Biotechnical methods are now used to produce many proteins for pharmaceutical and other
specialized purposes. A harmless strain of Escherichia coli bacteria, given a copy of the gene for
human insulin, can make insulin. As these genetically modified (GM) bacterial cells age, they
produce human insulin, which can be purified and used to treat diabetes in humans.
Microorganisms can also be modified to produce digestive enzymes. In the future, these
microorganisms could be colonized in the intestinal tract of persons with digestive enzyme
insufficiencies. Products of modern biotechnology include artificial blood vessels from
collagen tubes coated with a layer of the anticoagulant heparin .
Gene therapy – altering DNA within cells in an organism to treat or cure a disease – is one of the
most promising areas of biotechnology research. New genetic therapies are being developed to
treat diseases such as cystic fibrosis, AIDS and cancer .
DNA fingerprinting is the process of cross matching two strands of DNA. In criminal
investigations, DNA from samples of hair, bodily fluids or skin at a crime scene are compared
with those obtained from the suspects. In practice, it has become one of the most powerful and
widely known applications of biotechnology today. Another process, polymerase chain reaction
(PCR), is also being used to more quickly and accurately identify the presence of infections such
as AIDS, Lyme disease and Chlamydia.
Paternity determination is possible because a child’s DNA pattern is inherited, half from the
mother and half from the father. To establish paternity, DNA fingerprints of the mother, child
and the alleged father are compared. The matching sequences of the mother and the child are
eliminated from the child’s DNA fingerprint; what remains comes from the biological father.
These segments are then compared for a match with the DNA fingerprint of the alleged father.
DNA testing is also used on human fossils to determine how closely related fossil samples are
from different geographic locations and geologic areas. The results shed light on the history of
human evolution and the manner in which human ancestors settled different parts of the world.
BIOTECHNOLOGY FOR 21ST CENTURY:
Experts in United States anticipate the world’s population in 2050 to be approximately 8.7
billion persons. The world’s population is growing, but its surface area is not. Compounding the
effects of population growth is the fact that most of the earth’s ideal farming land is already
being utilized. To avoid damaging environmentally sensitive areas, such as rain forests, we need
to increase crop yields for land currently in use. By increasing crop yields, through the use of
biotechnology the constant need to clear more land for growing food is reduced.
Countries in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere are grappling with how to continue feeding a growing
population. They are also trying to benefit more from their existing resources. Biotechnology
holds the key to increasing the yield of staple crops by allowing farmers to reap bigger harvests
from currently cultivated land, while preserving the land’s ability to support continued farming.
Malnutrition in underdeveloped countries is also being combated with biotechnology. The
Rockefeller Foundation is sponsoring research on “golden rice”, a crop designed to improve
nutrition in the developing world. Rice breeders are using biotechnology to build Vitamin A into
the rice. Vitamin A deficiency is a common problem in poor countries. A second phase of the
project will increase the iron content in rice to combat anemia, which is widespread problem
among women and children in underdeveloped countries. Golden rice, expected to be for sale in
Asia in less than five years, will offer dramatic improvements in nutrition and health for millions
of people, with little additional costs to consumers.
Similar initiatives using genetic manipulation are aimed at making crops more productive by
reducing their dependence on pesticides, fertilizers and irrigation, or by increasing their
resistance to plant diseases .
Increased crop yield, greater flexibility in growing environments, less use of chemical pesticides
and improved nutritional content make agricultural biotechnology, quite literally, the future of the world's supply.
CONCERNS ABOUT BIOTECHNOLOGY:
As biotechnology has become widely used, questions and concerns have also been raised. The
most vocal opposition has come from European countries. One of the main areas of concern is
the safety of genetically engineered food .
In assessing the benefits and risks involved in the use of modern biotechnology, there are a series
of issues to be addressed so that informed decisions can be made. In making value judgments
about risks and benefits in the use of biotechnology, it is important to distinguish between
technology-inherent risks and technology-transcending risks. The former includes assessing any
risks associated with food safety and the behavior of a biotechnology-based product in the
environment. The latter involve the political and social context in which the technology is used,
including how these uses may benefit or harm the interests of different groups in society.
The health effects of foods grown from genetically engineered crop depend on the composition
of the food itself. Any new product may have either beneficial or occasional harmful effects on
human health. For example, a biotech-derived food with a higher content of digestible iron is
likely to have a positive effect if consumed by iron-deficient individuals. Alternatively, the
transfer of genes from one species to another may also transfer the risk for exposure to allergens.
These risks are systematically evaluated by FDA and identified prior to commercialization.
