Where would we have been had it not been for the discovery of the art of collecting seeds and cultivating them for food? Life would surely have been very different!
Early man was a food gatherer, depending on nature for all his needs. He gradually moved on to being a food grower with the discovery of agriculture, and settled down in one place, learning to live in a group. This was the beginning of civilization as we know it today.
Early knowledge of agriculture was an accumulation of experiences that were passed on from father to son. Some of these have been preserved as religious commandments and some in the ancient inscriptions. There is evidence to show that as early as 2000 BC the Egyptian civilization followed particular dates for sowing and reaping. Some Greek and Roman classics give instructions on how to get a higher yield.
The development of agriculture made it apparent that more food could be extracted from a given area of land by encouraging useful and hardy plant and animal species, and discouraging others.
At the turn of the 19th century, a movement began in central Europe to train farmers in specific farming skills. A truly scientific approach was begun by Justine von Liebig of Darmstadt who in his classic work introduced the systematic development of agriculture science. From the 19th century onwards plant production became a scientific discipline.
In the early 20th century, the legendary work of Gregor Mendel laid the foundation of modern day genetics. His work explained the basics of inheritance in terms of the factor we today call genes.
Apart from selection and hybridization, new and innovative techniques such as genetic engineering that aid plant breeders have been developed in the recent past. One example of this is BtCotton. With advances in human and plant biology, more intricate details about the cell the basic unit of life were illuminated. The possibility of raising whole plants from various plant tissues, commonly know as tissue culture, has thrown open the doors for expedited evolution both in terms of generation of genetic variability and multiplication of elite plant types. The knowledge of the wonder molecule DNA has also opened a new area of plant breeding research. These new technologies have been collectively referred to as biotechnology. It is a collective effort for plant breeding in the future and will compliment man's crusade for more and better food. In India, the Green Revolution saw the rapid progress of agriculture and the application of different methods to enhance production. Biofertilizers have been proven to be more environmentally friendly fertilizers that do not cause harm to life. Bioremediation methods have been used to clear oil spills using bacteria.
Biotechnology is short for biological technology. Technology is the ability to better utilize our surroundings. Biotechnology applies the same principles to living organisms as do other technologies. Biotechnology can be defined as the application of our knowledge and understanding of biology to meet practical needs. It is as old as the growing of crops. Todays biotechnology is largely identified with applications in medicine and agriculture based on our knowledge of the genetic code of life. Fermentation, used in making bread, beer, and cheese, is an example of biotechnology. Modern biotechnology simply allows scientists to be more specific in their work.
Different types of crops have been produced using the molecular tools of biotechnology and are beginning to be utilized in agricultural systems all over the world. At the same time, an increasing number of farmers are adopting sustainable cultural practices.
Biotechnology has the potential to assist farmers in reducing on-farm chemical inputs and produce value-added commodities. Conversely, there are concerns about the use of biotechnology in agricultural systems including the possibility that it may lead to greater farmer dependence on the providers of the new technology.