Biotechnology provides farmers with tools that can make production cheaper and more manageable. For example, some biotechnology crops can be engineered to tolerate specific herbicides, which make weed control simpler and more efficient. Other crops have been engineered to be resistant to specific plant diseases and insect pests, which can make pest control more reliable and effective, and/or can decrease the use of synthetic pesticides. These crop production options can help countries keep pace with demands for food while reducing production costs. A number of biotechnology-derived crops that have been deregulated by the USDA and reviewed for food safety by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and/or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have been adopted by growers.
Many other types of crops are now in the research and development stages. While it is not possible to know exactly which will come to fruition, certainly biotechnology will have highly varied uses for agriculture in the future. Advances in biotechnology may provide consumers with foods that are nutritionally-enriched or longer-lasting, or that contain lower levels of certain naturally occurring toxicants present in some food plants. Developers are using biotechnology to try to reduce saturated fats in cooking oils, reduce allergens in foods, and increase disease-fighting nutrients in foods. They are also researching ways to use genetically engineered crops in the production of new medicines, which may lead to a new plant-made pharmaceutical industry that could reduce the costs of production using a sustainable resource.
Genetically engineered plants are also being developed for a purpose known as phytoremediation in which the plants detoxify pollutants in the soil or absorb and accumulate polluting substances out of the soil so that the plants may be harvested and disposed of safely. In either case the result is improved soil quality at a polluted site. Biotechnology may also be used to conserve natural resources, enable animals to more effectively use nutrients present in feed, decrease nutrient runoff into rivers and bays, and help meet the increasing world food and land demands. Researchers are at work to produce hardier crops that will flourish in even the harshest environments and that will require less fuel, labor, fertilizer, and water, helping to decrease the pressures on land and wildlife habitats.
In addition to genetically engineered crops, biotechnology has helped make other improvements in agriculture not involving plants. Examples of such advances include making antibiotic production more efficient through microbial fermentation and producing new animal vaccines through genetic engineering for diseases such as foot and mouth disease and rabies.