What is Biotechnology?
Biotechnology is a vast and ever-growing field that merges the concept of biology with the fundamentals of technology for the benefit of mankind. The concept of biotechnology began back in the 1970s when genetic engineering was developed, which allowed scientists to alter the genetic material of our cells by manipulating the basic DNA structures.
DNA carries the genetic information of living organisms. This information gives every organism unique features and characteristics. The field of biotechnology can be broken down into four distinct categories which are Medicine, Marine, Industrial and most importantly, Agricultural. Scientists were able to figure out how to isolate and move specific genes from plant or animal to another for human benefits. Since then, there has been rapid advancement in the field of biotechnology.
The primary aim of biotechnology is the advancement and betterment of the human population and its ability to fulfill that aim is its major advantage. Biotechnology has helped in producing better medicines and vaccines to combat pathogens, high-yield crops that are easily harvested and can be grown in a variety of climates; Vitamin A enriched rice and more.
However, there are some issues with biotechnology which has raised concerns. Most of these concerns have to do with exploiting biotechnology for illegal practices. Some outright find the use of biotechnology as unethical, especially in the context of “designer babies”.
Due to these reasons and more, some of the practices of biotechnology are being constantly regulated or have been outright banned, such as ‘human cloning’. Some also feel that biotechnology can help further propagate bio-warfare. They might not be wrong, considering Coronavirus that caused a pandemic is claimed to be man-made.
Now we will look at Pros and Cons of biotechnology in detail and how they can affect the world we live in.
Advantages of Biotechnology
1. Improvement in Nutritional Quality of Crops
Since the start of biotechnology, crops have been improved in the aspect of their nutritional quantity and quality. Crops are enhanced with important nutrients and vitamins providing the consumer with much-needed nutritional benefits for a healthy and balanced diet. This has improved the dietary quality of food resulting from biotechnology practices. Eating a diet that fulfills all the nutritional needs also helps to take care of malnourished children in remote areas. Nutritionally-enhanced diet will allow the food security organizations to distribute food in smaller quantities to a greater number of people. This is because a person can then eat less and still be able to receive the right amount of nutrition.
2. Crop Growth is Improved
There are many regions around the world which, either due to the lack of land fertility or due to the horrid climate; cannot support the growth of certain crop species. Biotechnology has helped in addressing this situation by creating seeds of crop species that ignore the conventional climate and growing seasons allowing crop growth to occur in drought conditions year round. This resulted in plants and trees growing in areas where plant growth was thought to be very difficult. This has led to an increase in the growth of crops as farmers revitalized their lands. This has made it possible to harvest more food throughout the world, which brings us to the next advantage of biotechnology, Increased food security!
3. Reduction in Worldwide Hunger – Improves food Security
The importance of biotechnology cannot be emphasized enough. The global famine has clouded over the planet making it difficult for all humans to be adequately fed. This may be due to the local scarcity of food or because staple crops can’t be grown in a specific environment which is far away from other sources of food. Biotechnology has helped reduce the global famine by increasing the availability of food, allowing different crop species to be grown in conditions that weren’t previously possible.
It is a blessing for the developing and poorer countries of our planets as they can now grow and harvest crops in their region reducing the famine rates and malnutrition within their region. The improvement in the economy of Third World countries has also led to reduced poverty levels and improved food security.
4. Minimal use of Pesticides on Farms
Use of Pesticides, Herbicides and other chemicals are a feature of every agricultural land. They are used to protect the plant species from being invaded by pests and weeds; and also to produce a yield of crops that is much superior leading to high business returns for farmers. However, the use of pesticides and other various chemicals can make the crops contaminated with these additives which, upon consumption by humans, can cause various illnesses.
Furthermore, the chemicals can contaminate nearby water bodies which can affect marine life and other organisms’ drinking water from these sources. The use of biotech to make plant species resistant to certain parasites and pests helps to nullify all these issues. This is allowing farmers to reduce the use of pesticides as farmers can depend on these genetically modified pesticide-resistant crop species to produce an excellent yield throughout the year without being reliant on chemicals.
You can read more on the Effects, Pros and Cons of Agricultural Biotechnology as well!
5. More power to farmers-Economic Growth
Improvement of crops and their ability to be grown in a wide variety of seasons has allowed farmers to earn much more than they previously could. Less money is spent on the use of pesticides and other synthetic chemicals due to the use of pest-resistant crops. The farmers can earn throughout the year, and harvest a yield that is superior in quality and nutritional value allowing them to sell at a good price.
