Biotechnology is generally considered to be “any technique that uses living organisms to make or modify a product, to improve plants or animals, or to develop microorganisms for specific uses”. Modern biotechnologies offer vast potential for improving the quality and increasing the productivity of agriculture, forestry and fisheries. Genes from plants, animals and microorganisms that flourish in the forests, fields and seas of the developing world are the strategic raw materials for the commercial development of new pharmaceutical, agricultural and industrial products. Whereas genetic wealth, especially in tropical areas such as rainforests, was once a relatively inaccessible trust fund, it is fast becoming a highly valuable currency.
Introduction of modern biotechnologies in the developing world is frequently compared to the Green Revolution. While the Green Revolution involved introducing new varieties of primarily wheat and rice in selected areas, biotechnology has the potential to affect all crops and tree species, as well as fish and livestock, in any corner of the globe. The Green Revolution was introduced to the Third World largely by international institutions, but the “Gene Revolution” is primarily in the hands of the private sector, with transnational corporations being the leading players. With few exceptions, scientific and technical capacity in the biosciences is centred in the industrialized world. As a consequence, biotechnology research, by and large, does not focus on the needs or interests of poor farmers in marginal areas of the world. Emerging biotechnologies have considerable potential to enhance food and agricultural production in the developing world, but they could also add to existing inequities by displacing traditional agricultural products, accelerating genetic erosion and introducing new environmental hazards.
Molecular biology is the most powerful tool of biotechnology. In the area known generally as genetic engineering, scientists can transfer genes between unrelated species endowing such “transgenic” plants, animals and microorganisms with properties that they could probably never have acquired in nature. As yet, only a handful of genetically engineered products are available commercially, but hundreds are in the pipeline.
Genetic engineers can design crop varieties containing natural insecticidal genes, fish with human growth hormones, and faster growing trees. It must be stressed, however, that genetic engineering consists essentially of mixing and matching genes from different species. It cannot create genetic material, replace lost material or eliminate the need to conserve living resources.
Molecular biology is important in characterizing and conserving biodiversity. For example, molecular markers can help establish the extent of diversity within a species and to identify genes of interest to breeders. Such techniques can also help establish priorities for conservation.
Biotechnology to protect biodiversity
Biotechnology already assists the conservation of plant and animal genetic resources through:
Tissue culture is just one example. The technique, which involves growing small pieces of plant tissue or individual cells in culture, provides a fast and efficient way of taking numerous cuttings from a single plant. In many cases, entire plants can be regenerated from a single cell because each cell contains all the necessary genetic information. After selecting a disease-free cutting, for example, scientists can mass-produce copies that are genetically identical. This is the basis of plant cloning, or micropropagation of plants.
In gene banks, tissue culture is now used routinely to preserve the genetic information of plants which have seeds that do not store well, are sterile or have poor germination rates. Plant cells maintained on a growth medium in a test-tube replace seeds or plants. Plants stored in this way include sweet potatoes, bananas and plantains, apples, cocoa and many tropical fruits.
Biodiversity: obstacle or…
Biotechnology contributes to conservation and the sustainable use of biodiversity, but several areas exist where modern biotechnology may hinder development or create serious hardship for rural communities.
Substitution. The economies of developing countries are threatened by biotechnology research that promises to eliminate or displace traditional export commodities, often a primary source of foreign exchange. Current research, for example, focuses on substitutes for tropical oils and fats —ranging from cocoa butter to castor oil. Biosynthesis in the laboratory of high-value ingredients such as vanilla, pyrethrum and rubber could ultimately transfer production out of farmers' fields and into industrial bioreactors. Without ample opportunity to plan and diversify, developing country farmers and their botanical exports may suffer massive displacement, wreaking havoc on already weak economies.
A new wave of genetic erosion?
Biotechnology may threaten the genetic diversity on which it depends. In the absence of conservation, commercial biotechnology may unleash a new era of genetic erosion. A commercial venture in Chile, for example, can propagate up to 10 million eucalyptus seedlings, all identical clones, in automated nurseries. Similarly, commercial semen and embryo transfer services for domestic animals raise concern about the displacement of traditional livestock breeds. Cloning could accelerate replacement or dilution of indigenous stock by imported breeds, leading to a loss of genetic diversity.
Biosafety. A related concern involves the ecological risks of introducing genetically engineered plants into centres of diversity. Transgenic varieties, a good number of them resistant to herbicides, have been produced in more than 40 crop plants. Gene flow to weeds from resistant plants could have far-reaching consequences. The resulting herbicide-tolerant weed could be difficult to control, harming future crop production as well as the surrounding ecosystem. Will biotechnology firms seeking to penetrate markets in developing countries take into account the risks posed in regions where wild and weedy relatives of major food and industrial crops are found? Will the developing countries have the capacity to monitor and assess the risks?
…opportunity for development?
Biotechnologists could develop new varieties and breeds adapted to low-input agriculture or harsh conditions, or improve processing. Biotechnology may help create markets by developing new industrial, medicinal and aromatic crops. Given their richness in biodiversity, several developing countries that have the capabilities, such as Brazil, China and India, could produce new high-value products based on local flora. The congenial agro-ecological settings and availability of relatively cheap labour should be conducive to large-scale production of new high-value crops, enabling such countries to maintain their comparative advantage in these commodities.
The use of biotechnology to develop biofertilizers and to detect and control pests and pathogens will be particularly helpful to poor farmers. Such technologies could also bring trading advantages by removing non-tariff barriers arising from the presence of pesticide residues or pest infestation in food commodities that otherwise have an export, and therefore income-generating, potential.
The fundamental question posed by biotechnology remains: Who will control the new technologies and benefit from them? FAO is trying to strengthen national capacities to exploit biotechnology for sustainable, low-input agriculture, and to encourage biotechnology research on products/commodities that are important to developing nations. It is also fostering the best uses of biotechnologies to identify and conserve genetic resources. Finally, FAO is developing a Code of Conduct that covers the issues raised above.
Leading biotechnology companies*
* Ranked according to spending on plant biotechnology research and development.
F A C T S
The biotechnology industry in the United States produced pharmaceuticals, diagnostic tests and agricultural products worth almost US$2 000 million in 1990.
Two-thirds of all biotechnology companies are focused on therapeutic or diagnostic applications and only one in ten is applying biotechnology in food and agriculture.
Researchers at the University of California have filed a patent for thaumatin — extracted from a West African plant Thaumatococcus daniellii — which is 100 000 times sweeter than cane sugar.
University of Toledo (USA) scientists have filed a patent application to use endod - extracted from the African soap berry - to control zebra mussels in the Great Lakes.
Chymosin, the enzyme traditionally taken from cows and used in cheese-making, can now be made from specially engineered microorganisms.