Benefits and Risks of Biotechnology
Debates concerning the environmental, health, social and ethical implications of the increased use of biotechnology are on the rise. Concerns about the continued use of fossil fuel and the associated pollution and climate change issues, have led to debates about the benefits and risks of using biotechnology. Here is a brief summary.
The benefits of using biotechnology to genetically modify organisms in crops has converted non-productive toxic soils in developing countries to productive arable land. Biotechnology thus creates an abundant and economical food supply for the world. Specific plants can be modified to add essential amino acids, vitamins, or desirable fatty acids, which helps deal with malnutrition in parts of the world. Fresh fruits and vegetables also have an improved shelf life, reducing waste.
More environmentally friendly agricultural practices through improved pesticides and pesticide usage practices leads to less hazardous animal wastes, improved utilization of land and reduced need for ecologically sensitive land such as rain forests. Farmers and producers are now able to grow crops with an increased resistance to insects, tolerance to herbicides and virus-resistant crops and herbicides that are less harmful to the environment.
Researchers have also proposed “gene drives” that spread a genetic modification through a population in the wild, so it could be possible, for example, to make mosquitoes unable to transmit Malaria.
Health and medical benefits through biotechnology has come through the development of functional foods, vaccines, and similar products that can provide health and medical benefits. Edible vaccines and therapeutics for preventing and treating diseases, including research into vaccines against cancer, hepatitis and diabetes will likely become commercially successful.
Biotechnology has enabled food to be modified to reduce allergenicity. Biotechnology has already been used to dramatically reduce the levels of the major rice allergen. Similar approaches are being attempted with more common allergenic foods such as peanuts.
Genetic modifications may disrupt existing ecosystems in unforeseen ways. Modification of human genes could alter the very meaning of humanity. The now easy re-engineering of human pathogens could lead to deliberate or accidental release of hugely destructive pathogens.
The appropriate use of land and water resources is an issue that has arisen from the development of industrial bioproducts. Good arable land is limited, and the question is whether we can grow crops for industry and still have enough land available to grow food. Changes in the way land and water are currently used may carry risks to the environment and those who use it. Herbicide resistant weeds, wild herbs and pests may develop in the same field where the desired crops are produced and pose a serious threat to the environment.
Inadequate patent laws and biotechnology regulations ensure that large corporations, rather than rural communities and developing nations involved in the production of biomass raw materials, will disproportionately control and benefit from the development of bioproduct technologies.
We still do not know the consequence of plant gene incorporations as a long term effect on human health.