Frequently Asked Questions
Frequently Asked Questions about Agricultural Biotechnology
- What is agricultural biotechnology?
- Is biotechnology fundamentally different from other plant breeding techniques, and does it pose unacceptable risks?
- Are crops developed using biotechnology as safe for the environment as crops developed using traditional breeding practices?
- Are food crops produced using biotechnology as safe to eat as food crops produced using traditional plant breeding practices?
- Are the products of agricultural biotechnology regulated?
- What are examples of agricultural biotechnology products currently available?
- Have farmers adopted new crop varieties developed using biotechnology?
- Does biotechnology benefit America's agricultural economy?
- Can agriculture biotechnology assist in meeting the food demands of a growing global population?
- What is "golden rice," and can it be an effective means to prevent vitamin deficiency?
- What are the international-trade issues affecting biotechnology food products?
- What are the issues regarding intellectual property and agricultural biotechnology?
Agricultural biotechnology is an advanced technology that enables plant breeders to make precise genetic changes to impart beneficial traits to the crop plants we rely on for food and fiber.
For centuries, farmers and plant breeders have labored to improve crop plants. Traditional breeding methods include selecting and sowing the seeds from the strongest, most desirable plants to produce the next generation of crops. By selecting and breeding plants with characteristics such as higher yield, resistance to pests and hardiness, early farmers dramatically changed the genetic make-up of crop plants long before the science of genetics was understood. As a result, most of today's crop plants bear little resemblance to their wild ancestors.
The tools of modern biotechnology enable plant breeders to select genes that produce beneficial traits and move them from one organism to another. This process is far more precise and selective than crossbreeding, which involves the transfer of tens of thousands of genes, and provides plant developers with a more detailed knowledge of the changes being made.
The ability to introduce genetic material from other plants and organisms opens up a world of possibilities to benefit food production. As an example, "Bt" crops that are protected against insect damage contain selected genes found in the common soil bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis. The Bt genes contain information that the plant uses to produce a protein toxic to the larvae of certain plant pests but that is safe for humans, animals and other insects. Pest-protected Bt plants stop these insects from eating and destroying the plant, which improves yields and reduces the need for pesticide applications, saving the farmer time and money. Organic farmers use this same Bt to protect their crops from insects.
Is biotechnology fundamentally different from other plant breeding techniques, and does it pose unacceptable risks?
No. Biotechnology is a refinement of breeding techniques that have been used to improve plants for thousands of years. The 20th century, in particular, saw the development and application of many new techniques to transfer genes between related and even unrelated species for crop improvement. Biotechnology is the latest in a long line of increasingly powerful tools for enhancing crops.
Many scientific groups have concluded that the risks associated with crop plants developed using biotechnology are the same as those for similar varieties developed using traditional breeding methods. In a 1987 report, the National Academy of Sciences (part of what is now called the National Academies) determined that "There is no evidence that unique hazards exist either in the use of r-DNA techniques or in transfer of genes between unrelated organisms. The risks associated with the introduction of r-DNA organisms are the same in kind as those associated with the introduction in the environment of unmodified organisms and organisms modified by other genetic techniques." Subsequent reports by the National Academies and other scientific bodies have reaffirmed this view. This scientific consensus continues to inform the U.S. regulatory policy, which focuses primarily on the characteristics of the new crop variety, not the method used to produce it.
Are crops developed using biotechnology as safe for the environment as crops developed using traditional breeding practices?
Yes. Extensive scientific evaluation worldwide has not found any examples of ecological damage from biotechnology crops. Many published studies-from the National Academies, the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation, the Council on Agricultural Science and Technology, and others-have arrived at the same conclusion: Biotechnology-derived crops pose no unique risks to the environment, compared with similar crops produced using traditional techniques.
To ensure that the new plant is safe for the environment, extensive field-testing is conducted under USDA and EPA oversight. To date, there have been no instances in which a biotechnology-derived plant approved for field-testing either created an environmental hazard or exhibited any unpredictable behavior, compared with similar crops modified using traditional methods.
In fact, agricultural biotechnology has tremendous potential to reduce the environmental impact of farming. Current crops designed to resist pests and tolerate herbicides have already cut chemical usage on farms significantly, and the herbicide-tolerance trait promotes conservation practices, such as like no-tillage farming, that reduce soil erosion, prevent water loss, and even limit release of greenhouse gases.
Future crops designed to tolerate environmental stresses, such as salty or toxic soils, drought, and freezing temperatures, will make agriculture more efficient and sustainable by producing more food and fiber on less land – and using less water. These and other traits also will allow farmers to bring currently nonarable land into production, reducing the pressure to convert threatened ecosystems, such as rainforests, to farmland. Biotechnology can also be used to produce renewable plant-based energy and industrial products and biological agents to clean up contaminated soils.
Are foods produced using biotechnology as safe to eat as foods produced using traditional plant-breeding practices?
