For centuries, humankind has made improvements to crop plants through selective breeding and hybridization via the controlled pollination of plants. Plant biotechnology is an extension of this traditional plant breeding with one very important difference: it allows for the transfer of beneficial traits in a more precise, controlled manner. Agricultural biotechnology has proven to be a phenomenal success with rapid adoption by farmers taking place across the globe. In 2007, 12 million farmers in 23 countries grew an estimated 282 million acres of approved biotech crops. In 2007, the twelfth year of commercial production of biotech crops, farmers planted and harvested 1.7 billion acres of biotech crops - a landmass equivalent to nearly twice the entire land area of the European Union’s 25 countries.
Since 1996, farmers have chosen crops enhanced with biotechnology traits due to the proven economic and environmental benefits they provide. These benefits include increased yields, drought and pest resistance, and reduced production costs primarily due to fewer pesticide applications and more efficient use of farm labor. The benefits of agricultural biotechnology go beyond the farmer to include the environment and consumers. The environment benefits from the use of less pesticides as well as the facilitation of reduced tillage methods for crop production, which decreases soil erosion. Consumers benefit from an affordable, abundant, and safe food supply that will include foods with enhanced nutrition, convenience and taste, such as tomatoes enriched with the antioxidant lycopene; rice enriched with the vitamin A precursor beta-carotene; cooking oils that contain higher levels of vitamin E, lower levels of trans-fatty acids, and with increased amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.
Regulatory authorities around the world have reviewed the commercial use of biotech crops according to well-established internationally accepted standards of risk assessment and have determined that biotech crops pose no more risk than crops produced through traditional crop breeding methods. In the United States, the Department of Agriculture, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency regulate biotech crops. In addition to a comprehensive regulatory system insuring their safety, food and feed products containing ingredients derived from plant biotechnology have a solid history of safe use over their 12-year history.
In spite of the proven global track record of the benefits and safety of agricultural biotechnology, there are still critics of the technology. In California there is a well coordinated, movement by activists to deny California’s farmers and ranchers access to it. These special interests have succeeded in prohibiting the use of these federally approved tools in Mendocino, Trinity, Marin and Santa Cruz counties and are threatening similar action in several others. While targeting agricultural biotechnology, the bans often have unintended consequences that impact biomedical research, as well as the sale of some human and animal healthcare products.