor to consider is the impact that GE crops can have on the environment. In addition, there are also several socio-economic issues that need to be considered in agricultural biotechnology. For example, can herbicide-tolerant crops lead to super weeds? Could the use of genetically engineered crops lead to a loss in plant biodiversity? Would the introduction of GE virus resistant plants lead to novel viruses? Does the use of genetically modified crops result in a decreased use of pesticides? What happens when pollen moves from genetically engineered crops to organic crops? (Lemaux P, 2009).
There are several legal effects of agricultural biotechnology to consider. Agricultural biotechnology companies such as Monsanto, Bayer Crop Science and Aventis Crop Science have behaved in an irresponsible manner in the past and have been faced with legal action by farmers and others. The case of Hoffman and Beaudoin versus Monsanto Canada, 2005 was regarding transgenic canola oil (Kershen, DL, 2009). Plaintiffs sought damages based on loss of export markets and loss in having organic canola as a viable alternative. In this case, two of the three environmental claims were rejected by trial judges. Courts in US and Canada usually do not allow plaintiffs to recover for “pure economic loss” (Kershen, DL, 2009).
Monsanto which is a US based agricultural biotechnology company has faced legal action in other countries in relation to many other cases. Monsanto has had to pay out US dollar 2.4 million to US farmers regarding genetically modified wheat. Perhaps the most tragic of these cases against Monsanto is the case of genetically modified cotton in India due to which more than 290,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide during the past 20 years (Verma A, 2014).
Genetically engineered crops help dramatically improve agricultural productivity in ways that are not are not possible without the use of advanced biotechnology processes. However it is very important to proceed with caution and investigate possible outcomes carefully. This is vital to ensure safety of human and animal health and to take care of the environment properly. 100 percent safety of GE crops cannot be guaranteed. Thus, the balance of caution and scrutiny is vital along with proper adoption of powerful biotechnology products (Lemaux P, 2009).
There are several important environmental effects, legal effects and political economy effects to consider in the implementation of agricultural biotechnology products. Agricultural biotechnology companies such as Monsanto and others have faced legal action and stiff penalties for their introduction of genetically modified crops in various countries. The consequences of the action of companies like Monsanto have also resulted in a heavy rate of farmer suicide in certain developing countries. Unfortunately there is also a major gap in research data on differentiated genetically modified crop production. In addition, the research and development efforts have not focused on other major agricultural issues such as drought (Wield D, 2010).
Thus overall, it is very important to consider all the major issues, potential economic benefits, potential legal issues and necessary regulation that would be required before implementing agricultural biotechnology in countries where it is not widely practiced.
Carpenter J, Gianessi L, (2001), Economic issues in Agricultural Biotechnology, Updated Benefit Estimates, National Center for Food and Agriculture Policy Report
ISAAA (International Service for the Acquisition of Agricultural-Biotech Applications), (2014) Report, Agricultural Biotechnology (A Lot More than Just GM crops)
Bossard D, Nisbet MC, (2007), Deference to Scientific Authority among a low information public: Understanding US opinion on Agricultural Biotechnology, International Journal of Public Opinion Research, Volume 19, No. 1
USDA Website, Retrieved on Nov 15, (2014) from the Website http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?navid=BIOTECH
USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) (2004), Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II, and the Program for Biosafety Systems
Jorge Fernandez-Cornejo, Seth James Wechsler, Michael Livingston, and Lorraine Mitchell February (2014), Genetically Engineered Crops in the United States Economic Research Report (ERR-162) 60 pp
Lemaux P, Genetically Engineered Plants and Foods: A Scientist’s Analysis of the Issues (Part II), (2009) Annual Reviews of Plant Biology, Volume 60, pp 511–559
Wield D, Chataway J, Bolo M, July (2010), Issues of Political Economy of Agricultural Biotechnology, Journal of Agricultural Change, Volume 10, No. 3, pp 342-366
Kershen DL, Legal Liability and Agricultural Biotechnology: Ten Questions, April 2009
Ajay Verma, Reuters http://rt.com/news/206787-monsanto-india-farmers-suicides/ Retrieved on Nov 23, 2014