Yes. For over two decades, the products of biotechnology have been assessed for safety using science-based regulatory and nonregulatory mechanisms developed over the last half century for all crop plants. Biotechnology plants and foods are among the most tested in history.
A number of prestigious U.S. and international scientific bodies - including the U.S. National Academies of Science, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the American Medical Association, the American Dietetic Association, the Council on Agricultural Science and Technology, the Institute for Food Technologists, the International Council for Science and the British Medical Association – have determined that biotech crops are as safe as similar crops improved through traditional and organic breeding methods.
In fact, because scientists know more about the changes being made using biotechnology, these foods may be even safer than conventional foods. The precision of biotechnology puts plant developers and regulators in a better position to address safety that cannot be addressed for products of conventional breeding, which involves the uncontrolled crossing of tens of thousands of uncharacterized genes.
Federal regulatory agencies also ensure the safety of biotechnology foods. To date, no approved biotechnology food has harmed human health.
Yes. The U.S. regulatory system, which enjoys a high degree of public confidence, employs rigorous scientific reviews within a transparent decision-making framework open to public participation. This regulatory approach provides full access to documents on which decisions are based and is carried out completely in the public eye as required by law. The science-based U.S. regulatory system has helped ensure that biotechnology products are safe for producers, consumers, and the environment.
Biotechnology products in the United States are regulated according to a system, the Coordinated Framework, established by the Office of Science and Technology Policy in 1986. Deriving its mandate from existing laws regulating food safety and agriculture, the Coordinated Framework assigns lead responsibility for biotechnology products to the appropriate regulatory agency and sets out principles for cooperative reviews in areas where responsibilities or authorities overlap. The regulation of agricultural biotechnology products is handled by three agencies:
- U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service - APHIS oversees the field-testing of biotechnology-derived plants as "regulated articles" to ensure that the environment is protected. A petition for nonregulated status must be granted by APHIS prior to commercial growth and sale of any bioengineered crop.
- The Environmental Protection Agency - The EPA is responsible for ensuring that pest-resistant biotech varieties are safe to grow and consume. It regulates environmental exposure to these crops to ensure there are no adverse environmental effects. The agency also regulates bioengineered microorganisms under the Toxic Substances Control Act.
- Food and Drug Administration, Center for Food Safety and Nutrition - The FDA’s CFSN imposes on foods developed through biotechnology the same regulatory requirements it uses to safeguard all foods in the marketplace. The FDA has both pre-market and post-market authority to regulate the safety and labeling of all foods and animal feed. Foods from biotechnology are judged on their individual safety and nutrition, not the methods used to produce them. Under federal law, the producer of a food is legally required to ensure its safety for consumers, and FDA may pull from the market any foods found to be unsafe. Since 1992, FDA has used a voluntary review process for biotechnology foods. Over 100 such products have been reviewed, and none has been found to pose a safety concern.
The first effort at marketing a crop modified through biotechnology occurred in 1989, when Calgene Corporation obtained approval for its Flavr Savr tomato, engineered to provide extended shelf life. The Flavr Savr is no longer on the market, but a number of crops have been developed offering a wide variety of enhanced traits. Crops designed to resist insects and viral pests or to tolerate broad-spectrum herbicides account for most of the biotechnology crops available commercially.
Bt corn and cotton plants incorporate selected genes from the widely used biological control agent Bacillus thuringiensis to resist destructive insects such as the European corn borer and pink bollworm. Bt sprays have been used to combat these pests for many years. The Bt genes allow the crop to produce a protein within the plant that helps it resist certain specific insects, eliminating the need to spray for these pests. The protein has no effect on other animals or humans.
Soybean, corn, canola and other crop plants have been modified to tolerate safe, broad-spectrum herbicides. Putting herbicide tolerance into the plants allows farmers to use weed controls more selectively. Rather than applying herbicide broadly before planting, farmers can wait until after the crop emerges and then apply herbicides only where and in the quantities needed.
Some plants that have been modified to resist viral infection. Virus-resistant plants currently in production in this country inlcude crookneck squash and papaya. These plants resist viruses through a mechanism known as cross-protection, which is somewhat similar to immunization. Farmers growing these plants are able to reduce pesticide applications to control virus-carrying insects.
Yes. Farmers have embraced crops enhanced through biotechnology because they provide value and solve real problems. U.S. farmers in particular have taken advantage of this new technology. The USDA estimates that in 2012, farmers in the United States planted biotech varieties of soybeans, corn and cotton on 168 million acres of land. This includes:
- 93 percent of all soybeans planted, on 71 million acres;
- 88 percent of all corn planted, on 85 million acres;
- 94 percent of all upland cotton planted, on 12 million acres.
Worldwide, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), global use of biotech crops increased again in 2012, with acreage reaching a new high of 420 million acres in 28 countries, an increase of six percent from 2011, when 395 million acres of biotech crops were grown around the world.
