Biotechnology in Agriculture: History, Benefits, and Applications
  • Written By Shilpi Shikha
  • Last Modified 19-07-2022
  • Written By Shilpi Shikha
  • Last Modified 19-07-2022

Biotechnology in Agriculture: Definition, Benefits, Risk and its Application

Biotechnology in Agriculture: Did you know that an agriculture-based country like India once struggled with producing sufficient grains to feed its population? Yes, it’s true. During the early to the mid-eighteenth century, the agricultural yield was too little that we needed to import rice.

By the end of the eighteenth century, we stopped buying rice from other countries, and at present, India is one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of rice. How did this change occur? All thanks to the Green revolution, pioneered by Sir Norman Borlogue and brought to India by Dr. M.S. Swaminathan. They applied agricultural biotechnological techniques to enhance agricultural yields by almost three folds. Read on to explore more about the application, benefits, and risks associated with the application of biotechnology in agriculture.

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What is Agricultural Biotechnology?

Agricultural biotechnology can be defined as a sector of agriculture and biotechnology, which uses advanced biological techniques like genetic engineering for enhanced crop production. It involves the use of techniques like gene manipulation and tissue culture to bring desired changes in plant variety.

Agricultural biotechnology

Fig: Agricultural biotechnology

History of Agricultural Biotechnology

Human beings learned agriculture around 10,000 B.C. With time we started to domesticate various kinds of plants. Selective breeding led to the development of a new modified variety of plants. We learned to improve our productivity with the help of agrochemicals like fertilizers and pesticides around the 1930s. In the 1960s, the green revolution was brought about worldwide. At present, there are three main approaches to enhance crop yield: Agrochemical based, organic, and GM crops.

3 types of agricultural methods

Fig: 3 Types of Agricultural Methods

How are Genetically Modified Plants Produced?

Genetic modification of crops involves inserting DNA into the genome of an organism. Production of a GM plant involves adding a specific stretch of DNA into the plant’s genome, giving it new or different characteristics, and the cells are then grown in tissue culture where they develop into plants. The seeds produced by these plants will inherit the new DNA with the required set of characteristics. Production of genetically modified plants takes long-time research, continuous hard work, and lots of knowledge and funds.

steps to produce genetically modified plants

Fig: Steps to Produce Genetically Modified Plants

Some examples of Transgenic crops or GM crops are discussed below:

Pest Resistant Bt cotton: Worms and pests have always been one of the biggest enemies of farmers. A group of scientists decided to develop a plant that is resistant to the pest. Examples of pest-resistant plants are Bt cotton, Bt corn, rice, tomato, potato, soybean, etc. It was possible after bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt for short) was found. This bacterium affects certain insects such as lepidopterans (tobacco budworm, armyworm), coleopterans (beetles), and dipterans (flies, mosquitoes) in general. How does Bt kill worms:
1. Some strains of these bacteria possess a gene called cry and its variants like cryIAb, cryIAc, and cryIIAb.
2. These genes code for a protein crystal that enters the gut cells of larvae.
3. These protein crystals are protoxins or inactive toxins and require alkaline pH for activation.
4. Once the bacteria infect a larva and enter the gut epithelial cells, where the alkaline medium is readily available, the toxin becomes active and causes swellings in gut cells, ultimately destroying it.

The infection causes holes in the gut of larvae. As a result, the larva dies of infection and starvation.

Action of Bt

Fig: Action of Bt

Pest Resistant Tobacco Plant implementing RNAi Technology:

  1. RNAi stands for RNA interference.
  2. RNAi is a cellular defence mechanism that cells use to silence a particular mRNA by complementary binding.
  3. The cell produces complementary RNA or antisense RNA against the infectious RNA, and they form double-stranded RNA or dsRNA form.
  4. The formation of dsRNA prevents translation of infectious RNA to protein and defends the cell against infection.  As a result, the parasite cannot survive in the plant.
  5. This method has been proven effective as a nematode Meloidogyne incognita, which is known to infect the roots of the tobacco plant, resulting in stunted plant growth and decreased yield.
RNA silencing by creating dsRNA

Fig: RNA Silencing by Creating dsRNA

Transgenic Tomato: Flavr Savr tomato was developed by gene manipulation to delay ripening and made it nutrient-rich. It saved thousands of farmers who used to suffer due to the fast ripening of tomatoes.
Golden rice: Vitamin A-rich golden rice was developed to meet the nutritional needs of the European and African populations.

