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Frequently Asked Questions

Below you'll find some of the frequently asked questions about agricultural biotechnology. Send us your questions, and we will find the answers.

What is Biotechnology?

Biotechnology is the application of scientific information and methods to biological problems such as in agriculture and medicine. It includes moving traits or characteristics from one organism to another, to improve or create new industrial, medical and agricultural products. Through integrating knowledge about biology and genetic engineering, biotechnology has many diverse applications from making pharmaceutical drugs (such as the production of insulin since 1982) to producing ethanol from corn. Agricultural biotechnology allows us to more precisely engender plants, animals and micro-organisms with specific characteristics - such as a higher protein content or reduced incidence of E-coli.

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What are GMOs?

Genetically Modified Organisms are those living things whose genetic make-up has been altered or modified through biotechnology processes.

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How Does Agricultural Biotechnology Differ from Conventional Plant Breeding?

Both biotechnology and conventional plant breeding share the same goal of increasing the desirable characteristics of that plant, such as increasing the nutritional value of rice. However, biotechnology is much more precise in that it carefully selects a specific gene or trait in one plant (or another source) and transfers only that gene to another plant.

Conventional plant breeding on the other hand pools all the characteristics of both parental plants, with the hopes of finding the desired traits in the new genetic lines. In fact, essentially all foods are derived from plants that have been previously genetically modified through conventional plant breeding. Consequently, while both processes result in genetic modification, agricultural biotechnology is a much more precise means of producing the desired characteristic in a plant.

A final difference between biotechnology and conventional breeding is that biotech allows scientists to transfer genes across species - including from animals to plants and vice-versa - which conventional breeding cannot normally achieve. While this remains a more controversial aspect of biotechnology, sharing genetic information across species has proven quite valuable, such as in the production of rennet (used in cheese production) and interferon (used in combating cancer).

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Are We Already Eating Foods Produced Through Biotechnology?

Many foods have been "genetically engineered" for hundreds of years including bread made with yeast, wine through grape fermentation, and the breeding of North American maize to produce present day corn.

In 1999, approximately 55% of soybeans, 60% of cotton and 36% of corn grown in the U.S. were derived from biotechnology. Other biotech crops include canola, rice, potatoes, strawberries, green peppers, and tomatoes. It is also estimated that 75% of all cheese is made using bio-engineered rennet (rather than rennet derived from the lining of a cow's stomach) and 80% of all processed foods in the U.S. contain genetically modified food ingredients.

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How Can Biotechnology Reduce Production Risks for the Farmer?

Farmers face many different kinds of production risks such as insect and disease infestations, drought, and insufficient soil fertility. Through improved genetically modified plants, farmers can reduce the risks of these and other maladies from reducing their yields or destroying their crops. Most notably, plant scientists have produced Bt corn, potato, and cotton varieties that have given the plants a natural form of protection from certain insects pests such as corn borers, Colorado potato beetle and tobacco budworm, and herbicide tolerant soybeans and corn. By producing seed varieties that can protect themselves against plant pests, farmers are able to reduce the amount of herbicides and insecticides they use.

Therefore, by using bio-engineered crop seeds, farmers have the opportunity to reduce yield variability. And some of the bio-engineered crops being developed may have higher yields than their conventional counterparts.

Plant scientists have also been able to engineer plants that are less susceptible to drought and absorb nutrients from the soil more efficiently.

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So -- Does That Mean Biotechnology Is Good for the Environment?

Advances in biotechnology have enabled some plants to develop their own resistance to certain diseases and insects. For example, Round-up-Ready corn and soybeans are resistant to the herbicide Round-up, allowing the farmer more leeway in the timing of herbicide applications and simplified weed control. Growing genetically modified crops that have built-in resistance to certain kinds of diseases (such as potato blight) can also reduce chemical applications.

Consequently, farmers can significantly reduce the amount of pesticides and/or use more environmentally friendly herbicides than they typically use on some crops if they plant some kinds of genetically modified seed. Obviously the fewer and/or more environmentally compatible herbicides and insecticides we use on agricultural crops, the better for our soil, air and water quality. Other newly developed crops require less cultivation, thereby reducing soil erosion and fuel usage.

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Can Agricultural Biotechnology Harm to the Environment?

There are some concerns that new genetically modified crops can be harmful to the environment. For example, lab experiments have tried to evaluate the effect of Bt corn pollen on Monarch butterflies and the impact on rats if fed experimental biotech potatoes. Although conclusions are mixed, the general consensus is that animals and insects would have to consume extremely large quantities of biotech crops before any adverse impact could be detected. Field studies have shown little or no harm and generally much less adverse effect on non-target organisms than conventional pest control.

