Discovering Biotechnology

Soybeans in PodsWhat's cooking? A big batch of biotechnology. Recent breakthroughs in the field of genetic engineering are changing the way our food is produced. Biotechnology is the use of living organisms or other biological systems in the manufacture of products or for environmental management.

Traditional Biotech

Traditional biotechnology has always been a part of food production. The use of microorganisms like yeast and bacteria to create food and drink is traditional biotechnology. Gasses from yeast make bread rise and are used to ferment beer and wine. Bacteria contributes to creating yogurt and enzymes assist in making cheese.

Natural selection and crossbreeding are also techniques of traditional biotechnology. Those methods create stronger and higher yielding crops and result in more desirable traits in livestock. Traditional biotechnology uses the natural biological functions of organisms to help create crops and livestock and food and drink.

The New Biotech

Now, genetic engineering—a modern biotechnology—is competing with traditional biotechnology. Genetic engineering allows scientists to replicate, improve or even completely change the natural functions of the organisms we rely on for food.

Why would food producers turn to science instead of relying on nature? Three good reasons: efficiency, effectiveness and cost.

A genetically engineered version of an enzyme or a protein can often be produced more efficiently than its natural counterpart. For instance, genetic engineering is used to produce mass quantities of an enzyme important to making cheese, chymosin. The traditional method of obtaining chymosin can't produce the large quantities that genetic engineering can, making the new method more efficient.

Sometimes science provides a more potent version of a natural enzyme or protein. And cost almost always factors into the equation when deciding whether to use genetic engineering in food production.

Right now the most common uses of genetic engineering in food production focus on traits that benefit producers of food, not consumers of food.

Genetically engineered traits like disease and insect resistance are now common in crops like corn and soybeans. That means many foods wind up with ingredients that were genetically engineered, instead of the whole food being genetically engineered. (Margarine made with soy oil made from soybeans genetically engineered to tolerate pesticides.)

The Future of Biotech

The biggest changes for food could come when genetic engineering focuses on consumer traits. Foods could be genetically engineered to have fewer calories, increased vitamins and minerals, or have allergens removed—making peanut butter safe for everyone!

Currently there is a lot of debate over whether genetic engineering should be used in food production at all. There are plenty of opinions expressed for both sides of the issue. Anyone wanting to learn more about the issues associated with the use of genetic engineering in food production will have no trouble locating information.


  • New York Times Online. Genetically Modified Organisms. (Online.) September 2002.
  • Food and Drug Administration. Genetic Engineering Fast Forwarding to Future Foods. (Online.)



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