Individuals allergic to certain nuts, for example, need to know if genes conveying this trait are
transferred to other foods such as soybeans. Labeling would be required if such crops were
available to consumers.
Among the potential ecological risks identified are increased weediness, due to cross- pollination
from genetically modified crops spreads to other plants in nearby fields. This may allow the
spread of traits such as herbicide-resistance to non-target plants that could potentially develop
into weeds. This ecological risk is assessed when deciding if a plant with a given trait should be
released into a particular environment, and if so, under what conditions.
Other potential ecological risks stem from the use of genetically modified corn and cotton with
insecticidal genes from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt genes). This may lead to the development of
resistance to Bt in insect populations exposed to the biotech-derived crop. There also may be
risks to non-target species, such as birds and butterflies, from the plants with Bt genes. The
monitoring of these effects of new crops in the environment and implementation of effective risk
management approaches is an essential component of further research. It is also important to
keep all risks in perspective by comparing the products of biotechnology and conventional
The reduction of biodiversity would represent a technology-transcending risk. Reduced
biological diversity due to destruction of tropical forests, conversion of land to agriculture,
overfishing, and the other practices to feed a growing world population is a significant loss far
more than any potential loss of biodiversity due to biotech-derived crop varieties. Improved
governance and international support are necessary to limit loss of biodiversity (19).
What we know from our understanding of science and more than a decade of experience with
biotech-derived plants is the following (22): There is no evidence that genetic transfers between
unrelated organisms pose human health concerns that are different from those encountered with
any new plant or animal variety. The risks associated with biotechnology are the same as those associated with plants and microbes developed by conventional methods.
CONSUMER & FOOD INDUSTRY PERSPECTIVES:
Survey research over the past decade shows that biotechnology is not likely to become an
important issue for most American consumers. Consumers find biotechnology acceptable when
they believe it offers benefits and it is safe. Surveys have consistently found that a majority of
American consumers are willing to buy insect-protected food crops developed through
biotechnology that use fewer chemical pesticides, as well as more nutritious foods. American
consumers also appreciate the role that biotechnology can play in feeding the world. Research
shows that European consumers are much less supportive of all biotechnology applications.
Surveys since 1992 show that relatively few U.S. consumers have heard or read much about
biotechnology (26). News about the cloned sheep pushed awareness to 50 percent in March
1997. Surveys in the first three months of 2000 show that awareness has fallen back to just over
one-third in the United States. Such trends reflect the fact that most people get their information
about biotechnology from the media. Unfortunately, many consumers also do not understand
some fundamental principles of biology. European consumer awareness is somewhat higher, but
knowledge is still low.
Media coverage in the United States has generally been balanced (which helps account for our
relatively high levels of acceptance). This is in sharp contrast to the European media, which
have played upon fear of the unknown. The European media have also tended to accept
opponents' claims without question. Another issue is that many people no longer have a
connection to agriculture. In fact, research has shown that many consumers are unaware that all
foods are derived from plants or animals that already have been genetically modified through
traditional (but imprecise) breeding methods.
American consumers look to health professionals and scientific experts for credible information,
but place relatively little trust in the activists who oppose biotechnology. Research shows that
acceptance increases significantly when American consumers learn that organizations such as the
National Academy of Sciences and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have determined that
biotech-derived foods are safe. In contrast, European consumers express the most trust in those
groups that oppose biotechnology. They have much less confidence in government, industry, or
even scientists. American culture is more supportive and rewarding of new technology.
Europeans tend to view food differently from U.S. consumers. In fact, some Europeans reject all
American food products. Europeans also want to protect their small farms to maintain open
space and rural employment. Such forces underlie much of the European anxiety about
agricultural biotech - especially since it is seen as an "American invention."
Most of the industry leaders interviewed are quite enthusiastic about the benefits of
biotechnology -- especially in terms of increased food availability, enhanced nutrition, and
environmental protection. Most feel that biotechnology has already provided benefits to
consumers. Almost all recognize that foods developed through biotechnology have already been
part of consumers' everyday diet. They clearly do not agree with most of the opponents' claims
and tend to have almost no trust in such groups.
Their main concerns involve lack of consumer acceptance -- not the safety of the foods. They
express high levels of confidence in the science and the regulatory process. In fact, almost none
feel that biotechnology should not be used because of uncertain, potential risks. Most food
industry leaders do not feel it is necessary to have special labels on biotech-derived foods. They
express concerns that such labels would be perceived as a warning by consumers. They also
worried that the need to segregate commodities would pose financial and logistical burdens on
everyone in the system - including consumers. Food industry leaders recognize a major need to
educate the public about biotechnology. They look to third parties, such as university and
government scientists to provide such leadership.
