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Agricultural Biotechnology

Techniques, Advantages, ConcernsRegulations

Biotechnology is the use of living organisms—microbes, plants, or animals—to provide useful new products or processes. In a broad sense, biotechnology continues a process that is thousands of years old. Using traditional plant breeding techniques, humans have altered the genetic composition of almost every crop by only planting seeds from plants with desired traits, or by controlling pollination. As a result, most commercial crops bear little resemblance to their early relatives. Current maize varieties are so changed from their wild progenitors that they cannot survive without continual human intervention.

The 1970s heralded recombinant DNA technology, which gave researchers the ability to cut and recombine DNA fragments from different sources to express new traits. Genes and traits previously unavailable through traditional breeding became available through DNA recombination.

To address these concerns, agricultural biotechnology products are regulated by a combination of three federal agencies: the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Together, these agencies assess genetically modified crops, as well as products that use those crops. They test the crops and products for safety to humans and to the environment, and for their efficacy and quality.

Barbara Emberson Soots


Ferber, Dan. "Risks and Benefits: GM Crops in the Cross Hairs." Science 286 (1999): 1662-1666.

Internet Resources

Agricultural Biotechnology. U.S. Department of Agriculture. <http://www.usda.gov/agencies/biotech>.

Transgenic Plants and World Agriculture. Royal Society of London, U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Brazilian Academy of Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Indian National Science Academy, Mexican Academy of Sciences, and Third World Academy of Sciences. <http://stills.nap.edu/html/transgenic>.

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaGenetics in Medicine - Part 1