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What is agricultural biotechnology?

Agricultural biotechnology is a rapidly developing field of science that gives researchers ways to improve food and crops by selectively giving plants new qualities, such as higher levels of beneficial vitamins and minerals. Although based on age-old principles of selective breeding, biotechnology is a very precise method for developing plants that can help farmers provide for a more abundant, higher-quality and nutritious food supply.

How does "modern biotechnology" differ from traditional breeding?

Farmers have used selective breeding for centuries to improve taste and to produce new and more healthful foods. While traditional methods randomly transferred a wide range of genetic characteristics between plants over many generations of breeding, modern biotechnology makes it possible to develop plants with specific characteristics with greater understanding, speed and precision.

How widely is biotechnology used today?

Biotechnology has been widely accepted by farmers in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, biotech varieties planted in 2002 are expected to account for 71 percent of cotton planted, 74 percent of all soybeans and 32 percent of corn. And, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, more than 109 million acres of biotech crops were planted worldwide in 2000 - and many developing world countries, including India, China and Brazil have been rapid adopters.

What are the nutritional benefits of biotechnology?

Food biotechnology offers a number of benefits for consumers, developing countries and the environment. Foods have been produced through biotechnology that stay fresh longer, resist disease and insects, and can help foods taste better. Biotechnology can also improve the nutritional characteristics of food, providing a healthier diet to consumers and a greater availability of foods in all seasons. Many biotechnology plants help to protect the environment. Research into biotech food crops that are even more nutritious and can grow under tough conditions is especially promising for developing countries that continue to face high levels of hunger and malnutrition.

How can biotechnology protect the global environment?

Some biotech plant varieties have been developed to be herbicide-tolerant or to have built-in resistance to insect or virus damage, thus requiring fewer chemical applications. In addition, some biotech plants require less tilling, preserving precious topsoil and helping to reduce sediment run-off into rivers and streams. Other crops could allow farmers to use less land and other natural resources to grow the same amount crops. This is particularly important in developing countries where valuable temperate and tropical forests are routinely cut down for farmland.

How can biotechnology increase the world's food supply?

According to the United Nations Human Development Report 2001: “Transgenics offer the hope of crops with higher yields, pest- and drought-resistant properties and superior nutritional characteristics ­ especially for farmers in ecological zones left behind by the green revolution. In China, genetically modified rice offers 15 percent higher yields without the need for increases in other farm inputs, and modified cotton (Bt cotton) allows pesticide spraying to be reduced from 30 to 3 times.”

What biotechnology products are available on the market today?

Several crops and foods developed through biotechnology, including corn, cotton, soybeans, papaya and canola have been adopted widely throughout American agriculture. Other biotech products include sweet, nearly seedless mini-peppers; high-oleic sunflowers that produce oil that is low in trans-fatty acids; and others. Additionally, researchers are developing potatoes that contain less starch and water, making for a healthier French fry or potato chip; grains, fruits and vegetables that contain more nutrients, such as proteins, vitamins and minerals; rice and peanuts with reduced levels of allergens; and more. Researchers are also working on a strain of "golden rice" that could combat major nutritional deficiencies that lead to decreased birth rates, higher incidents of measles related deaths and other ailments in developing countries by delivering more beta-carotene and iron.

Are biotechnology foods safe? How are they regulated?

In 1992, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration determined that foods produced through biotechnology are as safe as those developed through conventional means, and that they should therefore be required to meet the same standards of dietary and environmental safety. Biotech foods, like every other product, are strictly regulated by the FDA, Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as state governments. All biotech products undergo years of exhaustive laboratory and field testing to ensure their safety before they come to market. Authorities as diverse as the American Medical Association, American Dietetic Association, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, World Health Organization and National Research Council have supported the safety of biotechnology.

Are biotechnology foods labeled?

Federal law requires that biotech foods, like any other foods, carry labels if their nutritional composition has been substantially changed, or if they pose allergenic or other health risks. Because the biotech varieties that have been cleared for commercialization so far have been substantially equivalent to their traditional counterparts, the FDA has not required labels for any biotech foods currently on the market. Additionally, the FDA has provided draft guidelines for companies that wish to voluntarily label food products that do or do not contain biotech ingredients, so long as the label is not false or misleading.