Research shows that consumers will accept biotech foods if they see a benefit to themselves or
society and if the price is right. Their responses to foods developed through biotechnology are
basically the same as for any other food - taste, nutrition, price, safety and convenience are the
major factors that influence our decisions about which foods to eat. How seeds and food
ingredients are developed will only be relevant for a relatively small group of concerned,
The potential for public concerns has led several food companies to change their products to
avoid biotech-derived ingredients. For example, Gerber Foods received threats from Greenpeace
because they had determined the company was using biotech-derived food ingredients (mainly
soy). The company firmly believes that the biotech foods are safe to consume. Gerber agreed to
drop some of its existing corn and soybean suppliers in favor of ones that can produce crops that
are not genetically altered. It became an issue that is suddenly confronting other food companies.
A private manufacturer in California, called Healthy Times Natural Food has switched from
Canola oil (which sometimes is genetically modified) to safflower oil after facing questions from
Greenpeace. The controversy is due in part to the fact that the organic industry is using public concern as a tool for marketing their products as free of biotech ingredients.
NATIONAL & INTERNATIONAL BIOTECHNOLOGY POLICY:
National governments and international policy making bodies rely on food scientists and others
to develop innovations that will create marketable food products and increase food supplies.
Governments also rely on scientific research because they are responsible for setting health and
safety standards regarding new developments. International organizations can suggest policy
approaches and help develop international treaties that are ratified by national governments.
Economic success in the competitive international market demands that food production become
more efficient and profitable. National governments and international organizations support food
biotechnology as a means to avoid global food shortages. Many policy making bodies are also
trying to balance support of the food biotechnology industry with public calls for their
regulation. Such regulations are necessary to protect public health and safety, to promote
international trade, conserve natural resources, and account for ethical issues. (15).
The majority of processed foods on the market contain soy or corn ingredients that come from
GM plants. To date none have posed a food safety risk. The chief safety concerns are the
potential to alter nutrient content or introduce allergens. Federal agencies involved in
biotechnology regulation include the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) which evaluates
agricultural production processes for all foods; the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which
evaluates whole non-animal foods (seafood), food ingredients, and food additives; and the
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which evaluates plants with insecticidal properties (7).
Developers of GM plants and biotech-derived foods are required to consult with FDA prior to
the commercialization of the product. This consultation procedure entails a science-based safety
assessment of the product that focuses on the protection of the consumer, developer, and the
environment. Thus developers, have a strong incentive to cooperate fully with FDA and the other agencies prior to marketing their products.
The applications of biotechnology are so broad, and the advantages so compelling, that virtually
every industry is using this technology. Developments are underway in areas as diverse as
pharmaceuticals, diagnostics, textiles, aquaculture, forestry, chemicals, household products,
environmental cleanup, food processing and forensics to name a few. Biotechnology is enabling
these industries to make new or better products, often with greater speed, efficiency and
flexibility (1). Biotechnology holds significant promise to the future but certain amount of risk is
associated with any area. Biotechnology must continue to be carefully regulated so that the
maximum benefits are received with the least risk.
Biotechnology is at a crossroads in terms of public acceptance. Many Americans have not yet
formed a solid opinion on this complex issue. International developments over the next few
years will certainly have a major influence on the long-term viability of biotechnology. The
future of the world food supply depends upon how well scientists, government, and the food
industry are able to communicate with consumers about the benefits and safety of the
Several major initiatives are under way to strengthen the regulatory process and to communicate
more effectively with consumers. Both the USDA and FDA have opened their regulatory
systems to outside review and public comment. The biotechnology industry, university scientists
and others are also conducting educational programs (27). These should further strengthen
consumer confidence. This partnership among the public and private sectors will support these
emerging technologies that will prove vital to the U.S. economy and the developing world in the new millennium. Even Europe will soon find the real benefits of biotechnology compelling.
1) North Carolina Biotechnology Center "About Biotech."
2) Biotechnology for the 21st
Century: New Horizons. http://www.nal.usda.gov/bic/bio21
3) Backgrounder- Food Biotechnology. http://ificinfo.health.org/backgrnd/BKGR14.htm
4) United States Department of Agriculture “Agricultural Biotechnology Concepts and
CITED BY Kamal Singh Khadka
Msc Microbiology, TU
Assistant Professor in Pokhara University(PU), Pokhara Prabidhi And Food Science Campus( Previously RE-COST), PNC, LA , NA.