Benefits of Biotechnology in Agriculture

  1. Increased crop productivity: Since GM crops are resistant to pests and diseases, the loss is minimized. As a result, yield increases by nearly 3 folds. Some plants are developed to use water and minerals efficiently in a dry climate as well. As a result, GM crops show better productivity.
  2. Enhanced crop protection: GM crops resistant to pests, weeds, disease, and various environmental stress like drought, cold, salinity, etc. reduced loss of crop due to resistance brings food security and also minimizes post-harvest loss
  3. Improved nutritional value: The GM plants are produced with enhanced nutritional content, which benefits the population and helps to meet nutrient requirements.
  4. Better flavour: Transgenic plants also produce improved taste, texture, and appearance of food.
  5. Fresher produce: Transgenic crops have delayed ripening ability that helps keep food fresher for a longer duration. These plants can be transported to longer distances without worrying about spoilage.
  6. Soil enrichment: GM crops have an enhanced ability to utilize minerals. As a result, they use lesser minerals from the soil and keep the soil enriched. Some plant varieties are developed to enrich the nitrogen contents of the soil.

Risks and Drawbacks Associated with the Use of Biotechnology in Agriculture

  1. Potential health risks: Consumption of GM crops can change the metabolism, growth rate, and response to external environmental factors.
  2. Potential allergens: People with food allergies have an unusual immune reaction when they are exposed to specific proteins, called allergens, in food. Genetic modification may lead to an increased amount of allergen in food and cause severe allergies.
  3. Antibiotic resistance: Consumption of GM food may transfer antibiotic-resistant genes to the gut.
  4. Unintended Impacts on Other Species: It is observed that the addition of a new gene may cause an impact on other herbivores or insects and may reduce the population of some species, ultimately leading to ecological imbalance.
  5. Philosophical and Religious Concerns: The addition of animal genes in plants is not accepted by many ethnic groups.

Application of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Agriculture

  1. Biofertilizers and biopesticides: Biofertilizers and biopesticides are eco-friendly alternatives to agrochemicals, and they do not harm the environment. Biofertilizers enrich soil nutrients naturally by adding algae and bacteria like rhizobium.
  2. Molecular breeding: This is better than genetic modification and gives better eco-friendly results in less time. Improved varieties producedby this method are not subjected to any trials and can be commercialized immediately.
  3.  Production of biofuel from agricultural wastes: After harvesting crops, remaining agricultural wastes become a huge problem for the farmers. Agricultural wastes take space and cause pollution. With the help of biotechnology, agricultural wastes can be converted into biofuel like biodiesel, bioethanol, etc., and solve the problem of pollution as well as waste management.
  4. Tissue culture and Micropropagation: This technique helps to produce a large number of plants in a small period. Small plantlets are developed in the laboratory from explants obtained from a stock plant. These plantlets are then transferred to the field for mass production.
  5. Production of vaccines: Most of us hate getting vaccine injections, but we cannot avoid it. Scientists have developed edible vaccines, and at present edible vaccines are produced for various human and animal diseases such as measles, cholera, foot, and mouth disease, etc. These vaccines are under trial, but once they are approved safe to use, they will be available on the market.
  6. Reduced cost of food production: Since plants are resistant, farmers don’t need to buy agrochemicals like pesticides and fertilizers; hence cost of production is reduced.

Summary

Transgenic crops and biotechnology have been proven to be a boon. The techniques can be used to improve the quality, quantity and even help in the production of the resistant plant.  Several successful plant varieties have been developed, like Bt cotton, which is pest resistant; golden rice is an example of a vitamin-rich plant. Every good thing has a price. Similarly, agricultural biotechnology comes with its own set of risks.

For example, some GM plants might cause allergies or other potential health risks.  Continuous research is a requirement to remove the risk and enhance benefits. However, the Governments should inform the public about the nature of new crop types and new crop varieties and about the risks and benefits of agricultural biotechnology in our own country and internationally.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on Biotechnology in Agriculture

Q.1. What does agriculture mean?
Ans: Agriculture is an age-old practice of cultivating plants or livestock on a large scale.

Q.2. What is the green revolution?
Ans: Green revolution refers to the great increase in crop production in the 1960s. It was achieved due to the efforts of scientists like Sir Norman Borlogue and Dr. M.S. Swaminathan.

Q.3. What are some of the examples of GM plants?
Ans: Some examples of Transgenic crop or GM crops are given below:
1. Bt cotton – Pest resistant (resistant to ball worms)
2. Flavr Savr tomato – Delayed ripening, rich nutrient
3. Golden rice- Rich in vitamin A
4. Potato- High protein content
5. C4 rice- Improved productivity, nutrient-rich
6. Bt corn, Bt brinjal- Insect resistant.

Q.4. What is the importance of agricultural biotechnology?
Ans: Agricultural biotechnology helps to enhance crop productivity by increasing quantity, quality, and resistance. It increases food security and provides better profits to farmers.

Q.5. What is biotechnology?
Ans: Biotechnology is a stream of science that exploits the technological aspect of the living system and utilizes this to develop or create different products to benefit humanity and the economy.

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