Lauded by some as the future of food but lambasted by others for its potential risks to human health and the natural world, biotechnology is a subject of fierce debate. Biotechnology, or the genetic modification of organic materials such as corn and soybeans, plays a major role in national and international agricultural production. While proponents maintain that biotechnology can ease world hunger, scientists and consumers alike express their concern for its potential harms to the environment.
Earth contains ecosystems whose health depends on a balance, known as biodiversity, of different plant and animal species. Biotechnology potentially threatens biodiversity by introducing a single type of organism, such as a genetically modified seed, across a wide area. In an article published in 2001, renown agricultural ecologist Dr. Miguel Altieri of the University of California, Berkeley, demonstrates that in areas where genetically modified crops have been introduced, plants have lost some of their natural resistance to drought or other adverse conditions. He attributes this loss to the lack of biodiversity that makes ecosystems strong and better able to withstand insects or inclement weather.
As of 2011, no safeguards exist to ensure that agricultural biotechnology remains confined to a given area. In the United States and the European Union, policymakers grapple with how to regulate the distribution of genetically modified materials. Wind, birds and insects often distribute genetically modified seeds into surrounding areas and contaminate non-genetically modified crops. In a paper presented in 2003, Margaret Mellon, Ph.D., the director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, maintains that this unanticipated pollination has the potential to undermine biodiversity and threaten existing agricultural systems by causing genetic erosion.
One common form of biotechnology for plants is the addition of chemical pesticides and herbicides to the genetic composition of seeds. The widespread distribution of these seeds is associated with the growth of "superweeds," so-called for their resistance to common forms of herbicide. With the proliferation of superweeds, according to Altieri, farmers use increased amounts of agricultural chemicals, which then contaminate the soil and leach into local waterways, as well as threaten the future fertility of the soil.
Harms to Animal Life
As animals and insects feed on crops, agricultural biotechnology can severely harm the health of important species. Of the most imperiled -- the monarch butterfly -- is dying in epidemic numbers as a result of exposure to the toxins in genetically modified crops, Mellon reports. Biotechnology also can harm insect and animal life by producing new allergies, antibiotic resistance and illness, as well as potentially disrupting normal hormone levels, warns biochemist and nutritionist Arpad Pusztai, Ph.D.