What is food biotechnology? Definition and examples

Food Biotechnology is the use of technology to modify the genes of our food sources. Our food sources are animals, plants, and microorganisms. With food biotechnology, we create new species of animals and plants, for example, specifically animals and plants that we eat. These new species have desired nutritional, production, and marketing properties.

Food biotechnology has revolutionized not just the quantity but also the quality of our food supply, allowing for the enhancement of essential nutrients in everyday diets.

With food biotechnology, we use what we know about science and genetics to improve the food we eat. We also use it to improve how we produce food.

By improvement, we mean either making the food cheaper to produce, longer lasting, more disease resistant, or more nutritional.

Regarding using biotechnology to help produce the food we need, the International Food Information Council Foundation writes:

“The tools of food biotechnology include both traditional breeding techniques, such as cross-breeding, and more modern methods, which involve using what we know about genes, or instructions for specific traits, to improve the quantity and quality of plant species.”

With scientific techniques, we can move desirable traits from one plant or animal to another.

Food Biotechnology
According to scientists and those in the industry, we are better off thanks to food biotechnology. Some people, however, wonder about the dangers of manipulating genes.

Food biotechnology – brief history

Humans have been using biotechnology for thousands of years in the production and processing of food.

We have been practicing fermentation, for example, which is a form of biotechnology, for tens of thousands of years. We have been using fermentation to produce bread, beer, wine, and other alcoholic beverages.

According to the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California, Davis:

“Selective breeding of animals such as horses and dogs has been going on for centuries. Selective breeding of essential foods such as rice, corn, and wheat have created thousands of local varieties with improved yield compared to their wild ancestors.”

  • Wheat

Why is the wheat that is best for pasta different from the wheat that is best for bread? It is different because of many years of conventional breeding.

The problems with conventional breeding methods were twofold:

1. They took a very long time to give us the results we wanted.

2. They were often inefficient as well as unpredictable. In fact, they would often pass along undesirable traits with the desirable ones.

Food biotechnology today

Modern biotechnology and genetic engineering techniques, such as rDNA, allow us to do things much faster. rDNA stands for Recombinant DNA.

Genetic engineering refers to the direct manipulation of an organism’s DNA, i.e., its genes.

With rDNA, we can move a gene from one organism to another, but without the undesirable traits.

With modern scientific techniques, we can obtain crop and animal improvements in a much more predictable, controlled, and precise manner.

Benefits of food biotechnology

Food biotechnology offers many benefits for farmers, food companies, consumers, and the environment. Below are some of these benefits.

  • The environment

Researchers have made some foods, such as potatoes and papayas, more disease resistant.

If a crop is more resistant to disease, that means it needs less chemical spray to protect it. Less spray subsequently means less air, land, and water pollution. Water pollution is a serious global problem.

This is good for animals, plants, etc., i.e., the environment.

  • Greater yields

Thanks to biotechnology, plants can ward off insects and have a better tolerance to herbicides. Put simply; science can help plants survive better so that we subsequently get better crop yields.

In this article, the word ‘yield’ refers to agricultural output, i.e., tons of a crop per acre.

  • Fresher food

Thanks to food biotechnology, many vegetables and fruits today take longer to ripen. This means that distributors and retailers have more time to get their produce onto shelves when they are ‘just right.’

Advanced food biotechnology also holds the promise of enhancing the nutritional profiles of staple crops, potentially addressing vitamin and mineral deficiencies in populations worldwide.

  • More food with less land

By the middle of this century, there will be about nine billion people on Earth. Thanks to biotechnology, we will be able to produce more food using the land we are already using.

Regarding getting more food from our land, the authors of a University of Arizona article – Biotechnology and Food – write:

“This way, countries do not have to devote more land to farming. In turn, developing countries can benefit most, since they will have the largest population growth.”

  • Food safety

Scientists are getting better at accurately detecting undesirable bacteria and viruses in our food. Thanks to their technology, there will be a lower risk of food-borne illnesses. A foodborne illness is an illness we get because of something we ate.

We call foods that scientists have altered genetically GM foods. GM stands for genetically modified.

Outstanding achievements

There have been significant achievements and breakthroughs in food biotechnology over the last thirty years. Below is a brief description of ten that stand out:

  1. Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) (1994 onwards)
    Introduction of crops like Flavr Savr tomatoes, improving yield, pest resistance, and nutritional value.
  2. Golden Rice (2000s)
    Engineered to produce beta-carotene to combat vitamin A deficiency in developing countries.
  3. CRISPR-Cas9 Gene Editing (2012 onwards)
    Precise DNA editing in crops for enhanced disease resistance, drought tolerance, and nutrition.
  4. Drought Tolerant Crops (2010s)
    Crops modified to withstand drought, such as DroughtGard corn, helping maintain yields in variable climates.
  5. Biofortification (2000s onwards)
    Increasing the nutritional value of crops through genetic engineering or breeding, targeting global malnutrition.
  6. Fermentation Technologies (2010s)
    Use of fermentation to produce sustainable alternative proteins and food ingredients.
  7. Synthetic Biology for Flavor and Fragrance Production (2010s)
    Engineering microorganisms to produce flavors and fragrances sustainably.
  8. Plant-based Meat Alternatives (2010s)
    Development of plant-based products mimicking meat to offer sustainable dietary options.
  9. Precision Fermentation (2010s)
    Genetically engineered microbes produce specific food ingredients, enabling animal-free dairy products and novel foods.
  10. Edible Vaccines (2000s onwards): Research into genetically modifying plants to produce vaccine antigens, aiming for innovative vaccine delivery.

Video – Food Biotechnology

This educational video, from our sister channel on YouTube – Marketing Business Network, explains what ‘Food Biotechnology’ is using simple and easy-to-understand language and examples.