The destruction of a field of corn begins with the removal of thin outer layers of the leaves. Next come holes, as if made by small bullets. Then the silk is damaged, followed by the ears and stalk. That's how two generations of European corn borers obliterate a crop. Each year, within the United States and Canada, crop loss and control costs run least $1 billion [source: University of Missouri].
Agricultural biotechnology can combat such infestation through the development of genetically modified (GM) seeds that produce crops resistant to insect invasions. Biotechnology crops (corn, potato, cotton) have been developed that withstand several types of bugs, including the corn borer and the Colorado potato beetle.
Agricultural biotechnology extends beyond battling insects. Some GM crops are impervious to herbicides, so farmers can kill weeds without harming produce. "Biopharming," meanwhile, creates plants containing pharmaceutical proteins, with the objective of producing cheaper vaccines and treatment drugs. Farm animals, too, are prospective technological commodities; they may be useful for producing insulin, providing cells and organs for transplants, resisting common species diseases (e.g., salmonella in chickens) and generating healthier meats for consumption.
These advances may sound promising, but people who believe agricultural biotechnology is primarily profit-driven have concerns, such as its environmental implications. It's possible for GM seeds to spread and contaminate fields that contain standard crops. How can farmers prevent this natural seed dispersal if they don't want GM infiltration? Do seed companies have any rights once their seeds have spread?
Then there's the issue of biodiversity. There's worry that reliance on GM plants and animals will reduce the heterogeneity of species. Less variety increases the chances that an agricultural community can be ravaged. "Super" weeds, insects and disease that have modified naturally in response to human farming intervention can sweep through an area, wiping out entire stocks.
Sustainability might be threatened, as well. Common farming practices meant to naturally refuel soil nutrients (e.g., rotating crops, planting different plants within the same field) will likely be abandoned when GM crops are utilized. The amount of arable land could be compromised, or the volume of artificial fertilizer used may increase.
Potential ecological effects aside, other aspects of GM farm products have raised questions, including their impact on developing nations, food safety and labeling and trade.(Image Source/Corbis)
Some agricultural biotechnology critics feel that the entire process is unnatural and dangerous. Others point out that it could lead to a decrease in biodiversity -- less diverse crops may be more vulnerable to certain diseases. That means a single disease could wipe out a significant percentage of a region's crops. Another criticism is that the genes from genetically modified crops could find their way into native plants through cross breeding, which could lead to unintended consequences.
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