Plant biotechnology uses living things to help improve a plant’s potential. Farmers face a lot of challenges when growing their crops. They have a variety of tools to help protect their plants, and biotechnology is one of them. The way it works is a few genes that contain certain traits – like those that influence better insect or weed control, drought tolerance, or pest resistance – are transferred into the plant. At Monsanto, we transfer genes using a common agrobacterium which performs the same process in nature. The plants that are grown using this process are also known as genetically-modified organisms (GMOs).
The word “technology” often conjures images of machines, but it’s really just another way of talking about tools. Biotechnology isn’t new; it’s been around for a long time. Biological organisms have been used as problem-solving tools by humans for thousands of years. One of the earliest and most prevalent examples is the use of yeast to make bread and beer.
Biotechnology is also used in medicine. For example, since as early as the mid-20th century, penicillin has been made with modified mold. And biotechnology is also used to create life-saving insulin for diabetics. The gene that creates human insulin is inserted into yeast, which rapidly reproduces to create large quantities of insulin. For more information about this topic, and additional information about biotechnology, GMO Answers is a good resource.
What’s with the hype?
In the early 1980s, scientists discovered a way to speed up the plant development process. Instead of using traditional cross-breeding methods, they figured out how to precisely identify which genes do what, and how to transfer beneficial genes into a new plant.
Up until that point, the method of moving selected characteristics from one plant to another – cross-breeding - was mostly accomplished through trial and error. Scientists would cross two plants and hope the traits they desired would be present in the offspring. But the new precise method shaved years – sometimes decades – off the process of improving plant varieties. This means scientists were able to cultivate better seeds by producing plants that could, for example, resist disease, insect pressure, drought, or confer tolerance to herbicides, all of which ultimately help farmers produce better harvests. This is important if we want to make food accessible for a growing population.