What is Genetic Engineering? - Definition, Benefits & Issues

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  • 0:08 What is Genetic Engineering
  • 1:01 Genetic Engineering…
  • 2:47 Benefits of Genetic…
  • 4:31 Problems with Genetic…
  • 6:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Margaret Cunningham

Margaret has taught many Biology and Environmental Science courses and has Master's degrees in Environmental Science and Education.

Expert Contributor
Maria Airth

Maria has a Doctorate of Education and over 20 years of experience teaching psychology and math related courses at the university level.

When most people think of genetics, they think of their own genes, but genetics is also very important in agriculture. In this lesson, we will explore genetic engineering and how it relates to agriculture. We will also investigate the benefits and issues associated with genetic engineering.

What is Genetic Engineering?

During the next meal you eat, take a good look at the food on your plate. Just by looking at it, do you think you could tell if the food is all-natural or has been modified in some way? One way that food is modified is through genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is when the genetic makeup of an organism is altered by inserting, deleting or changing specific pieces of DNA.

When conducting genetic engineering, the organisms that have their genetic makeup altered are referred to as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs for short. During the process of genetic engineering, a piece or several pieces of DNA are altered to change a characteristic about the organism. If DNA is inserted, it can come from another individual with the desired characteristic, it can come from a different species or it could be artificially produced.

Genetic Engineering and Agriculture

Over the years, genetic engineering has become more common in agriculture. Globally, there are over 25 countries that grow genetically engineered crops on approximately 420 million acres of land, and those numbers are increasing every year. The United States is responsible for producing almost half of the genetically engineered crops planted worldwide and currently devotes over 40% of U.S. cropland to these modified crops.

Although many crops have been genetically engineered over the years, there are three crops - corn, soybean and cotton - that are the focus of genetic engineering. In the United States, about 80% of corn and cotton and 93% of soybeans that are produced are genetically modified.

There is a wide variety of types of genetic engineering used in agriculture. One of the most common types of genetic engineering is to insert the genes for bacteria into the crop. This type of genetic engineering works like an insecticide, which is a pesticide that targets unwanted insects, because when the insects consume the crop, they will be infected by the bacteria and will get sick and eventually die.

Another common type of genetic engineering is when genes for herbicide resistance are inserted into crops. When herbicides, which are pesticides that target unwanted plants, are sprayed on the field, the weeds will be killed, while the crops survive due to the insertion of the resistant genes. In addition to these common types of genetic engineering, agricultural crops are also modified to resist diseases and produce crops that have higher protein concentrations, higher levels of vitamins and minerals and delayed fruit ripening.

Benefits of Genetic Engineering

The use of genetic engineering and the creation of genetically modified crops has resulted in many benefits for the agricultural world. The most noticeable benefit is that genetic engineering has made it possible to produce more crops in a shorter time period. Due to the modifications that make crops resistant to diseases, it has been possible to increase overall yields. Many genetically modified crops are also designed to grow at a faster rate, which also helps increase overall yield.

Genetic engineering has also increased yield by making it possible to grow crops in regions that would otherwise be unsuitable for agriculture, such as areas with salty soil, areas that are drought prone and areas with low amounts of sunlight. Through genetic engineering, crops have been modified to tolerate salty soils, be more drought resistant and increase their rate of photosynthesis to take advantage of limited sunlight.

In addition to increasing productivity, genetic engineering has had several other benefits to agriculture. By modifying crops so that they are resistant to diseases and insects, less chemical pesticides have to be used to combat diseases and pests. Also, if crops are genetically modified to include components of fertilizers, less chemical fertilizers have to be placed on the fields.

By reducing the amount of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, there will be less harm done to the environment. Genetic engineering has also made it possible to produce new varieties of crops by mixing genes from multiple different species.

Problems with Genetic Engineering

Although there are many benefits of genetically engineered crops, there are also some major issues and concerns associated with these types of crops. One major concern is that as pests experience constant exposure to the pesticide or herbicide that is genetically inserted into the crops, they will develop genetic resistance to the chemical. If the pests develop genetic resistance, eventually the genetically modified crops would no longer be successful at preventing harm and would become obsolete.

Another major concern about genetic engineering is the long-term effects on human health and the environment. There is little known about the long-term effects of genetically engineered crops, and this makes many people cautious about their use.

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Additional Activities

Debate Genetic Engineering

In this activity, students will choose a side of the genetic engineering debate and use information from the lesson and gleaned from other sources to support or reject continued genetic engineering practices. The activity can be achieved in small groups or adjusted for independent learners.


  • Access to research materials, such as:
    • A library
    • The internet

Instructions for Small Groups

  • Divide into partners. Together, the partners must decide who will argue for and against genetic engineering.
  • Students should use a set amount of time (for example, an hour or, for a longer project, a week) to research information supporting their positions in the debate.
  • Students must write a note sheet detailing at least 10 specific points of support for their debate position. These can come from the lesson and/or additional research information. For example:
    • For genetic engineering:
      • Using GMOs creates hardier strains of crops which can withstand the extreme weather conditions created by global warming.
    • Against genetic engineering:
      • Altering the genetics in our crops can, eventually, lead to altered genetics in humans as the humans take in and use the artificially produced nutrients.
  • After the information gathering and note taking times have expired, students should conduct a formal debate in which each offers an opening statement and then debate point for point. Allow student pairs to determine their own winners in each debate.

Instructions for Independent Learners

  • First, independent learners should choose a side of the debate on genetic engineering.
    • It is recommended that students choose the opposite side to their natural instinct in order to push themselves academically.
  • Independent learners should follow a similar process as those working in groups by starting with a period of information gathering and then developing a note sheet detailing at least 10 points supporting the position taken on this issue.
  • Finally, independent learners should prepare a persuasive paper supporting their chosen position and using the supportive points gathered from the lesson as well as additional research. The paper should include:
    • An introduction to the genetic engineering debate.
    • Clear and logical arguments for or against genetic engineering.

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