As Old As Civilization, Biotech Works

By George Acquaah
September 27, 2000 The Daily Oklahoman

The promise of biotechnology is hard to overestimate, so it can seem odd when people question the value of pursuing this growing field of scientific discovery or begrudge many of the recent breakthroughs that are likely to dramatically improve all of our lives.

What is most disturbing is the perception that biotechnology is new or radical. It's probably the oldest form of applied science known to civilization.

The ancient Sumerians brewed alcoholic beverages and prepared bakery products with the aid of microorganisms, namely bacteria and yeast, and manipulated the genetics of their livestock through selective mating. Modern biotechnology is a far more precise and efficient version of millennia-old agricultural practices, and its benefits may soon reduce the devastating effects of drought, famine and malnutrition around the world.

Traditionally, biotechnology was limited to mixing genetic material through the reproductive process, haphazardly combining countless genes in hopes of getting one desired trait. But because the DNA of all life is made of the same four building blocks, called nucleotides, today's scientists can put the genes that benefit one organism directly into the DNA of another. For example, certain bacterial genes that produce proteins that are toxic to insects but are safe for humans can be transferred to specific plants that are used to prevent massive crop loss and reduce the need for insecticides.

Biotechnology can make agriculture less environmentally intrusive. Modern agriculture is intensive and input-oriented. Large amounts of fertilizers and pesticides are used to generate acceptable yields per unit of land. However, significant amounts of these chemicals are expensive and can impact natural resources. Through biotechnology, scientists have developed crop varieties that are pest resistant, thereby reducing the use of pesticides in some cases. Other biotechnology crops absorb more nutrients from the soil, some are drought resistant, and some reduce the need for tillage and irrigation that can result in the loss of topsoil.

Biotech crops are also efficient; they produce a higher yield per unit of land. Some crops have extended shelf lives that prevent the spoilage that wastes countless tons of food every year. Perhaps most importantly, biotechnology can increase the nutritional value of some foods and thus help to alleviate the vitamin deficiencies that afflict millions of people in the developing world. For instance, a worldwide team of scientists is developing a strain of "golden rice" that will naturally produce more iron and beta-carotene than is present in rice today.

Biotechnology, like all other new technologies, is not without public apprehension and criticism. However, there is an extensive system of research and review to ensure that these benefits can be enjoyed safely. In the United States, biotech foods are subject to the same rigorous standards as their conventional counterparts, including oversight by the Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Agriculture. Additionally, a blue-ribbon scientific panel of the National Academy of Sciences recently confirmed the safety of foods developed through biotechnology.

Biotechnology is not new, alien or unnatural. It is simply a high-technology extension of the same basic crossbreeding techniques that gave us the seedless grape. However, it does make one wonder if the same people who today disregard the promise of biotechnology were ever disappointed all those years ago when they found that their grapes were missing seeds. Maybe we're just experiencing a case of (seedless) sour grapes.

Acquaah chairs the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Langston University.

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