Agriculture and forestry, food

Agriculture may have been the single most significant invention in the history of mankind. Food production based on agriculture and not on the gathering economy or nomadism enabled the development of a society based on the distribution of labour. Breeding guaranteed more productive crops and more useful livestock. The development of know-how improved breeding. We are now at a point where breeding can be carried out with genetic precision.

Breeding utilises the broad spectrum of the traits of organisms by steering the genome in the desired direction. Over the course of history, humans have modified the genome of many useful plants fundamentally. Strong-stemmed and high-yield cereal crops have been bred from fragile grasses, and tasty tomatoes and delicious potatoes have been produced from poisonous nightshade plants. The genome of production animals, too, has been significantly modified through breeding. Breeding is still based on the same principle as that used ten thousand years ago: beneficial traits are selected from the genetic variation that reflects the spectrum of characteristics and strengthened. Biotechnology is utilised in plant and animal breeding in an increasingly versatile manner. For example, various tissue culture and cryopreservation techniques are essential in the propagation, cross-breeding and preservation of lines to be bred. Progress in biotechnology is largely associated with the rapid development of the research field of genomics (genome research). Genomics has produced an enormous amount of new data on the functions of genes at different developmental stages, in different parts of an organism and under different conditions, which enables marker-assisted breeding and increases the speed and accuracy of traditional breeding, too, through, among other things, gene mapping.

Genetically modified plants are just one of the applications enabled by biotechnology. In genetically modified organisms, genes are modified by means of gene technology either by adding new genes or modifying the function of genes. Nowadays, the genetic modification of plants increasingly involves modifying or regulating the plant’s own genes instead of introducing foreign genes from other organisms. The majority of genetically modified plants have been produced for research purposes, but some of the applications have been taken into beneficial use. Genetically modified crop plants in which gene technology has been used to increase the ability of varieties to tolerate herbicides or defend themselves against pests are already being widely grown around the world.

Climate change is posing new challenges to plant resistance, as aridity and salinity of arable land, floods and extreme temperatures are becoming more common. The ability of plants to adapt to different regions and changing conditions can be improved more quickly and precisely by means of biotechnology. Speed and efficiency are important, as food production must be intensified in order to feed the Earth’s growing population. Moreover, rapid breeding would reduce the need to clear natural areas for agricultural production, as more resistant plants would produce a sufficient yield even in poorer land areas. Increasing resistance is an important factor in the breeding and cultivation of bio-energy crops as well.

It is estimated that in 2015 biotechnology will be utilised in the breeding of all major food, feed and fibre plants. In the future, genetically modified plants will no longer solely meet the needs of agricultural production. The next generation of genetically modified plants will comprise a wide range of applications, only some of which will be for food production. Genetically modified plants will increasingly be used in the cultivation of desired molecules as so-called bioreactors. Research environments have currently succeeded in increasing the amount of, among other substances, starch, functional fatty acids, vitamins and enzymes in a number of plant species, and in producing new compounds such as biodegradable plastic components and vaccines against caries, cholera, diarrhoea, and rabies, among other diseases. The greatest value of the latter applications would be in developing countries.

The use of biotechnology in forestry is still significantly less than in agriculture. Among the tree species growing in Finland the vegetative propagation of birch and aspen succeeds well, but there are still major problems in the vegetative propagation of spruce and especially of pine. Problems detected in propagation methods retard, among other things, the production of genetically modified trees. Moreover, the long generation of the trees and wind pollination makes it difficult to test genetically modified trees in field trials. Currently, only two genetically-modified tree species are grown for commercial purposes in the world: the virus-resistant papaya (USA) and the herbicide-resistant poplar (China). Europe is running a number of field trials of genetically modified trees. Gene technology will be utilised in tree species growing in Finland in the near future mainly in selection based on genetic knowledge of breeding material or forest reproductive material.

Publications of the Advisory Board on Biotechnology:

Biotechnology Now and in the Future (2006)