The term agriculture refers to cultivation of plants, animals for food, fuels, clothes, medicine and other products which are essential for our living. Conventional agriculture is practiced in several ways by different people around the globe. It is well known that agricultural products have different quality from place to place and some of the agricultural products are not seen in some parts of the world, while they are abundant in the rest of the world. This difference is due to several factors including climatic conditions, weather, availability of water, mineral content in the soil, and last but not least political and geographical factors. Another factor which led to the development of modern agriculture is the need to increase yield of plant products, disease, pest, drought resistance in plant products.
Biotechnology has emerged from traditional science to overcome the problems in every aspect of life, from plant breeding to genetic engineering. Out of the vast applications of Biotechnology, Agricultural Biotechnology is one. It involves the development of plants in such a way that, plants produce high yields of products such as grains, vegetables, fruits, leaves (leafy vegetables) and they can tolerate extreme conditions such as high temperature, high salinity in water and high humidity in the air. Furthermore we can produce plant products as per our needs, and we can control the features like color, taste, odor and size of fruits and vegetables. All this is made possible by exploiting the properties of the miracle molecules called DNA (De Oxy Ribose Nucleic Acid). Since the discovery of DNA, scientists have developed the solutions to overcome the problems in Agriculture, by modifying the genetic structure of the DNA.
The crops whose DNA has been modified are called “Transgenic Plants” or “Transgenic Crops”, and the products derived from these plants are called Genetically Modified plant products. So, how is this done? All the living beings, including animals, plants, bacteria, fungi and microorganisms have DNA, which guides their development and the pathway to their survival. This DNA in turn is divided in “genes”, which are specific for each and every feature and function of a living organism. This means, if we modify the genes, we are actually modifying any particular ‘feature’ or ‘function’ of that organism or any part of that organism. The same principle is applied in Agricultural Biotechnology as well. If we are looking to enhance the color of the flowers produced by a plant, we can alter the genetic structure of gene which is responsible for that color. This procedure can be done using any plant part, another example would be increasing the sweetness of a fruit, in this case we modify the gene responsible for production of fructose. Fructose is a sugar which gives sweetness to fruits, in theory, if we change the gene to produce more fructose, and then the fruit will become sweeter.
The major breakthrough in Agriculture was seen, when the “Flavr Savr” tomatoes were introduced into the US markets on May 21, 1994. This discovery led to the foundation for storing vegetables and fruits without a refrigerator for several days. An enzyme called Polyglacturonase is responsible to dissolve the pectin of the cell-wall. A gene complimentary to the Polyglacturonase gene, can be cloned using antisense RNA technology. This antisense gene will block the Polyglacturonase produced by its gene and thus stops the decaying of fruits and vegetables. As the cell wall decaying enzyme is produced in very little quantities, the delay in spoilage of fruits and vegetables is increased. Now this revolutionary technology is used to save millions of dollars every year, by reducing the wastage of fruits and vegetables during transport.
We have discussed only a very few applications from the huge database of Biotechnological applications in Agriculture. While we have seen only the benefits of Biotechnology, at the same time everything in this world has its own pros and cons and Biotechnology is no exception for this. Non Scientific community has said much about the potential risks of Biotechnology to us and our environment, but so far there is little evidence from the scientific studies that the risks are real. At the same time we experience the range of benefits offered by transgenic plants, beyond the ones which emerged from traditional Agricultural practices.