Akila Wijerathna explains how biotechnology helps farmers reap rewards

Agricultural bio­technology (AB) stands at the forefront of innovation and debate, and offers a promising way to address the evolving needs of the agriculture sector.

Biotechnology represents a transformative force with the potential to reshape various sectors including agriculture by harnessing the power of living organisms to enhance productivity and sustainability.

Embracing this technology holds the promise of many benefits, not only for farmers but also the broader community and consumers. When rigorously evaluated for safety, biotechnology can deliver major advantages across the agricultural landscape.

AB serves as a tool kit of scientific methodologies aimed at enhancing the characteristics of plants, animals and microorganisms to bolster agricultural productivity. Rooted in an understanding of DNA, this endeavour empowers scientists to manipulate genetic traits with precision and offers solutions beyond the constraints of traditional breeding methods.

At the heart of  agricultural biotechnology lies genetic engineering, a process through which genes are transferred between organisms to confer beneficial traits such as disease resistance to crops, animals or microorganisms.

Also known as ‘genetic modification,’ ‘genetic engineering’ and ‘genetic improvement,’ AB paved the way for the development of genetically modified (GM) crops that are tailored to withstand pests, diseases and weeds. This in turn leads to higher agricultural yields.

Molecular markers represent another cornerstone of AB. They facilitate the precise selection of desirable genetic traits in plants and animals even in the absence of visible characteristics.

By analysing an organism’s DNA, scientists can identify and harness genes associated with desirable traits, and streamline the breeding process for increased efficiency and accuracy.

The application of molecular markers has yielded remarkable successes from breeding disease resistant cowpea and cassava, to eliminating undesirable genes in future generations, and enhancing crop resilience and sustainability.

Moreover, agricultural biotechnology encompasses molecular diagnostics, which offer precise methods for detecting genes or gene products that are relevant to crop and livestock diseases.

These advanced diagnostic tools enable early and accurate disease detection, and empower farmers to implement timely interventions that mitigate crop losses.

Additionally, biotechnology derived vaccines have emerged as a game changer in livestock and human health, by offering cost-effective and stable alternatives to traditional vaccines.

In countries like the Philippines, these innovative vaccines have revolutionised disease prevention strategies, and protected cattle and water buffalo against debilitating illnesses such as haemorrhagic septicaemia.

Furthermore, tissue culture stands as an essential technique in AB as it facilitates the regeneration of disease free plants in laboratory settings. This method enables the mass production of disease resistant planting materials for various crops including citrus fruits, coffee and bananas.

By harnessing tissue culture, farmers can access high quality planting materials to ensure crop health and productivity.

In the realm of biotechnology, gene technology emerges as a pivotal subset and enables tar­geted gene transfers between organisms – or the manipulation of genes within an organism.

This process gives rise to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and GM products, which represent the hallmark of biotechnological innovation. The potential benefits of agricultural biotechnology are multifaceted, and span enhanced productivity, sustainability and the manage­ment of agricultural challenges.

Meanwhile, the benefits of leveraging biotechnological advancements include higher yields, improved product quality and less reliance on chemical applications. This fosters a more sustainable agricultural landscape.

Moreover, biotechnology holds the promise of addressing pest, weed and disease management, through innovative prevention and eradication strategies.

Beyond these immediate gains, the advent of biotechnology opens doors to the development of new industries that range from pharmaceuticals to biofuels, and adds value to diversifying agricultural contributions to functional products.

Furthermore, and even as environmental conditions continue to evolve, biotechnology offers a crucial tool for mitigating the adverse effects of climate change and bolstering agricultural resilience in the face of emerging challenges.

Therefore, the integration of AB stands poised to usher in a new era of innovation and progress in agriculture. However, it does have its share of controversies and deliberations.

In essence, agricultural biotechnology represents a paradigm shift in agricultural practices, and offers a suite of innovative tools to address pressing challenges and enhance food security in a rapidly evolving world.