The 20th century witnessed unprecedented advances in virtually all aspects of scientific technology, and biotechnology was no exception. The development of biotechnology brought huge benefits to various areas, which was more prominently in agriculture. To be more specific, the development of biotechnology in agriculture illustrates how technology works in solving agricultural problems and the value of technology to agriculture. The impact of biotechnology is more crucial in agriculture nowadays. So far the impact is bigger than expected for a variety reasons. The most important of these reasons is a current change of the global natural environment, reduction in energy resources available to agriculture and growth of excessive population. Indeed, biotechnology will have a large and significant impact on the construction of modern agricultural technologically developed societies. This assignment will firstly explain the development of agricultural biotechnology, then demonstrate applications in the past, present and future, and finally it will show the importance of the development of agricultural biotechnology for society, especially for human beings, such as alleviating the problem of famine all over the world.
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To begin, Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) defines the development of agricultural biotechnology : “Modern agricultural biotechnology includes a range of tools that scientists employ to understand and manipulate the genetic make-up of organisms for use in the production or processing of agricultural products”(The State of Food and Agriculture, 2003-2004).
Plenty of research have been done about the original wild plants, such as their initial growth places and forms in thousands or hundreds of years ago. Significant differences do exist between food crops today and the ancient plants which today’s crops were derived from. About 10,000 years BC, people obtain the biological diversity of food from crops and animals in the surrounding nature and domesticated these creatures gradually. During the process of domestication, people selected better plant materials and animals without any purposes at the beginning of propagation and breeding, but generated contacts with the development of improving food crops and livestock ultimately. After thousands of years of selection and cultivation, crops with desirable traits appeared , which also could meet the agricultural requirement. “Desirable traits included crop varieties with shortened growing seasons, increased resistance to diseases and pests, larger seeds and fruits, nutritional content, shelf life, and better adaptation to diverse ecological conditions under which crops were grown” (Wieczorek & Wright, 2012). In 1492, a momentous event in the development of agriculture occurred, the corn from native Americas spread around the world, and plants adapted to the particular growing conditions in Europe. At this stage of history, crops were being introduced to the rest of the world and grown under various conditions. It is worth mentioning specially that agriculturalists started conducting research on breed selection of crops before understanding of the basis of genetics completely. Subsequently, the great scientist Gregor Mendel gave a precise explanation of the laws of inheritance by demonstrating that the inheritance of certain traits in pea plants, which revolutionized agriculture by developing the selective cross breeding with a comprehensive understanding of the basic hereditary theories.
Above all, the one of most representative application of the development of biotechnology in agriculture was selective plant breeding in the early years. There are two common methods of developing new varieties in traditional plant breeding: selecting plants with ideal characteristics or with combining traits from two closely related species. For instance, these features may be tolerance to environmental conditions, such as climate, or resistance to a special insect or disease. Finally, the desired trait will emerge from a new kind of plants through strict selection of offspring. Over the centuries, traditional plant breeding has brought numerous highly success in producing new varieties of crops. However, there have also been many shortcomings. In traditional breeding, crosses often can not be conducted in a controlled manner relatively. It is almost impossible to predict the result of crosses at the genetic level due to the fact that DNA from the parents recombines randomly, and desirable traits may be bound with undesirable traits, such as pest resistance and lower yield or poor quality. The parent plants have to closely related in order to produce offspring. Traditional breeding programs always consume considerable time and labor force to achieve a new feasible crop varieties (Traditional plant breeding takes on average 12-15 years to produce a new crop variety). It cannot be economically practical since a great deal of effort is demanded for the separation between undesirable and desirable traits. Besides, plants that fail to appear the introduced characteristics are rejected, many potential benefits are lost during the study consequently.
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The decade of the 1970’s saw concurrent development of a number of new techniques in biotechnology science that not only brought significant advances to research but also carried with them the promise of major improvements in the agriculture of life for mankind (Nottingham, S 2003). Recombinant DNA techniques ,or genetic engineering, received most publicity over this period, because scientists were excited by their contribution to research and their ultimate industrial potential, and because dramatic publicity was given to perceived hazards of genetically engineered cells. Equally important to the potential of the recombinant DNA techniques for productive use by society was the invention of other laboratory operating. A significant feature of the whole area of biotechnology is the rapid advances of knowledge and rapid development and refinement of techniques. The final direction in which particular techniques will be applied in agriculture can not be clearly foreseen nor can the evolution of new techniques. Generally, during the mid-1990s, genetic engineering(GE) was an improvement of previous cultivation technology with a mass of experiments for genetically modified crops whose potential benefits including tolerance of drought, more efficient use of fertilizers, and ability to produce drugs or other useful chemicals. At the year of 1997, the other crucial application is Cloning technology (the first famous cloning sheep Dolly).
