Imagine… A planting season requiring no dangerous herbicides or toxic pesticides. Thousands of dollars saved, because nutritional supplements are now needless. A beef steer reaching market weight in 75 days. The use of medicines nearly nonexistent. Millions of human lives improved and even saved by a sheep’s milk or a pig’s brain cells. Something out of a science fiction novel? A scientist’s unrealistic fantasy? Maybe something that could happen in 500 years? That may be what many of you believe. But right now, these miracles are happening in laboratories all over the world. The first Genetic Engineering technique, still used today, was the selective breeding of plants and animals, usually for increased food production. In selective breeding only animals with desirable characteristics are chosen for further breeding. Though these practices may have seemed sufficient in the past, they are actually hit and miss cases with little chance of success.
Through Biotechnology, breeders choose specific genes. Breeders can also incorporate genes from an unrelated species, giving an animal or plant new features the previously wouldn’t be available. This system is faster, more exact, cheaper and less likely to fail than traditional methods. Plants can now be engineered to be resistant to pesticides, insects, and diseases. The environmentally-friendly herbicide Glyphosate is very successful in killing weeds, but unfortunately kills crops as well. Crops are now being engineered to be resistant to such herbicides. Grazing crops now have improved nutritional qualities to enhance livestock productivity. Pasture grasses, for instance, that have been developed with Lucerne strains become sulfur rich, which produces higher quality wool. Genetically Altered animals help scientists discover treatments for a variety of human diseases.
Pure human products, such as insulin and Human Growth hormone, can now be produced in commercial quantities. Sheep’s milk is used to produce A1A, an enzyme used in the treatment of emphysema: cow’s milk is used to produce a protein that combats bacterial infections: and goat’s milk is used to produce tPA a blood-clot-dissolving enzyme. Pigs, being easy to raise, have been organ donors to humans for many years. Heart-valves from pigs are being used as replacements for worn-out or diseased human heart-valves. Recently, pig brain cells have been injected into the brain of people with Parkinson’s disease to replace the brain cells destroyed by this crippling disease. Cattle have been treated to increase milk and beef production, as have pigs to yield more meat and less fat. In the very near future we may be able to produce plants that require less water, can grow in an arid climate, are higher yielding, and carry a higher protein level. Plants will become salt tolerant, so that salt-water can be used for irrigation purposes. We will be able to protect our farms by allowing reduced and more effective use of chemical pesticides and herbicides, therefore creating a healthier and safer environment.
Farm productivity will improve as food production increases in crops and animals, which in return will reduce food costs. Plants and animals both will see increased resistance to disease and external damage. Soon technology will be made available to repair genetic defects, and enhance an effect all ready present, such as an increased growth rate. Transgenic animals may soon be the dominant source of pharmaceuticals. The need for biotechnology can be seen everyday. Many of us have had crops ruined by the bacterial and viral infection, insects, worms, weeds, and unpredictable weather. Insects are becoming resistant to our most potent chemicals many of which cause biological problems. Millions of dollars are spent on what may become useless chemicals or nutritional supplements for grazing animals. Conventional cross breeding is slow, only similar species can be bred, and it is hit and miss, as well as expensive in time and money. Many questions have been raised over moral and ethical issues involved in biotechnology and engineering. But most Americans view the coming of genetic technology as they view organ transplants or chemotherapy: there are many practical questions about how the technologies get developed and tested, who needs them, and how we pay for them, but there is no question that they should be made available.
Some technologies are so inscribed with harmful ends that no amount of regulation and social direction can make them worth the risk. If I were convinced that genetic technology had no redeeming qualities and only great risks, then I would press for a complete ban. But the potential benefits of genetic technology far outweigh the potential risks. I believe in a position of critical support, which reflects the suspicious optimism most people around the world have toward genetic technology. In rural Oklahoma, these ideas do seem fictitious. But the benefits for local farmers and ranchers are obvious. Many long time farmers may be incredulous to such changes, but I strongly believe that the vast benefits will convince even the most critical skeptics.
Biotechnology, with the correct regulations and experiments, has the potential to launch the agricultural community far into the twenty-first century. Right now, agriculture creates the main source of income in our nation’s economy. Yet, we are quickly being pushed down to number two by the computer and technology industries. By integrating Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering into our every-day farming lives, we can overcome any and all other industries, and keep our prestigious heights of competition and income. Soon these biological technologies will be used by the best farms and greatest breeders, simply because they choose to “Embrace the Change” as I believe all agriculturists should.