Biotechnology has helped improve the quality of people’s lives for over 10,000 years. Today’s biotechnologies vary in application and complexity. However, they all have potential to change our society.

Biotechnology aims to benefit society

  • The fundamental aim of biotechnology is to meet human needs or demands in order to improve our quality of life.

Ancient biotechnologies mainly aimed to provide a more reliable food source by growing plants and domesticating animals rather than depending on hunting and gathering. Over the last century, the number and range of biotechnologies have rapidly increased. A key to this increase was the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953, leading to numerous applications, particularly in forensics, medicine and agriculture.

Read our article, Modern biotechnology for further information.

Biotechnology impacts depend on many factors

As our knowledge and capability in biotechnology increases, so do the potential benefits. However, while the intention behind new biotechnologies is to benefit society, determining what impact a particular biotechnology may have is complex.

You need to consider a number of interacting factors:

  • Issues specific to a particular biotechnology

Different biotechnologies have different issues to consider, review these articles Ethics and xenotransplantation and Ethics and zebrafish.

  • People’s different needs and values

People’s needs, values and priorities vary, leading to differing views of how a particular biotechnology may impact on them.

Some people hold strong moral and ethical views on particular practices based on their religious and cultural beliefs. Biotechnologies involving practices such as organ transplants, manipulating human embryos and using animals in research may be particularly offensive to some groups of people. Their views are likely to affect progress and availability of some biotechnologies in different societies. These two articles Ethics and organ donation and Designer babies – fact or fiction? could be used to help generate discussions in the classroom.

  • Geographic location
Different countries have different needs and priorities. This affects what biotechnologies are developed or accessible in those countries. For example, New Zealand has the highest incidence of melanoma in the world, so developing a melanoma vaccine is a higher priority here than in other countries.
  • Historical context

Biotechnologies are developed in response to society’s needs and demands at that particular time. People are often reluctant to accept new biotechnologies initially, but over time, they tend to become more widely accepted.

New biotechnologies are often controversial

Biotechnology developments are often controversial because of the ethical issues they raise. They frequently become the subject of public debate. Sometimes, people are wary of new biotechnologies because they involve doing things that haven’t been done before, and they are unsure of possible future effects. Public debate raises the issues and presents different viewpoints. This can help people make informed decisions and also influence government organisations that control new research and development.

Regulations help minimise risk

As new biotechnology discoveries are made, governments develop regulations, legislation and guidelines to minimise risk to people and the environment. In New Zealand, the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) is the government organisation that regulates and manages risk concerning new organisms. ERMA was disestablished in June 2011 and its functions were incorporated into the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA).

New Zealand organisations involved in research have their own ethics committees to ensure research involving humans and animals meets ethical guidelines.

Making ethical decisions

Making decisions about new biotechnology developments is not easy. Using different ethical frameworks can help you consider the issues and make informed decisions. Try using the Ethics thinking toolkit to help you explore an ethical issue.

Get video: Common ethical frameworks

Useful links

DNA from the beginning - simple explanations of the concepts of DNA and the chronological development of scientific understanding, including animations, video and audio.

The bioethics of human cloning - downloadable resources for teaching the bioethics of human cloning.

The clone zone - a timeline showing the development of cloning from 1885–2002.

    Published 1 February 2010