The burgeoning global population and declining arable land necessitate sustainable food production systems and environmental conservation, especially in the developing countries. The world population tripled to six billion in the last century. The increased food production required to sustain this dramatic increase was met by the skills of plant breeders and farmers, mechanization and technogical innovation by the agrochemical industry.

The gains in food production provided by the Green Revolution have reached their ceiling while world population continuous to rise. This was one of the great technological success stories of the second half of the twenties century. Because of the introduction of scientifically bred, higher-yielding varieties of rice, wheat and maize beginning in the 1960s, overall food production in the developing countries kept pace with population growth. The benefits of the Green Revolution reached many of the world's poorest people. This provided high yielding seeds but led to the use of high amounts of fertilizer, water and pesticides. So this resulted in depletion of these resources, salination and falling outputs. This makes poor farmers dependent on agricultural chemicals and reduces the diversity of crops they plant. Thus, the Green Revolution led at first to rapid growth in productivity but has now created crops that are increasingly dependent on higher, more costly and less efficient doses of fertilizer and pesticide. These pesticides leave residues that linger on crops and soil, leach into ground water and streams, get magnified biologically and are an environmental concern.

Biotechnology refers generally to the application of a wide range of scientific techniques to the modification and improvements of plants, animals, and microorganisms that are of economic importance. Agricultural biotechnology is that area of biotechnology involving application to agriculture. In the broadest sense, traditional biotechnology has been used for thousands of years, since the advent of the first agricultural practices, for the improvement of plants, animals and microorganisms.

The application of biotechnology to agriculturally important crop species has traditionally involved the use of selective breeding to bring about an exchange of genetic material between two parent plants to produce offspring having desired traits such as increase yield, disease resistance and enhanced product quality. The exchange of genetic material through conventional breeding requires that the two plants being crossed are of the same, or closely related species and so it can take considerable time to achieve desired results. Modern biotechnology vastly increase the precision and reduces the time with which these changes in plant characteristics can be made and greatly increase the potential sources from which desirable traits can be obtained.

In the 1970s, a series of complementary advances in the field of molecular biology provided scientist with the ability to readily move DNA between more distantly related organisms. Today, this recombinant DNA technology has reached a stage where scientists can take a piece of DNA containing one or more specific gene from nearly any organism, including plants, animals, bacteria, or viruses, and introduction it into a specific species. The application of recombinant DNA technology frequently has been referred to as genetic engineering. An organism that has been modified, or transformed using modern techniques of genetic exchange is commonly refereed as a genetically modified organism (GMO). Plants that have been genetically modified using recombinant DNA technology to introduce a gene from either the same or a different species also are known as transgenic plants and the specific gene transferred is known as a transgene.

Ti plasmid of Agrobacterium tumefaciens, used as a workhorse for plant genetic engineering to shuttle foreign genes into plant cells. Several other approaches for delivering DNA to plant cells were also developed, including chemical methods and electroporation, microinjection, and ballistic methods. As monocotyledons plants are generally not amenable to transformation by Agrobacterium, these methods were particularly important for facilitating stable gene transfer to many of the major monocot crops.

There are many advantages to genetically modified crops over traditional and crossbred crops. Insertion of a carefully selected gene into a plant is safer than introducing thousands of genes at once, as commonly occurs during conventional crossbreeding. Traditional plant-breeding techniques can be very time-consuming. It sometimes takes up to 15 years or more before a new plant variety reaches the market. Furthermore, in traditional breeding, generally only closely related plant species can be used in cross breeding for the development of new varieties and hybrids. But genetic engineering enable scientists to breach the reproductive barriers between species. Through the use of Genetic Engineering technology genes from one plant, animal or microorganisms can be incorporated into an unrelated species, thus increasing the range of traits available for developing new plants.

During the last 25 years or so there has been a revolution in plant science, which has allowed the skills of the plant breeder to be supplemented by the application of plant biotechnology. This revolution has resulted from an increased understanding of how cells and organism work at the molecular, biochemical and physiological levels and also from the transfer of genes from one plant species to another, or from other organisms such as bacteria. Now and in the near future, the products of transgenic food biotechnology provide food quality improvements, which include better taste and healthier foods.

New developments in agricultural biotechnology are being used to increase the productivity of crops, primarily by reducing the costs of production by decreasing the needs for inputs of pesticide, herbicides and fertilizers. The application of agricultural biotechnology can improve the quality of life by developing new strains of plants that give higher yields with fewer inputs, can be grown in wider range of environments, give better rotations to conserve natural resources, provide more nutritious harvested products that keep much longer in storage and transport, and continue low cost food supplies to consumers. Further advances in biotechnology will likely result in crops with a wider range of traits such as corn, potato and banana as mini-factories for the production of vaccines and biodegradable plastics. In future, transgenic plants may serve as bioreactors for the production of protein pharmaceuticals. Genes have been identified that can modify and enhance the composition of oils, proteins, carbohydrates, and starch in food/feed grains and root crops. The new developments in gene technology also may be useful to solve problems in human care, agriculture, and the environment in countries like India. So, in future, such developments would not only directly benefit the consumer, but also would also afford farmers greater opportunities in choosing what crops to grow.

About Author / Additional Info:
Dr. Suresh Kaushik
Ph.D. Molecular Biology and Biotechnology
A Biotechnology Professional from India