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Defining & Understanding Biotechnology: Wrapping Our Heads Around the Science May 24, 2013

By Julie Murphree, Arizona Farm Bureau

Still trying to get our arms around this thing called biotech? Biotechnology is big in agriculture. If it’s big in agriculture and other industries that impact us daily then it goes without saying that we should understand it better. So here’s my attempt.

By default, we “Google” things first. So, I did the same just to get the “Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia” version first.

Defining Biotech


Biotechnology is the use of living systems and organisms to develop or make useful products, or “any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use” (UN Convention on Biological Diversity).[1] Depending on the tools and applications, it often overlaps with the (related) fields of bioengineering and biomedical engineering.

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Image via CrunchBase


For thousands of years, humankind has used biotechnology in agriculture, food production and medicine.[2] The term itself is largely believed to have been coined in 1919 by Hungarian engineer Karl Ereky. In the late 20th and early 21st century, biotechnology has expanded to include new and diverse sciences such as genomics, recombinant gene technologies, applied immunology, and development of pharmaceutical therapies and diagnostic tests.[3]


Editorial: Did you catch Wikipedia’s comment: “For thousands of years, humankind has used biotechnology in agriculture, food production and medicine…” Interesting.



The use of living organisms or other biological systems in the manufacture of drugs or other products or for environmental management, as in waste recycling: includes the use of bioreactors in manufacturing, microorganisms to degrade oil slicks or organic waste, genetically engineered bacteria to produce human hormones, and monoclonal antibodies to identify antigens.



The manipulation (as through genetic engineering) of living organisms or their components to produce useful usually commercial products (as pest resistant crops, new bacterial strains, or novel pharmaceuticals); also: any of various applications of biological science used in such manipulation


Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN Defines “Agricultural Biotechnology” the following way:

Broadly speaking, biotechnology is any technique that uses living organisms or substances from these organisms to make or modify a product for a practical purpose. Biotechnology can be applied to all classes of organism ─ from viruses and bacteria to plants and animals ─ and it is becoming a major feature of modern medicine, agriculture and industry. Modern agricultural biotechnology includes a range of tools that scientists employ to understand and manipulate the genetic make-up of organisms for use in the production or processing of agricultural products.


Some applications of biotechnology, such as fermentation and brewing, have been used for millennia. Other applications are newer but also well established. For example, micro-organisms have been used for decades as living factories for the production of life-saving antibiotics including penicillin, from the fungus Penicillium, and streptomycin from the bacterium Streptomyces. Modern detergents rely on enzymes produced via biotechnology, hard cheese production largely relies on rennet produced by biotech yeast and human insulin for diabetics is now produced using biotechnology.


Biotechnology is being used to address problems in all areas of agricultural production and processing. This includes plant breeding to raise and stabilize yields; to improve resistance to pests, diseases and abiotic stresses such as drought and cold; and to enhance the nutritional content of foods. Biotechnology is being used to develop low-cost disease-free planting materials for crops such as cassava, banana and potato and is creating new tools for the diagnosis and treatment of plant and animal diseases and for the measurement and conservation of genetic resources. Biotechnology is being used to speed up breeding programmes for plants, livestock and fish and to extend the range of traits that can be addressed. Animal feeds and feeding practices are being changed by biotechnology to improve animal nutrition and to reduce environmental waste. Biotechnology is used in disease dagnostics and for the production of vaccines against animal diseases.


Clearly, biotechnology is more than genetic engineering. Indeed, some of the least controversial aspects of agricultural biotechnology are potentially the most powerful and the most beneficial for the poor. Genomics, for example, is revolutionizing our understanding of the ways genes, cells, organisms and ecosystems function and is opening new horizons for marker-assisted breeding and genetic resource management. At the same time, genetic engineering is a very powerful tool whose role should be carefully evaluated. It is important to understand how biotechnology – particularly genetic engineering – complements and extends other approaches if sensible decisions are to be made about its use.


Understanding Biotech

What Really Happens When we Ingest Foods Made from Biotech Crops?

So, I posed this question to two scientists. On source works for Monsanto and the other has no connection to either the organic food industry or any biotech organization (though he has an organic garden). This gives us a blend of two scientific experts on the subject.

Rich Deem is the founder and main contributor of Evidence for God from Science and is employed full-time as a scientist in molecular biology research at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Mr. Deem has no ties to either the organic food industry or companies that produce biotech crops. He does practice organic vegetable gardening as a hobby. Here’s what he says about GMO or biotech foods.