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What about the Development of "Super Weeds" or "Super Insects"?

The concern here is that the use of biotech crops that are resistant to certain weeds, insects and diseases could facilitate the development of "super weeds" or "super insects". This concern has always been present with conventional breeding practices and also in the pharmaceutical industry (for example, as microbes have developed resistance to antibiotics).

Scientists are working to make sure that existing weeds and insects have a "place to go" so there is less pressure for them to naturally alter their own resistance to genetically modified crops. For each biotech Bt crop, farmers are instructed to plant a certain minimum acreage or "refugia" of conventional seed where the susceptible pest population is maintained. Further, all biotech crops are subject to strict controls from the Environmental Protection Agency before being field-tested and again prior to commercial release.

The important point here is that scientists and farmers are keenly aware of the concern over super weeds and insects and are carefully monitoring fields to manage the situation. Integrated Crop Management, including use of natural biological controls, becomes increasingly important as farmers increase their use of biotech crops and reduce their use of pesticides.

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What About Loss of Biodiversity?

Many environmentalists, including farmers themselves, are very concerned about the loss of biodiversity. Although the increased adoption of conventionally bred crops has raised similar concerns, we want to make sure that we maintain the pool of genetic diversity needed for time the future. Scientists continue to work actively to preserve plant species through the preservation of genetic material (DNA) in lab facilities and field plots around the world. The science of biotechnology has dramatically increased our knowledge of how genes express themselves and highlighted the importance of preserving genetic material.

Another related concern relates to the narrow range of crops that farmers currently grow. There are only about 35 crops with significant world production. If all farmers grew, for example, the same variety of corn, one unstoppable corn blight could easily destroy a huge amount of our corn production. This has been a concern with conventionally-bred crop varieties as well. Biotechnology can help in two ways. Crop varieties can be developed that are "disaster-resistant" much quicker than through conventional breeding. And biotechnology has the increased capability of developing multiple sub-species of the same crop, tailored to specific growing conditions and consumer needs, thereby reducing the chance of an entire crop being wiped out.

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Are Genetically Engineered Foods Safe to Eat?

Biotech foods are extensively researched and reviewed by three different federal government agencies - the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Many individual state governments also work together to ensure that crops produced through biotechnology are safe. Foods produced through biotechnology must follow the same stringent rules as foods produced conventionally.

Prior to field testing, companies and research institutions must register all biotech crops with the USDA for field testing permission. Researchers must assure that all pollen and plant parts of the tested plants are not released into the environment.

Biotech crops must also pass EPA scrutiny, which has the authority to control all new pesticides, including genetically-enhanced plants. The EPA is concerned with the impact on non-target species and endangered or threatened species.

Finally, any foods derived from biotech crops must pass FDA inspection. Current law requires that biotech foods must be labeled as such if their nutritional content or composition differs significantly from their conventional counterparts or if they pose any health risks. Both the National Academy of Sciences and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have determined that, in general, biotech-derived foods are safe or safer than conventional counterparts. The main concern is being vigilant about potential allergens.

It often takes 10-15 years for a biotech crop to get from the research laboratory to the grocery shelf.

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If Biotech Foods Are So Safe, Why Don't Companies Want to Label Them?

Food companies do not want to add to any unnecessary hysteria among consumers that foods produced through biotechnology are fundamentally different (let alone inferior or unsafe) as compared to conventionally produced foods. Many companies fear that any labeling would be perceived by consumers as a warning or red flag towards biotech-derived foods.

It may also be confusing to many consumers that food labels are not required to contain information on how the foods are produced. Instead they contain information on food ingredients and potential health concerns. Labeling is required when the biotech derived food product is significantly different than the conventional counterpart.

Further, it has become extremely difficult for food companies to verify if the food components they use (for example soybean oil or corn syrup solids) are derived from biotech crops or not. The composition of biotech food components may change from shipment to shipment, which food companies have argued would make labeling of most processed foods a logistical nightmare and create a huge unnecessary expense. But Don't We as Consumers Have a "Right to Know" If We Are Consuming Biotech Foods?

Many argue that consumers do have the right to know. Consumers are increasingly turning to organically-produced foods just for that reason. By definition, certified organic foods cannot be derived from biotechnology-produced crops. However, the lines become blurred as to what is a biotech product and what is not. If a cow was fed organically grown Bt corn, is the meat "organic"?

