Farmers and ranchers are the original environmental stewards. Ever since the earliest days of open range grazing, U.S. Agriculture has been working one on one with our natural resources. There have been a few rough patches through expansion, but we have learned enormous amounts of information about working with an in our environments and that effort continues every day. However, if you log in to many online forums or even turn on the television, one might be persuaded otherwise if we consider all the negativity surrounding the topics of modern food production today.
Many of the hottest debates center around the topics of biotechnology. You may see it referenced as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) or addressing companies that license and specialize in these technologies, like Monsanto. Many online forums blast out messages of how unnatural biotechnologies are and many folks are adamantly against their use.
Despite all of the hype and negativity surrounding the topic, biotechnology is so much more than just plant breeding. Ever since the discovery of DNA in the 1970s, biotechnology has been a rapidly expanding and developing field that makes our lives better. Have you considered uses of biotechnology that extend well beyond the frequently discussed use in crop farming?
What is Biotechnology?
Broadly defined by the FAO, biotechnology – quite literally “biological technology” – is considered “any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products for specific use”. This can be applied to plants, animals, by-products, and laboratory materials. If you’re more interested in defining the most commonly discussed use of biotechnology, Genetically Modified Organisms, I’ve covered that in earlier blog posts.
10 improvements made possible through Biotechnology
Brewing and Fermentation
The craft brew craze has taken over the United States as enthusiasts crowd new local breweries and several adventurous folks even attempt their own brewing methods at home. Fermentation, one of the oldest uses of biotechnology, is a use of biotechnology by using cultures to change the state of microorganisms for other uses. This includes the production of beer and consumable alcohols, ethanol that fuels our cars, vitamins, acids, energy that powers our homes, and is a process used when baking foods with yeast.
Antibiotics, Hormones, Vaccines
Whether it be inhibiting bacterial growth, correcting an imbalance in natural production, or aiding the production of antibodies to protect against disease, biotechnology enables doctors to keep us healthy and live longer with the use of antibiotics, hormones, and vaccines. The complex nature in which our biological systems work and the importance of understanding these tools overwhelmed and kept me up late at night during years of undergraduate and graduate school courses. Knowing that decades’ of work in laboratories around the world have enabled scientists to fight countless diseases to save millions of lives, is one encouraging use of biotechnology that affects everyone.
Have you ever really thought about the process behind how your clothes and dishes are cleaned? The use of enzymes in household detergents has long been used and is ever more prevalent as the push for environmentally friendly detergents continues to grow. Through the process of fermentation, enzymes are cultured that target several different stains, breakdown different substances, or digest certain materials and cellular structures.
Cheese, Yogurt and Lactose Intolerance
Who first identified that milk could be used to make such awesome foods like hundreds of varieties of cheeses and yogurt? This goes back to the process of fermentation and starter cultures and the important enzyme, rennet, which has been used for thousands of years. Cheese enthusiasts like Dairy Carrie can be very thankful for this old use of biotechnology. Folks who are lactose intolerant are also able to enjoy several dairy products thanks to the discovery and use of the enzyme lactase.
Animal Breeding and Genetic Improvement
Artificial Insemination and Embryo Transfer are just two of the many ways cattle farmers and ranchers utilize biotechnology to improve our use of advancements in genetic selection. Through the use of biotechnology, we’ve learned how to preserve sperm and embryos, to select specific matings for the most desired traits and extend the influence of some of the best animals well beyond their
The same techniques and uses of biotechnology we utilize in livestock are utilized in human fertility clinics to help people carry out successful pregnancies when they have difficulty doing so in the bedroom. When I studied at the University of Tennessee, our animal reproduction group trained many students who have ended up working in human fertility clinics. By learning the reproductive mechanisms using cattle, those students were able to invest years of training and experience before working to improve human fertility.
Other areas of improvement thanks to biological technologies include a better understanding of Nutrition. Thanks to our work with livestock and monitoring their natural digestive processes, we have a better understanding of how materials are broken down and utilized by the body. Insulin that is used by diabetics around the globe was discovered through biotechnology work with animals. Plant Breeding techniques to raise and stabilize yields; to improve resistance to pests, diseases and abiotic stresses such as drought and cold; and to enhance the nutritional content of foods and reduce food waste have all been discovered through biotechnology. One of the most exciting emerging fields in disease diagnostics through the use of genetics is thanks to biological technology. Be sure to read this link to learn about more Examples and Explanations of Biotechnology in Agriculture from ISAAA.
Biotechnology is a rapidly developing and expanding field. Just because it is different, does not make it unnatural or dangerous. The telephone and television were once novel technologies, that you now see in most homes and offices across the globe. I’m not saying everyone has to accept and embrace biotechnology, even though I hope you will, but I do hope you can step aside from the fear mongering of activists opposed to biotechnology long enough to recognize there are definitely benefits to utilizing the tools within our reach. Never stop learning.