Daniel A. Goldstein, M.D. is medical toxicologist and director of Medical Sciences and Outreach for Monsanto.


What the Scientists Say


Mr. Deem

Can GMO Food Harm People? For a number of GM crops, the genes/gene products never enter the food supply, since those parts of the plants are removed during processing. For example, sugar from GM sugar beets is chemically identical to non-GM sugar. Likewise, oils purified from GM canola, soybean, cottonseed, and corn is identical to non-GM oils. Much of the corn crop is dedicated to generating ethanol, which, of course, is identical to non-GM ethanol. It has not been noted that ethanol from GM corn adversely affect automobile performance compared to non-GM ethanol. Genetically modified Bt cotton is worn, rather than ingested, and there have been no reports of adverse effects of wearing GM clothing. For GM crops in which whole plant cells are ingested, the genes and gene products are usually destroyed through digestion in the stomach and small intestine.So, it is unlikely, even in theory, that eating GM crops can harm human beings.



Dr. Goldstein

On Conventional and Biotech Crops: There are two kinds of possible “difference.”  Conventional and biotech crops are derived by a process, and both processes ultimately give rise to a crop variety with a unique genetic composition. The differences between biotech and conventional crops are all about process ─ how did we get to the genetic code of a crop planted in the field ─ not about nutritional value or safety. Conventional breeding relies on crossing compatible varieties to develop new genetic combinations which provide desired characteristics, and must rely on mutations which occur spontaneously (from cosmic rays, errors in copying, etc.) or are induced using chemicals or radiation to increase mutation rates. New combinations of genes and mutations have profoundly altered most food crops from their natural state ─ corn was once a stubby plant with wheat-sized “ears” and tiny kernels (teosinte), not the big ears munch on happily today. All of this took place, and still does take place, in the absence of safety testing (some exceptions for known plant toxins and anti-nutritional factors).


Conventional technology is inherently limited to genes from compatible species and to whatever mutations happen to occur in nature. Biotech crops take advantage of the fact that the genetic code is universal ─ a gene coding for a particular RNA and protein can be “read” by any living organism. This means we can choose genes wherever we find them, to confer whatever characteristics we may find useful. These genes can be inserted into crop plants in the laboratory.

The genes inserted in commercial biotech crops to date allow farmers to address very real needs in agricultural production ─ managing pest pressure from weeds and insect pests as well as plant viruses.

What stays the same? All plants contain a genetic code in the form of DNA, use DNA to make RNA, and translate some RNAs into proteins.  This does not change. There is nothing toxic about DNA or RNA ─ it is largely digested and used for energy or recycled to make new DNA and RNA. This is true for genes already in a particular crop as well as for genes we add. The proteins we insert are generally similar to existing dietary proteins (The gene we put into Roundup Ready ™ crops is similar to genes found across the plant and bacterial kingdoms and the genes we use for insect resistance come from bacterial strains that have been used for 50 years in organic and conventional agriculture).


Dr. Goldstein, medical toxicologist and director of Medical Sciences and Outreach for Monsanto.

What else stays the same? Nutritional value is unchanged, as established by extensive analysis of plant composition and by animal nutrition studies. (As nutritionally enhanced products come into the marketplace, appropriate safety assessment for nutritional impact on individuals and populations are performed.) The other thing that stays the same is safety: biotech crops are as safe as the conventional varieties from which they are derived. The American Medical Association (AMA) and American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) agree.

Keep in mind that results of conventional breeding are not subject to safety testing or risk assessment ─ we pretty much breed ‘em and eat ‘em. It’s been that way since gatherers first started accumulating seed and Mendel pioneered breeding. Also consider that the amount of change in gene expression between two distantly related commercial varieties (say, corn from two different breeders) is far greater than the change when you introduce a new gene in a biotech crop. Biotech DNA and RNA is safe, because all DNA and RNA is safe. Biotech proteins undergo detailed safety assessment and animal toxicity testing, and biotech crops undergo extensive assessment for nutritional value and safety ─ testing which has never been done any of the genes or proteins found in conventional agriculture. Overall, biotech crops are the most closely scrutinized crops in human history in regards to human safety and health.

Thought of another way, biotech crops come about using a different process but result in food that is equally nutritious (or in the future, nutritionally enhanced) and at least as safe as conventional crops. The current generation of biotech crops mostly helps the farmer, which in turn helps to assure high productivity, keeps downward pressure on price, and helps protect the environment. Future biotech crops ─ some very near the market ─ will help to address issues in human nutrition in the developed (omega-3 fats and low saturated fats for example) and in the developing world (golden rice for vitamin A deficiency).

