Biotechnology is a specialism within biology which uses biological processes and living organisms from various fields, e.g. medicine, technology and agriculture for specific purposes.

The main applications for biotechnology products are medicine, agriculture, industrial use of crops, e.g. biofuels and environmental uses.

Biotechnology references knowledge and information from other biological sciences such as biochemistry, molecular biology, genetics and cell biology. It also draws upon information found in non-biological domains such as IT and chemical engineering.

This subject is often assumed to apply to the field of medicine only but it has many applications in the field of agriculture in particular the growth and harvesting of crops and their modification for human needs.

Biotechnology products

These purposes involve the development of products or a series of processes which are designed to suit the needs of human beings. Examples of these specific purposes include:

  • Pharmaceutical drugs, e.g. fertility drugs
  • Gene therapy
  • Increased crop yield
  • Improved nutritional aspects of foods, e.g. modifying protein to provide essential amino acids for a healthy diet.
  • Genetically modified foods
  • Animal genetics: altering the genetic makeup of animals for therapeutic purposes.

Agricultural biotechnology

Agricultural biotechnology plays an important role in Hawaii and in a variety of ways, for example the protection of papaya (fruit) crops from a virus. Another application is the development of genetically engineered seeds which reduce the need for pesticides or herbicides.

Benefits of biotechnology

In regard to agricultural biotechnology: the cultivation of GM (genetically modified) crops which are disease and pesticide resistant is an added bonus for farmers. Plus it is possible to increase crop yield as well as improve on individual aspects such as taste, texture and nutritional value.

Certain GM crops have been modified so that they produce a type of protein - derived from a soil bacterium – which kills pests as soon as they feed upon these crops. This reduces the need for pesticides and other chemical substances.

The ability to grow large volumes of crops which are disease resistant and with a boost to their nutritional value is an attractive prospect for countries in the developing world.

Risks of biotechnology

Concerns have been raised about the impact of GM crops on farming and the environment in general. These include health, environmental and social/cultural issues.

Health issues

A particular concern is the risk of introducing potential allergens and toxins into safe foods. There are a small percentage of people in every age group who suffer from a food allergy although this is usually confined to one or two foods only, e.g. peanuts.

People with a food allergy experience a reaction to a particular allergen in a small number of foods.

Naturally occurring allergens in GM foods undergo regular checks to ensure that they are not at excessively high levels compared to conventional foods.

Environmental issues

One issue is that of the impact GM crops will have on the environment once they have been cultivated. It is difficult to predict these effects but there are fears of potential harm to the surrounding flora and fauna.

Every effort is made to test GM crops before they are released for commercial use but it is impossible to foresee every effect on the environment.

Other fears include the risk of creating weeds or 'superweeds' caused by the cross-pollination of GM plants with naturally occurring weeds. This could result in weeds which are beyond normal controls and lead to an ecological disaster. A loss of biodiversity is another concern.

Social/cultural issues

It is important to remember that Hawaii has strong cultural and religious beliefs in regard to crops, particularly GM crops. For example there is controversy surrounding the use of biotechnology to improve taro crop yields which has been under threat by plant disease as of late.

Taro (type of root vegetable) is an important staple of the traditional Hawaiian diet and is viewed as something to be nourished and cared for. There is a sense of mysticism attached to taro which can lead to a clash between science and culture in regard to maintaining its purity.

But it is recognised that modified taro crops are preferable to fewer or even no crops as a result of widespread damage by plant diseases.