Not only quality, but quantity is also improved due to higher yields. This has allowed farmers to expend on their agricultural land, improving it using the profits they are generating. Many farmers and their farms have been reinvigorated since the inception of biotech allowing them to carry on agriculture, even improving the possibility that their future generations may also be able to carry this on.
6. Preservation of Resources
Biotechnology has increased the lifespan of our food supplies. It has also increased the preservation lifespan of salting food along with use of freezing and drying of food products. The crops and food products have an extended expiry date, as the crops are more resistant to ripening than they previously were.
7. Elimination and minimizing waste products
The carbon footprint being left by humans is quite extensive. In 2006, USA produced 251 million tons of trash which is equivalent to five pounds of trash per day! Biotechnology helps to create biodegradable products which don’t have that much of an environmental footprint as of conventional products.
Products such as biodegradable plastics have been very helpful in reducing land pollution and number of landfills due to reduced use of regular plastics. Biodegradable plastics decompose and get absorbed into the natural environment.
It is also beneficial that while they decompose, they don’t cause any harmful effects to the surrounding soil. The creation of biodegradable materials from biotechnology has helped humans to more efficient in managing landfills. The diversion from conventional plastics has considerably reduced the carbon footprint of the planet.
8. Genetic Screening
Biotechnology has allowed more efficient detection of genetic abnormalities by making it easier to genetically screen vulnerable and high-risk groups for the threat of developing inherited diseases. This can be done through the use of the maternal or paternal chromosome to predict the likelihood of the newborn having congenital abnormalities. Genetic screening uses chromosomes, genes, or proteins to identify these abnormalities.
9. Drug Designing
New innovative drugs have been manufactured through the use of biotechnology, which were previously considered impossible. Synthetic human insulin is one of the most common examples where using biotechnology through genetic engineering of the bacterium E.Coli; scientists have been able to make a vast amount of synthetic human insulin at a low cost and treat diabetic patients.
History of Insulin (Hallmark of Biotech);
Insulin is considered to be the hallmark of biotechnology in the 20th century. You see people with diabetes did not often survive long enough and the only thing they could do was to adhere to bizarre diet restrictions. Even that spared them a year or two! Around 1889, while experimenting on dogs two German researchers found out that there was a ‘pancreatic substance’, which once removed, led to severe diabetes in dogs. In 1910, Edward Albert Sharpey-Shafer suggested that ‘pancreatic substance’ was a single chemical which he decided to call it Insulin. Two surgeons achieved isolation of Insulin from the dog’s pancreas in 1921. However, a refined form of Insulin was manufactured using Insulin from cattle in the following year. Such insulin made from pigs and cattle continued on to be used for decades by most of the diabetics! However, even after purifying Insulin from cows and pigs, there were still a high number of allergic reactions to it. The first synthetically engineered ‘Human Insulin’ through biotech was made using E.Coli in 1978. Eli Lilly was the first one to place biotechnologically engineered insulin on the markets under the name Humulin around 1982.
Other than insulin, the cost and manufacturing of some drugs have been significantly reduced due to use of Biotech, since these drugs are being synthetically produced without any limitations.
10. Human Genome Project (HGP) (1990-2003)
Using biotechnology, scientists began the Human Genome Project with the objective of mapping out the entire genome of humans by determining base pairs which make up the human DNA. It was the world’s largest collaborative science project. This project was vital as it became easier for us to identify disease progression and pathophysiology making it easier for us to treat these diseases.
For example, we can enter the genome of a fetus and identify the gene which predisposes the baby to cancer, and parents can then choose to have it removed. This brings us to the next advantage of biotech, designer babies.
11. Designer baby as Biotech Applications
This is a term used very commonly when referring to or talking about biotechnology. Biotechnology has made it easier to identify and treat inherited diseases by causing the alteration of the genome (DNA) of the child before it is born.
This way the child is born free of inherited abnormalities which may have caused difficulties throughout her life. Parents can specifically detect and identify genes and eventual physical characteristics they want to alter so they can have their ‘designer baby’.