If most consumers are comfortable consuming biotech foods and are not willing to pay the higher costs associated with labeling foods as biotech-derived or not, should the food industry be forced to label biotech foods anyway? Some argue that the anti-biotech consumers can simply purchase organic foods and that their concerns have no scientific basis. Others argue that biotech foods are too new to be convinced of their safety (citing other products such as saccharin and DDT), they oppose biotech foods on moral or religious grounds and demand that the industry should respond to their needs.

Biotechnology covers a wide array of processes and procedures. Genetic modifications can range from simply improving a natural corn gene in a way that can be considered more precise standard breeding to introducing animal genes into plants or bacterial genes into animals. 

Should all products be labeled the same? I Just Don't Feel Comfortable with Biotechnology -- It's Scares Me. Is it Morally and Religiously Right to Share DNA Across Species?

It is very difficult to "argue" with other's moral and spiritual concerns. For example, if the DNA from a pig was inserted into a corn plant, do those refraining from food that is not kosher have the "right to know"? We are already putting cod fish genes into tomatoes to lengthen their shelf life. What next? Many new technologies cause us to do some real soul searching. These are important questions as we recognize the dangers and the beauties of technological advancement.

A simple solution is voluntary labeling such as is done for kosher foods for consumers who prefer such products. Mandatory labeling not based on health or scientific considerations will make everyone pay extra for what only some want.

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I'm Allergic to Many Food Items Such as Rice and Peanuts. How Can I Be Sure That a Food I Am Eating Does Not Have Any Genes from Those Plants to Which I Am Allergic?

Each food is evaluated for its allergenic potential as part of the regulatory process. Labeling is required if a known allergen is transferred to a food that doesn't normally contain that allergen. Presently, no food products are on the US market with this designation. In fact, some products have been pulled from the review process and will not make it to consumers precisely because of this concern.

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How Can Biotechnology Alleviate World Hunger?

World population just hit the 6 billion mark in 1999 and is expected to double in the first half of the next century. Although world agriculture has been able to increase food production faster than population growth, one-fourth of the world population still suffers from hunger and malnutrition. Further, increased yield gains have come at a cost as rainforest and wetland habitats have been destroyed, soil fertility has diminished in many parts of the world due to intensive cropping and grazing practices, and intensive use of agro-chemicals has contaminated many of our waterways.

Through agricultural biotechnology, scientists are working to develop new higher-yielding crop varieties that will require fewer chemicals and less intensive cultivation, allowing farmers to produce more food and better food on less land. The improvement of nutritional quality in our food supply through biotechnology has also begun to show great rewards.

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What Do You Mean the Improvement of Nutritional Quality Through Biotechnology?

Agricultural biotechnology has allowed scientists to insert certain nutritional traits, including increased protein levels, vitamins and minerals, and healthier oils into crops with more precision and timeliness than conventional breeding. For example, new strains of rice have been developed that would help combat vitamin A deficiency (a leading cause of blindness) by delivering higher doses of beta-carotene and iron. Other biotech foods on the horizon include potatoes that absorb less oil (which may reduce the incidence of heart disease) and the production of allergy-free peanuts and rice. Scientists are even developing a new variety of banana that could deliver vaccines against Hepatitis B and other deadly diseases.

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How Might Biotechnology Increase the Market Power Held by Large Corporate Farms and Big Agri-Business?

Most of the biotech crops on the market today have required years and years of expensive scientific research and strict passage through a strict regulatory process. Consequently, most genetically engineered seeds are protected under patent and licensing restrictions to assist the companies in protecting their "intellectual property".

For a biotechnology firm to develop and deliver a seed or other GMO to market, it must have a very large research, marketing and distribution network. Right now, only the very large and well-established agribusiness companies have such networks to be successful on the commercial market.

Therefore, the required regulations and broad patent protection raises many barriers to entry and promotes greater market concentration, as fewer and fewer firms control more and more of the biotech market. A recent example is the acquisition of Pioneer Hi-Bred (the world's largest seed producer) by DuPont (a major agribusiness and agro-chemical producer).

To minimize the high costs of creating a GMO and getting it all the way through the regulatory process into actual commercial production, the large biotech companies have become increasingly vertically and horizontally integrated. That is, they buy research companies, farms, processing plants, transportation companies, and market outlets so they own and control all the profits derived from the GMO. By taking on more and more of the marketing functions for more and more products, these large agribusinesses have encouraged vertically integrated supply chains to replace open markets, thereby increasing the risks of anti-competitive pricing. As farmers have the opportunity to produce more identity preserved foods, a tighter supply chain structure may also reduce market power for the farmers.

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About BREI

BREI is a team of multidisciplinary research, extension and teaching professionals from the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture.

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