How appropriate are currently available biotechnologies in the crop sector for food production and agriculture in developing countries
The biotechnology industry has developed in a very short time period to become a multi-billion dollar industry providing products for the areas of human health care, industrial processing, environmental bioremediation and food and agriculture. It is an industry that has developed, been financed and is firmly based in developed countries (especially North America). Whereas public funding for agricultural research has stagnated or declined, the biotechnology industry has continued to invest heavily in agricultural research due to the large advances made in the area and the strengthening of intellectual property rights for biological materials.
The biotechnologies used and developed by the industry reflect market realities and are used primarily to provide products for developed countries. The biotechnologies used for food and agriculture are no exception in this regard. In this e-mail conference we will discuss recently-developed biotechnologies that are currently available in the crop sector, in the context of how appropriate they are for food production and agriculture in developing countries.
2. Description of Currently Available Biotechnologies in the Crop Sector:
It is probably fair to say that the most significant breakthroughs in recent years in the area of crop biotechnologies have stemmed from research into the genetic mechanisms behind economically important traits. The rapidly progressing discipline of genomics, providing information on the identity, location, impact and function of genes affecting such traits, is producing knowledge that has driven and will increasingly drive the application of biotechnologies in crops. Here, we provide a summary of recently developed biotechnologies for the crop sector that could be used in practice for food production and agriculture in developing countries.
A. Biotechnologies based on molecular markers:
All living things are made up of cells that are programmed by genetic material called DNA. This molecule is made up of a long chain of nitrogen-containing bases (A, C, G and T). Only a small fraction of the sequence in plants makes up genes, i.e. that code for proteins, while the remaining and major share of the DNA represents non-coding sequences whose role is not yet clearly understood. The genetic material is organised into sets of chromosomes (e.g. 5 pairs in the much-studied mustard species Arabidopsis thaliana), and the entire set is called the genome.
Molecular markers are identifiable DNA sequences, found at specific locations of the genome. They may differ between individuals of the same population. Different classes of markers exist, such as RFLPs, AFLPs, RAPDs or microsatellites.
Molecular markers can be used for:
a) Marker-assisted selection, which is the use of markers to increase the response to selection. A quantitative trait (i.e. one such as fruit yield that shows continuous variation and cannot be classified into a few discrete classes) is usually controlled by many genes, called quantitative trait loci (QTL). By using molecular markers closely linked to, or even located within, one or more QTL, information at the DNA-level is used directly and selection response can be increased.
b) Marker-assisted introgression, where markers are used to increase the speed or efficiency of introgression (i.e. the introduction of new gene(s) from a population A to a population B by crossing A and B and then repeatedly backcrossing to B). Introgression may be of interest, for example, when wishing to introduce genes from wild relatives into modern plant varieties.
c) Studies of genetic diversity and of taxonomic/phylogenetic relationships between plant species or between populations (or varieties) within species.
d) Studies of biological processes, such as mating systems, pollen movement or seed dispersal, and of the genetic mechanisms behind physiological traits.
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B. Genetically-modified crops:
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are those that have been modified by the application of recombinant DNA technology (where DNA from one organism is transferred to another organism). The term ''transgenic crops'' is also used for genetically modified crops, where a foreign gene (a transgene) is incorporated into the plant genome. It may help us to distinguish between 3 distinctive types of genetically-modified crops
i) ''Wide Transfer'': where genes are transferred from organisms of other kingdoms (e.g. bacteria, animal) into plants
ii) ''Close Transfer'': where genes are transferred from one species of plant to another
iii) ''Tweaking'': where genes already present in the plant's genome are manipulated to change the level or pattern of expression.
Transgenic plants have been the subject of much controversy, although they now cover large areas in certain parts of the world. Estimates for 1999 indicate that 39.9 million hectares of land were planted with transgenic crops. Of these, 7.1 (18%) were in developing countries, almost all in Argentina (6.7 million hectares) and China (0.3), while the US and Canada accounted for 32.7 million hectares (82%). Of the 39.9 million hectares, 28.1 million (i.e. 71%) were modified for tolerance to a specific herbicide (which could be sprayed on the field, killing weeds while leaving the crop undamaged); 8.9 million hectares (22%) were modified to include a toxin-producing gene from a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, which poisons insects feeding on the plant, while 2.9 million hectares (7%) were planted with crops having both herbicide tolerance and insect resistance.
