Applications of Biotechnology in Agriculture
Every living organism has the ability to improve themselves through natural means or through artificial means so that they can adapt themselves to the changing environmental conditions.
However, it takes almost 100 years to see any detectable improvement in them, but humans have now learnt about how to domesticate and breed plants, so that they could develop crops to their own liking and needs using various techniques and means including Biotechnology.
During the early to mid 18th century, the agricultural yield was very little in our country, so Green Revolution was brought to India in which various Agricultural biotechnological techniques was applied to increase the agricultural yields, but it couldn’t meet the growing demand of the rising population, so later, crop variety improvement program was initiated but the agrochemicals seemed to be unfeasible for farmers and it also caused environmental issues.
Ever since globalisation, there has been a large increase in the size of population which has led to an increasing demand for food resources and basic requirements like shelter, clothing etc and it has led to the exploitation of land for producing crops.
This has reduced the cultivation area and in order to meet the demands with the limited resources we need greater effort.
Biotechnology has helped us to change this condition as it uses various technologies to modify and manipulate the biological system or living system so as to develop or improve the product for various purposes. It is not only employed in Agriculture but is being used in various fields. Biotechnology is one of the highly suggested options for increasing food production.
Let’s learn more about Biotechnology and how it is used in Agriculture.
Introduction to Biotechnology
Biotechnology is the application of various scientific techniques which are used to modify and improve the plants, animals and different microorganisms that enhance their value.
It allows manipulation, synthesis and eventual creation of ‘genes’, where genes are the encoded roadmap for an organism’s development and by manipulating the genes, the agricultural Biotechnology is able to engineer the plants according to the desire of the farmer.
Biotechnology is applied over various fields including Medicines, Agriculture, Transgenic, Genetic Engineering etc but in this article we will majorly focus Biotechnology in Agriculture.
What is Agricultural Biotechnology ?
Agricultural Biotechnology is a sector of Agriculture and Biotechnology that uses advanced biological techniques such as Genetic Engineering to enhance the production of crops and it also uses techniques like Gene manipulation and Tissue culture to bring desired changes in the variety of plants.
It has been practiced for a very long time as people have sought to improve the organisms which are agriculturally important by selection of proper varieties and breeding. One of the examples can be seen in the development of disease resistant wheat varieties by cross breeding different types of wheat varieties until the desired disease resistance variety is obtained.
Agricultural Biotechnology is a term that is used in crop and livestock improvement using biotechnological tools. Biotechnology encompasses a number of tools and elements of Conventional breeding techniques, Bioinformatics, Microbiology, Molecular Genetics, Biochemistry, Plant physiology and Molecular Biology.
Some of the Biotechnology tools which is important in agricultural Biotechnology includes:
- Conventional plant breeding
- Tissue culture and micro propagation
- Molecular breeding or marker assisted selection
- Genetic Engineering and Genetically Modified (GM) crops
- Molecular Diagnostic tools
Applications of Biotechnology in Agriculture
Here we will see some of the ways in which Biotechnology has found its way in agriculture.
- Genetically Modified Crops
Genetically Modified crops are those plants in which the DNA has been modified using some genetic manipulation techniques with the main aim to introduce a new trait which has not occurred naturally in the species.
These foods are produced from organisms that have undergone specific changes in the DNA with Genetic Engineering methods and the genetically modified crops deliver a range of ecological advantages but it includes certain environmental issues like health, food needs/demands and economical concerns as well. These crops are used because:
- they are resistant to various abiotic stresses like cold, drought and heat
- they are pest resistant
- they reduce post harvest losses
- they have enhanced nutritional value
Some of the genetically modified plants are Flavr Savr Tomato (Transgenic Tomato) and Golden Rice.
- Molecular Markers
Molecular markers are the specific segments of DNA that are specifically associated with a particular location within the genome and the scientists use molecular markers to select the plants or animals which possess desirable genes, thus we can say that this type of breeding is more precise and efficient.
- Molecular Diagnostics
This is a method to detect the genes or the product of genes. This is used to diagnose crop or livestock diseases more accurately. Molecular Diagnostic is generally a set of techniques that are used to analyse the biological markers in the genome and proteome and it helps in determining the cells to express their genes as ‘proteins’.
Vaccines is a formulation that is injected into a host body to stimulate a desired type of immune response and helps in preventing various diseases such as polio. Biotechnology derived vaccines are used for fighting various diseases in livestock and humans. They are cheaper, better and safer than most of the traditional vaccines and it remains stable at room temperature and does not require refrigerated storage.
- Tissue culture
It involves nurturing of the fragments of plants or animal tissues in a controlled environment where they continue to grow and their survival is ensured but the issues need to be isolated first. It allows the production of disease free planting material for crops. It is a regeneration of plants using disease free plant parts, in the laboratory. Some of the crops that are produced using tissue culture include citrus, pineapples, avocados, mangoes, bananas, coffee and papaya.
Biotechnology is used to transfer the techniques to improve the colours, smell, size and other features of the particular flower and it is generally used to make improvement to other common ornamental plants, shrubs and trees in particular.