As of 2012, approximately 17.3 million farmers around the world have chosen biotech crops because of the significant socioeconomic, environmental, and agricultural benefits they provide. Of those 17.3 million farmers, more 15 million are resource-poor smallholders in the developing world.
Yes. Farmers have adopted biotechnology products because they deliver value by reducing operating and input expenses and by reducing the environmental impact of farming.
Biotech varieties of corn, cotton, and soybeans have significantly reduced use of pesticides and allowed more targeted use of relatively benign herbicides. They have boosted yields and saved growers billions of dollars. Biotech crops have helped the United States enhance farm income by $35 billion from 1996, when they were first commercialized, through 2010 (Brookes and Barfoot, 2012). And in 2011 the global market value of biotech crops was an estimated US $13.2 billion (ISAAA 2011 Report).
Yes. Agricultural biotechnology can be a key element in the fight against hunger and malnutrition in the developing world.
Today, an estimated 800 million people do not have access to sufficient supplies of food. By 2050, the global population is expected to reach 9 billion people, putting a further strain on food supplies. But while world population is expected to grow rapidly, particularly in developing countries, the amount of available agricultural land is limited. Only 10 percent of the world's land surface is arable, and over-farming and soil erosion are growing problems in some areas.
To overcome these dynamics, farmers will need to find ways to grow more food using less land. The National Academies and six other international scientific organizations recently issued a report discussing the role of biotechnology in meeting global food needs. It concluded that, "GM technology, coupled with important developments in other areas, should be used to increase the production of main food staples, improve the efficiency of production, reduce the environmental impact of agriculture, and provide access to food for small-scale farmers." Other groups-including the International Food Policy Research Institute, Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and Nuffield Council on Bioethics-have issued similar findings.
Biotechnology already is beginning to make a contribution. For example:
- "Golden rice," enriched with beta carotene, the precursor to vitamin A, can help combat vitamin-A deficiency, a major cause of blindness in the developing world. (A similar strain of rice has been enriched with iron to ward off anemia.). A "golden mustard" also may yield beta carotene-enriched cooking oil. New varieties of corn, sorghum and wheat are being developed to provide more lysine, an important dietary protein.
- "Pharma foods" are being developed that may help prevent or cure diseases such as cholera and diarrhea, leading causes of infant mortality in developing countries.
- Plants that resist viral pests, such as a new variety of African sweet potato that wards off the feathery mottle virus, can improve yields of important staple crops.
- Foods with extended shelf lives can reduce food losses caused by spoilage.
- Plants that are able to thrive in salty or marginal soils will increase the areas available for farming in many regions of the world.
These are just a few examples of what biotechnology can do to improve the lives of people in the developing world. While not a total solution, biotechnology can play an important role in helping developing countries achieve food security.
Vitamin-A deficiency is a serious condition that can lead to blindness and increase susceptibility to infectious agents. It affects millions of people worldwide, primarily in developing countries where rice is a dietary staple.
Using biotechnology techniques, scientists have developed a new strain of rice, called golden rice, that naturally produces beta-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A. Golden rice can provide enough beta-carotene to make up vitamin-A deficiencies in the diets of poor children, and it can also increase the amount of vitamin A in breast milk, an important source of nutrition for infants. Further, scientists have enriched the same strain of rice with additional iron to combat anemia, which affect hundreds of millions of the world's poor.
While the science has repeatedly demonstrated that foods produced through biotechnology are as safe as conventional foods, approval of these foods in some overseas markets has been slow in coming. Despite the growing acceptance of biotech foods and their history of safe use in the United States, certain countries-including the United Kingdom, France and other members of the European Union-have not yet approved these crops to be planted or purchased from another country.
Many variables have worked to slow the acceptance of biotech crops. For instance, Europeans have a strong cultural tie to food and resist any perceived change. Also, many countries have not enjoyed a reliable regulatory environment like that in the United States. Outbreaks of mad cow and hoof-and-mouth diseases in the United Kingdom, contaminated soft drinks in Belgium and HIV-tainted blood supplies in France are just some of the problems that have made citizens in other nations, especially Europe, wary of any government agency's claims that a new technology is safe. This has led some countries to reject the risk-based approach followed in the United States and adopt the precautionary principle, which could delay a new technology on the basis of improbable hypothetical risks. And in some instances, ostensible concern over biotechnology is being used to promote protectionist policies that aim to shut out American products from overseas markets, in direct contradiction of World Trade Organization guidelines.
All new crop varieties that meet the criteria of the federal Plant Variety Protection Act-whether produced by conventional means or biotechnology-are eligible for intellectual property rights protection. To receive protection, the new variety must be distinct from other varieties and genetically uniform and stable through successive generations. The length of protection is 20 years for most crop plants.
Researching and bringing a plant biotechnology product to market takes several years and tens of millions of dollars. As with any industry that requires such extraordinary investment, it is crucial that biotechnology companies be able to recoup their initial investment and continue the research and development of new products that benefit the public. Intellectual property rights also enable companies to be more effective in ensuring that their products are used responsibly.