Societal Concerns with Biotechnology

The field of biotechnology is fast-paced and rapidly changing

Male scientist reading science journal in biology laboratory
••• Credit: Cultura RM Exclusive/Sigrid Gombert / Getty Images

There are four main societal concerns in the biotechnology field. Biotechnology is the use of living systems and organisms to develop or make products, or any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use. New tools and products developed by biotechnologists are useful in research, agriculture, industry and the clinic.

Why Is it Used?

Modern biotechnology provides breakthrough products and technologies to combat debilitating and rare diseases, reduce our environmental footprint, feed the hungry, use less and cleaner energy, and have safer, cleaner and more efficient industrial manufacturing processes. More than 13.3 million farmers around the world use agricultural biotechnology to increase yields, prevent damage from insects and pests and reduce farming's impact on the environment.

We use biotechnology to make medicines and vaccines to fight diseases. And we are now turning to biotechnology to find alternatives to fossil-based fuels for a cleaner, healthier planet.

A Changing Field

The field of biotechnology is fast-paced and rapidly changing. Often, the pace at which new technologies are developed far exceeds that of regulatory change and adaptation, which generates significant bioethics issues, especially since many of the new developments are those that impact human lives directly through what we eat, drink and medications we take. 

Many scientists and regulators are very aware of this disconnect. Thus, the rules for issues such as stem cell research, patenting genetic inventions, and new drug development are constantly changing. The relatively recent emergence of genomics and methods for creating artificial genes present new threats to the environment and the human race as a whole.

4 Societal Concerns With Biotechnology

1. Harm to the environment - This concern is perhaps the most widely cited by those opposed to GMOs. It is very difficult to predict what will happen in an ecosystem where a new organism has been introduced, whether genetically modified or not.

2. Bioterrorism - Governments are worried that terrorists will use biotechnology to create new Superbugs, infectious viruses, or toxins, for which we have no cures.

3. Laboratory/production safety - It's hard to protect oneself if you don't know what you're working with. Some new technologies, usually nonbiologicals such as nanoparticles make commercial production lines before they have been sufficiently tested for safety. There is also concern about technician safety in laboratories, even under secured conditions, when working with organisms of unknown virulence.

4. Ethical issues - Besides the age-old debate over whether cloning genes is sacrilegious, innumerable ethical questions arise over the appropriateness of licensing genetic inventions and other IP issues. In addition, the construction of genes from scratch (the first artificial gene was actually synthesized in 1970) means we might someday be able to create life from a chemical soup which will most certainly go against the ethical or religious beliefs of a significant number of people.​


North Carolina Biotechnology Center. "What is Biotechnology?"