Specific to each application, firstly, the recombination DNA methodology has generated the prospect of changing the genetic constitution of cells in precise fashion to meet people’s requirements. There are real possibilities for the creation of plants with novel features and the same may in time be true of animals. With bacteria, changing the capabilities of cells is already a reality. Secondly, there is now a growing expectation that the gene cloning technology, coupled with other new methods for manipulating plant cells, will make it possible in the not too distant future for people to shape the genetic constitution of plants to suit their needs. Traditionally, the genetic modification of plants by cross-breeding procedures has been restricted to those characters which already exist within individual plant species for various naturally exciting species isolation. However, the exciting prospect offered by recombinant DNA methodology is that it possibly become to transfer genes, from one plant to another without these constrains. (The most standing tow applications are the agricultural biotechnology in plant modification and plant breeding.) Lastly, animal breeders and geneticists have worked to develop improved breeds of economically important animals .The achievements have been remarkable, but the process remain slow and costly, and the nature and extent of improvements that may be achieved limited. The recent developments in genetic engineering hold out hope that in the future this slow pathway may be avoided.
Combined with previous research, researchers have the confidence that enormous application related to biotechnology will be explored in the future. Under the improvement of crops production has been fairly developed , it should consider to improve the adverse factors of crop growth. For instance, pest resistant, for years, the microbe Bacillus thuringiensis (a kind of bacterial which is effective to pest control) which produces a protein toxic to insects, in particular the European corn borer, was used to dust crops. To eliminate the need for dusting, scientists first developed transgenic corn expressing Bt protein, followed by Bt potato and cotton. Bt protein is not toxic to humans, and transgenic crops make it easier for farmers to avoid costly infestations. In 1999 controversy emerged over Bt corn because of a study that suggested the pollen migrated onto milkweed where it killed monarch larvae that ate it. Subsequent studies demonstrated the risk to the larvae was very small and, in recent years, the controversy over Bt corn has switched focus, to the topic of emerging insect resistance. Another aspect is about nutrient, In an effort to improve human health, particularly in underdeveloped countries, scientists are creating genetically altered foods that contain nutrients known to help fight disease or malnourishment. An example of this is Golden Rice, which contains beta-carotene, the precursor for Vitamin A production in our bodies. People who eat the rice produce more Vitamin A, an essential nutrient lacking in the diets of the poor in Asian countries. Three genes, two from daffodils and one from a bacterium, capable of catalyzing four biochemical reactions, were cloned into rice to make it "golden". The name comes from the color of the transgenic grain due to overexpression of beta-carotene, which gives carrots their orange color.
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Those developments have proved to be significantly successful in reducing the utilization of land, extending duration of food preservation to reduce waste, and most importantly increasing the crop yield to solving the problem of famine and even feeding the world.
Science is an elegant way of getting at the truth, according to science writer Rick Weiss. It should follow then that molecular biology and other tools of modern biotechnology add elegance and precision to the pursuit of solutions to thwart poverty, malnutrition and food insecurity in too many countries around the world. In agriculture these enemies are manifest as pests, diseases, drought and other biotic and abiotic stresses that limit the productivity of plants and animals.
But not all appreciate the elegance of science in the pursuit of truth. The current debate about the potential utility of modern biotechnology for food and agriculture presents a challenge for modern science to contribute to the solution of human problems. This debate is currently focused on the initial applications of modern biotechnology in industrial country agriculture and its potential risks to human health and the environment. It is also intertwined with other often understated societal concerns such as food safety, animal welfare, industrialized agriculture, and the global role of large private-sector corporations.
A debate based on the best available empirical evidence on the relevance of modern science for poor people in developing countries is urgently needed. Its purpose would be to identify the most appropriate ways that molecular biology-based research might contribute to the solution of poor people’s problems. These problems and the socioeconomic context in which they occur are so different from the problems and context of the countries where most of the biotechnology debate currently takes place that the positions and conclusions from the current debate are largely irrelevant for poor farmers and poor consumers in developing countries. Despite this, many of the arguments in the current debate are extrapolated to conclusions about the potential utility of biotechnology for poor countries and poor people. There is an urgent need for a more focused debate on the role of modern agricultural biotechnology in developing countries, a debate that should and is being led by people from developing countries themselves (Pinstrup-Andersen and Cohen 2000).
Because land and water for agriculture are diminishing resources, there is no option but to produce more food and other agricultural commodities from less arable land and irrigation water. The need for more food has to be met through higher yields per units of land, water, energy and time. As Swaminathan (2000) says, “we need to examine how science can be mobilized to raise further the biological productivity ceiling without associated ecological harm. Scientific progress on the farms, as an ever-green revolution, must emphasize that the productivity advance is sustainable over time since it is rooted in the principles of ecology, economics, social and gender equity, and employment generation.”
Nottingham, S 2003, 2nd ed, Eat Your Genes: How Genetically Modified Food Is Entering Our Diet, Zed Book Ltd, New York, USA.
Wieczorek, A. M. & Wright, M. G. (2012) History of Agricultural Biotechnology: How Crop Development has Evolved. Nature Education Knowledge 3(3):9