What Is Food Biotechnology?

Mary McMahon

Food biotechnology is the application of science to the improvement of food production. As soon as humans started engaging in selective breeding of plants and animals, they were practicing biotechnology. In the modern era, this science is complex and includes tools like genetic modification to ensure reliable and desired outcomes. Private companies, government agencies, and educational institutions all have an interest in this topic.

Food biotechnology companies claim that genetically modifying crops will reduce the chances of famine in developing areas.
Food biotechnology companies claim that genetically modifying crops will reduce the chances of famine in developing areas.

One use of food biotechnology is in the production of better crops. These include crops with larger fruits, seeds, and other usable components as well as higher yields. An example can be seen with corn. Corn's closest wild ancestor is an unremarkable grass with minimal nutritional benefits. Modern corn strains can grow extremely quickly, produce large and numerous ears, and offer a variety of nutritional benefits, depending on the strain.

Food biotechnology can help supply necessary vitamins to impoverished regions.
Food biotechnology can help supply necessary vitamins to impoverished regions.

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Plants and animals alike can be modified with food biotechnology to improve yields and make harvests easier. For example, field crops can be bred or engineered for machine harvesting so farmhands do not need to manually pick. This can cut down on production costs, increase safety for workers, and improve yields. Likewise, animals may be bred to mature quickly and produce large amounts of meat or milk.

Corn can be modified with food biotechnology to improve yields and make harvests easier.
Corn can be modified with food biotechnology to improve yields and make harvests easier.

Crops can also be modified to add nutrients, a practice used with some strains of rice developed to address famine. They include vitamins not usually present in rice to reduce the risk of vitamin deficiencies in impoverished populations. Food biotechnology can involve the development of pesticide, herbicide, and pest resistance in crops to reduce losses and allow farmers to chemically treat crops for better control. This may require genetic engineering in a lab in some cases to achieve the necessary traits.

Some food biotechnology is not directly food related, but does involve agricultural crops. Pharmaceutical companies can use genetic engineering to force plants to produce useful compounds, for example. Similarly, grains like corn can be engineered to produce higher loads of oils and other compounds that are useful in industrial production. Crops used to make biofuels, for instance, may be engineered to provide a higher yield per acre of usable material.

The applications of food biotechnology are many. This science is also a subject of controversy in some regions. Genetic engineering of plants and animals raises ethical concerns for some communities. Some organizations have also raised medical worries, concerned that there may be hidden health impacts from the use of genetically engineered organisms.

Kiwis, oranges and other fruits have been genetically engineered to be resistant to certain herbicides.
Kiwis, oranges and other fruits have been genetically engineered to be resistant to certain herbicides.

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