What Happens in our Bodies when We Eat Biotech Foods: In general, nothing changes at all. Remember that a plant genome (genetic code) is a string of genes lined up on chromosomes like a string of pearls. We add one or a handful of genes to the 30,000 or so genes already present in the plant. Genes (DNA) encode RNA which in turn can encode a protein. People often express a concern that we will react in a unique way to some sort of “genetic modified-ness” in plants, but this does not exist ─ it’s all about a string of genes. DNA and RNA get digested ─ we eat all of the genes in every whole or unrefined food that we eat (refined sugar or oils have no meaningful genetic content) and this has no adverse effect at all. The question then becomes ─ what about the protein?

Proteins inserted in genetically modified crops undergo careful assessment to assure that they are not among the small number of toxic proteins known (these are readily identifiable by structure and sequence) and that they are reasonably digestible. Dietary proteins as a rule are non-toxic, we simply digest them. Food allergy is a theoretical concern ─ one could introduce a food allergen ─ but this is highly unlikely at the outset (only a few dozen of the millions of proteins in the diet are major allergens) and we screen biotech proteins for similarity to known food allergens and avoid proteins which are not digestible or are heat stable (characteristics of allergy-prone proteins). There has never been a report of an allergic reaction to an inserted biotech protein.

We certainly do have a problem with food allergy ─ but this problem is all about allergy to proteins in conventional foods. (Biotech crops still contain the proteins found in conventional crops ─ so if you are allergic to corn or soy, you will be allergic to biotech corn or soy.)

In the near future, you can have lower saturated fat in vegetable oils and enhanced heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids in soybean oil. In these cases, your body may well respond differently ─ with a reduction in long-term risk of cardiovascular disease. In the meantime, your digestive system and your body are responding the same way to biotech and conventional foods.


Sidebar: Notes from Dr. Goldstein; A Child’s Amazing Digestive System

YOU DIDN’T ASK, BUT….   A note from a father and pediatrician to parents: some perspective is in order here.  A baby is born having ingested nothing but amniotic fluid*. Every food, every gene and every protein your child ingests for the first time is a new exposure that your child – with their own unique genetic background – has never eaten before.   In regards to nutritional value, biotech crops fall within the range of related conventional crops, yet we seem to worry endlessly over minor or theoretical differences. We forget that a child can eat two servings instead of one, or push away the plate and eat none at all. We forget that we expose our children to 30,000 broccoli and 30,000 fish genes/proteins one night and 30,000 maize and cattle genes/proteins the next night.  Guess what… mostly nothing happens!!

We forget that nutritionally adequate diets vary remarkably around the globe and all give rise to healthy children.   We do see allergy – but we aren’t taking major allergenic foods (milk, peanuts) off the market and no example of allergy to biotech exists. If it ever does exist, we could engineer it back out more easily than we put it in. Why continue to fret over a theoretical risk with an obvious fix when we are unwilling to address a larger real problem?  I am not suggesting that we stop doing careful safety assessment on biotech crops – just pointing out that we tend to get immensely focused on small and theoretical risk and perhaps have lost a broader perspective on the importance of a varied and balanced diet for nutrition and health.


*Older pediatricians like me can tell you amniotic fluid tastes OK… kind of salty like chicken soup.  We no longer use oral suction catheters that only hold 2 teaspoons and then overflow into your mouth when we suction out newborn airways.  This is a good thing for many reasons, but my daughter, a pediatric resident, has never (since birth, anyway) tasted amniotic fluid….

Editor’s Note: This is part of my ongoing series exploring the world of biotech agriculture and food including Getting to Know Monsanto’s People,  10 Simple Strategies to Avoid GMO Foods and Into the Belly of the Beast: My Visit to Monsanto.

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1. P Jacobs - May 25, 2013

Nice Try: Noted you are the medical toxicologist and director of Medical Sciences and Outreach for Monsanto.

The Next GMO Biotech Wave: Extreme Synthetic Genetics. The Implications, The Ethics http://sco.lt/6TyUmv

Science does not have sufficient information as to the biological web of life as a holistic entity to be meddling on such a scale with our environment and ecosystems, much of the biotech being rapidly thrown out there could be irreversible changing life on this planet as we know it forever. Very little regulation or oversight makes it subject to egos and myopic research.