- Embryo Rescue
Embryo rescue is a form of in-vitro culture technique for plants where an immature embryo is nurtured in a controlled environment and is allowed to survive. This helps in preserving the seed species which are becoming extinct. These include Heritage seeds and local grains of cultural significance.
- Somatic Hybridization
It is the process by which the cellular genome is manipulated by the process of protoplast fusion.
It is a clonal propagation of plants which is performed under aseptic and controlled conditions in a closed vessel.
Benefits of Biotechnology
Some of the benefits of Biotechnology are as follows:
- Increased Crop Productivity – Genetically Modified Crops are resistant to pests and diseases. This minimises the post harvest losses and as a result the yield increases by nearly three folds and some of the plants are developed to use water and minerals efficiently in a dry climate as well. So we can say that, Genetically Modified Crops show better productivity.
- Enhanced Crop Protection – Biotechnology provides cost effective solutions to many types of pest problem crops such as corn, cotton and potato because they are successfully transformed through genetic engineering to make a protein which kills the certain insects when they feed on the plants. The genetically modified crops are resistant to various pests, weeds, diseases and various environmental stresses like drought, cold, salinity etc so it reduces the loss of crops due to resistance and brings food security and also minimizes the post harvest losses.
- Improved Nutritional Value – The GM plants are produced with nutritional content that benefits the whole population and helps in meeting the nutrient requirements of the people. It allows various options for improving the nutritional value, flavour and texture of foods. Some of the transgenic crops include Soybeans that have higher protein content, Potatoes with higher starch content and Beans have more essential amino acids.
- Better Flavour – The flavour is altered by enhancing the activities of plant enzymes which transforms the Aroma compounds precursors into flavoring compounds.
- Fresher Produce – Genetic engineering makes the transport of fresh produce easy by giving the consumers access to nutritionally valuable foods and it also prevents the loss of nutrients. The transgenic plant also has the ability of delayed ripening to keep the food fresh for a long duration and also it can be transported to long distances as well without spoiling it.
- Soil Enrichment – The genetically modified crops have an enhanced ability to utilise the various mineral resources and because of this they use lesser minerals from the soil and keeps the soil enriched. Some plant varieties are also developed to enrich the Nitrogen contents of the soil.
- Environmental Benefits – Genetic engineering results in reduced pesticide dependence and therefore we have less pesticide residues in foods and this also reduces the pesticides leaching into groundwater which minimises the farm workers exposure to hazardous products.
- Benefits for Developing Countries – Genetic Engineering technologies also improve the health conditions in less developed countries.
- Herbicide Tolerance – In general, for controlling weeds, we use chemical herbicides but the researchers have found that a crop which is genetically engineered can be resistant to a broad spectrum Herbicide and weed management could be simplified and safer chemicals can also be used, and it is often argued that such genetically engineered crop can reduce soil erosion because they adopt soil conserving practices such as ‘No till’.
- Virus Resistant – Many plants are susceptible to viral diseases that are spread by insects from plant to plant across the field and therefore it can be difficult to control the crop damages. Insecticides have a little impact on the spread of disease, so scientists have discovered many new genetic engineering methods that could provide resistance to viral diseases.
- Delayed Fruit Ripening – Delaying the ripening process allows more time for shipment of food from the field to the grocery shelf and increases the shelf life of the fruit for consumers. The genetically engineered foods which have delayed ripening can also be left to mature on the plant longer and it will have a longer shelf life in shipping and may last longer for consumers.
Risks & Drawbacks of Biotechnology
Biotechnology has a potentially long term impact and some of the consumer advocate and environmental groups have even demanded the abandonment of Genetic Engineering Research and Development because of certain issues and fears and these issues are divided into 3 categories – health, environmental and social.
Health related issues
- GE has the risk of introducing allergens and toxins into safe foods.
- Consuming GM foods can transfer antibiotic resistant genes to the gut.
- Consuming GM crops changes metabolism, growth rate and response to external environmental factors.
- Consumers demand a special label on GM foods.
- The farmers buy fresh seeds every year for hybrid varieties because seeds from last year’s hybrids won’t produce identical plants as parent plants.
- The opponents of GE believe that transgenic crops may cross pollinate with weeds and produce superweeds which may become more difficult to control.
- Biotechnological crops have an impact on non-target species as well and may reduce the population of some species leading to ecological imbalance.
- There is a fear that large scale adoption of Biotechnological crops may result in rapid buildup of resistance in pest populations.
- Loss of Biodiversity
Apart from this there is a Philosophical and Religious concern that animal genes should not be added in plants.
Biotechnology helps in understanding different aspects of Agriculture and this can change the face of Agriculture. Its application is very useful in sustained food production and it offers a range of resources for enhancing our understanding and managing the Genetic resources for Food and Agriculture.
Modern Biotechnology is focused on exhibiting unique applications of science which can be used in the betterment of society, by developing the crops with enhanced nutritional quality, resistance to pests and diseases, and low cost of production.
It can offer substantial benefits when used with caution and ethics. The society should be provided with a balanced view of the fundamentals of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering, processes used in developing these crops, type of materials used, and the benefits and risks involved in it.