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Agricultural Biotechnology: History, Science, and Society (October 2013): Home

By Brian R. Shmaefsky


This bibliographic essay originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of Choice (volume 51 | number 2).


It is counterintuitive that agricultural scientists, who strongly agree on many other agricultural technologies, view agricultural biotechnology in contrasting ways with equally vehement viewpoints.  Some agricultural scientists provide convincing arguments that agricultural biotechnology is the bane of humanity, with many negative consequences on food security, global economics, and social equity.  Proponents of agricultural biotechnology offer a wealth of evidence that this new science can help lessen the dwindling tendency of the amount of arable land as well as energy shortages, malnutrition, and famine.

This field applies genetic modification technologies to create new varieties of agricultural animals and crop plants.  These genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are used for producing biofuels, dyes, foods, food supplements, pharmaceuticals, textiles, and wood products.  The genetic modification techniques used in agricultural biotechnology are based on the 1972 research of Paul Berg, who created the first recombinant DNA molecules while at Stanford University.[1]  In later studies in the early 1970s, S. Cohen, A. Chang, H. Boyer, and R. Helling produced the first genetically engineered organisms, thus making agricultural biotechnology feasible.[2]

The first agricultural biotechnology product developed for human use was the Flavr Savr tomato produced in 1987 by Calgene of Davis, California.  Scientists at Calgene modified the tomato so that it ripened very slowly while maintaining its taste.  It was not for sale until 1994, after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved it.  Initial demand for Flavr Savr was great.  However, high production and distribution costs prevented the tomato from being profitable for Calgene.  Today, most agricultural biotechnology products are making a profit, and global sales are forecasted to reach US $12 billion by the year 2015.[3]  Many countries raise genetically modified animals, fungi, and plants, and GMO crops occupy a large proportion of productive agricultural lands worldwide.

This essay will explore aspects of the history, current status of, and issues related to the field, and key resources related to these topics.  The books discussed are divided into the following sections: A Brief Overview; Historical Perspectives of Modern Biotechnology and Agricultural Biotechnology; General Agricultural Biotechnology Resources; Animal Biotechnology; Plant Biotechnology; Biotechnology and Integrated Pest Management; Environmental Concerns; Ethical and Societal Implications; and Legal and Regulatory Issues.  Due to the interdisciplinary nature of the field, many of these titles can fall into more than one category.  They are all important resources for undergraduate libraries, and will be useful to students in numerous disciplines, including biology, biotechnology, environmental sciences, and food and agriculture.

[1] David A. Jackson, Robert Symons, and Paul Berg, “Biochemical Method for Inserting New Genetic Information into DNA of Simian Virus 40: Circular SV40 DNA Molecules Containing Lambda Phage Genes and the Galactose Operon of Escherichia coli,” PNAS 69 (10, October 1, 1972): 2904-2909.

[2] S. A. Cohen, A. C. Chang, H. W. Boyer, and R. B. Helling, “Construction of Biologically Functional Bacterial Plasmids In Vitro,” PNAS 70 (11, November 15, 1973): 3240–3244.

[3] Agricultural Biotechnology: A Global Strategic Business Report; Companies and, accessed May 24, 2013,

Brian R. Shmaefsky is a professor of biology at Lone Star College-Kingwood in Texas.  Shmaefsky is the author of several books and numerous peer-reviewed journal articles on biotechnology, and serves in various local and regional science policy organizations.  His e-mail is