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Biotechnology in the 21st Century

By Mary Schuler

The new millennium that is now officially under 
way will be a period of both enormous opportunity 
and immense challenge for humanity. Technological 
advances in medicine, computers, agriculture and 
a dozen other fields hold tremendous potential 
to improve our lives and broaden our horizons.  
At the same time, global issues such as hunger, 
poverty and environmental concerns are sobering
reminders that we must continue to seek out 
innovative solutions to these age-old problems. 
Nowhere do these opportunities and challenges 
converge more clearly than in one of the most 
thrilling fields of the 21st century: 

Agricultural biotechnology - advanced plant 
breeding techniques that allow researchers to 
identify and transfer specific genes that create 
desired traits in plants - has its origins with 
the earliest farmers, who for generations have 
employed selective breeding, cross-breeding and,
more recently, hybridization techniques to 
improve the genetic characteristics of their
crops.  Today, biotechnology takes that science 
one step further, enabling researchers to 
pinpoint precise, safe genetic changes in 

And thatís where 21st Century opportunities and 
challenges converge.

One of the most pressing challenges humanity 
faces is how to feed a rapidly growing world 
population on a shrinking supply of farmland. 
Global population could top 8 billion by 2030, 
with most of that growth occurring in the 
poorest areas of the developing world. The
United Nations estimates that 800 million 
people worldwide, many of them children, 
are already chronically malnourished.

Of course, these are complex problems, and
biotechnology cannot solve them alone.  
But it can help -- and in many areas, it 
already is.

Researchers are using the tools of biotechnology 
to produce strains of rice and other biotech 
crops that are fortified with more beta-carotene,
which the body converts to Vitamin A.  These 
crops could potentially help combat Vitamin A 
deficiency - a leading cause of blindness in 
developing countries.  Other dietary staples - 
like bananas - could one day be used to deliver 
vaccines against deadly diseases, helping to 
overcome problems like lack of refrigeration 
and medical personnel that plague developing 
countries today.

Researchers are also exploring the use of 
biotechnology to protect crops against pests 
and disease.  In Kenya, research is under 
way on a sweet potato - a critical dietary
staple in Africa - that protects itself 
against a devastating plant virus.  In the 
United States, farmers have planted millions 
of acres of biotech corn, cotton and potatoes 
that produce their own natural protection 
against pests, reducing crop losses and cutting 

In the future, biotechnology could help farmers 
grow more food on the same land, even in tough 
conditions like drought or extreme heat.  As 
a result, biotechnology could help reduce the 
need to cut down rain forests or other 
ecologically sensitive lands to grow food.

And thatís just one of the many benefits 
biotechnology offers for protecting the 
environment in the 21st century.  Crops are 
also under development that require less 
tilling, helping to preserve precious 
topsoil and reduce farm runoff into streams 
and rivers. And biotechnology may one day 
provide us with new sources of energy or 
ways to reduce pollution, producing plants 
that help reduce our dependence on 
non-renewable resources such as oil 
and natural gas. 

Consumers worldwide will see biotechnologyís 
promise at the grocery store too.  By 
enhancing certain genetic characteristics, 
everyday produce can be fortified with more
vitamins and minerals.  A tomato now under 
development, for example, contains more of 
an anti-oxidant that has been linked to a
reduced risk for cancer and heart disease.  
Other produce is being developed to taste 
better or stay fresh longer.  And scientists 
are also exploring methods for removing 
the proteins that cause allergies to certain
foods, like peanuts and rice.

Scientists and regulators work together 
to make sure these potential benefits - 
and many more, like naturally decaffeinated 
coffee or a flower whose honey would deliver 
medicine - are safe.  Biotechnology crops 
are exhaustively researched before they 
ever come to market.  The U.S. Food and 
Drug Administration, Environmental Protection 
Agency and Department of Agriculture hold 
biotechnology products to the same strict 
standards as every other product on the market.

In laboratories, on farms and at grocery 
stores across the world, the old and new 
- and the challenges and opportunities 
of the new millennium - are converging 
to make the promise of biotechnology 
a reality.

Mary Schuler
Year 2000 President 
Women Involved In Farm Economics(WIFE) 


Boomers International - Worldwide Communities

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