Disadvantages of Biotechnology
12. Blight in Crops
The implementation of biotechnology has led to unfortunate development of blight in crops. Blight is a type of condition where there is chlorosis (loss of chlorophyll-green color) of leaves. This may lead to withering, or death of tubers and leaves since the plant would not be able to carry out adequate photosynthesis.
13. Lack of Genetic Diversity
Biotechnology, although beneficial in terms of crop yield and production, offers no genetic diversity within populations. This genetic diversity is very crucial in the long-term survival of plant and animal species. Larger the gene pool, the greater the chance that a particular species can survive due to its ability to cope with environmental changes and other pathogens.
If something unpredictable was to occur, an entire crop or all species can be driven towards extinction! If there is genetic diversity, there would at least be one species capable of resisting that unpredictable change!
14. Loss of Soil Fertility
Bio-enhanced crops can soak out a lot of nutrients and vitamins from the soil. This high amount of activity can threaten the fertility of the soil making it difficult for future crops to be properly grown and harvested.
The soil needs ample time to regain its fertility; otherwise it can have detrimental effects on the production of food. The excessive drain of nutrients from the soil leads to farmers opting fertilizers which may be very detrimental in the long run.
15. A Field of Uncertainty
Although, over the past few decades we have learned and discovered a lot concerning biotechnology, we still have many concerns which haven’t been answered. What will occur if we mess with the genetics to treat diseases, can we develop super-bugs? What will happen to the environment if crops are genetically altered? Should these actions have negative consequences, coming generations will be paying the price for our actions.
Even right now, as the Coronavirus rampages across the world as a Pandemic, there is a wide number of people who believe that it may have been sourced from genetic engineering. They may not be wrong!
16. Human life may become a commodity!
Complementary DNA, also known as cDNA which is genetically engineered, is an entity that can be patented. Obtaining such DNA and altered DNA sequences which can be sold as a profit opens the door to many ethical questions concerning human life. It also highlights the immorality associated with the purpose of making money off of human lives, like ‘playing god’. As of now, the USA Supreme Court has thus barred DNA manipulation and its products to be patented.
17. Gene Manipulation
The knowledge that genes can be manipulated to produce enhanced animals, humans, and plants has led to humans using such methods more frequently out of greed. The use of biotechnology to make children better with the parent’s preferred phenotype has become common, even if they are not at risk of developing any underlying diseases. This has led to the banning of designer babies in countries such as the United Kingdom.
18. Costs – Quite Expensive
Biotechnology is very costly in the world of medicine and it can be very tricky to balance out the benefits and costs of biotechnology. So far most of the products of biotechnology are overly expensive and less practical than the currently available chemical drug alternatives.
Maybe when these biotechnological advancements are made in bulk, the cost may reduce significantly.
19. Reduction in Human Genetic Biodiversity
If we keep on changing the genes of humans to what we prefer them to be, eventually there will be no such thing as genetic diversity as we will be eradicating it. This will reduce the gene pool of humans in various populations and these populations will become susceptible to dangerous diseases that may cause widespread deaths.
See, right now we have sufficient genetic diversity which is why the Coronavirus Pandemic is much more hurtful to some populations as compared to others. But if all of us had the exact same ‘preferable’ genes, the whole world could’ve gotten sick!
20. Used for Destruction – Biowarfare (Coronavirus)
Yes, biotechnology is very beneficial for us, if it is in the right hands. It can be easily be used as a weapon of mass destruction by making poisonous crops, developing harmful and toxic medicines, and even weaponizing existing pathogens to become more infectious and considerably more dangerous.
Therefore, the governments all around the world must work in solidarity to keep constant surveillance of biotechnology around the world and prevent it from being used or being stolen by people that may have ill-fated ideas with it.
A highly believed conspiracy theory suggests that Coronavirus was made through genetic engineering and introduced through bats into the Chinese population. This suggests why surveillance on biotech should be increased to avoid unprecedented consequences like a Coronavirus Pandemic.
Conclusion- Should we Apply Biotechnology?
Considering these pros and cons of Biotechnology, it is imperative to say that Biotech is a very interesting field which could have far-reaching advantages. However, considering that even making a single mistake could be harmful to a number of generations ahead, scientists need to be extremely careful with applying biotechnology.
Biotechnology is obviously still in its infancy and can be used to make changes that may lead to the next big revolution, the pros and cons of every application of biotechnology should be weighed, not only 10, but a 100 times before a biotech product or application reaches the markets.