Most of the transgenic crops planted so far have thus incorporated only a very limited number of genes. However, some transgenic crops of greater potential interest for developing countries have been developed in the research laboratories but have not yet been released commercially, such as transgenic rice of high iron content developed by transferring the ferritin gene from soybean to rice, or transgenic rice producing provitamin A.
This is the in-vitro multiplication and/or regeneration of plant material under aseptic and controlled environmental conditions on specially prepared media that contain plant nutrition and growth regulators. The most commonly used materials are excised embryos, shoot-tips or pieces of stems, roots, leafs etc.
It is the basis of a large commercial plant propagation industry involving hundreds of labs around the world. The technique can be used to multiply, in large numbers, clones of a particular variety. Apart from its rapid propagation advantages, micropropagation can also be used to generate disease-free planting material, especially if combined with the use of disease-detection diagnostic kits. Micropropagation techniques have been developed and are applied for a wide range of crops, including woody and fruit plants.
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3. Food and Agriculture in Developing Countries:
The emphasis of the e-mail conference is on developing countries. In this context, we should keep in mind that a tremendous variety of production systems and environmental constraints are found between different developing countries and even within individual countries. Four broad agro-ecological zones (humid and peri-humid lowlands; hill and mountain areas; irrigated and naturally flooded areas; drylands and areas of uncertain rainfall) account for 90% of agricultural production in developing countries. Within each of the zones, a range of farming systems are found as well as a mixture of traditional and modern production systems.
The global population size has passed the 6 billion mark and is increasing by roughly 80 million annually. Almost all population growth is in developing countries. While the number of inhabitants in the developing and developed world respectively is estimated at 4.75 and 1.31 billion respectively for the year 2000, in 20 years time it is predicted to be 6.15 and 1.36 billion respectively.
Farm sizes tend to be small, as reflected by a study of 57 developing countries which showed that nearly 50% of farms were smaller than 1 hectare. The increase in food production needed to cover the increased population size cannot come from recruiting new land for agricultural purposes. Most land suitable for agriculture is already in use. When comparing the total amount of land of crop-producing potential with the amount of cultivated land, there are however noticeable differences between regions. For example, in South Asia, 191 of the potential 228 million hectares were already under cultivation in 1988-1990, whereas in Latin America and the Caribbean only 190 of the potential 1,059 million hectares were in use. However, parts of these could not be readily converted to crop production as they are already used for other purposes such as forestry, animal grazing or conservation. Degradation of land already in use, due to overgrazing, deforestation and poor farming practices, is also an increasing problem globally. The increases in food production needed to feed the world's growing population must therefore come from increasing the amount of food produced per hectare.
Note, however, that the issue of world hunger may not be simply solved by increasing the world food supply. In the world today enough food is produced to feed all its inhabitants but yet it is estimated that in 1995-1997 there were roughly 790 million undernourished people in developing countries, i.e. whose food intake was insufficient to meet basic energy requirements on a continuing basis. Hunger and poverty are also influenced and determined by many different demographic, environmental, economic, social and political factors and these factors should also be considered when trying to reduce hunger in the world. Food needs to be available and accessible to the poor, wherever they may be.
4. Certain Factors that Should Be Considered in the Discussion:
The key question in this e-mail conference is how appropriate each of the different biotechnologies, mentioned previously in this document, may be for the crop sector in developing countries and regions.
The question of appropriateness should consider the following elements
- The factors determining or influencing the appropriateness of the different biotechnologies e.g. their environmental impact; their impact on human health; the status with respect to intellectual property rights; the status with respect to biosafety regulations and controls; the degree of access to the biotechnologies; the level of capacity-building or resources required to use them; their financial cost; their impact on food production and food security;
- The relative costs (financial, social, political or otherwise) of the biotechnologies versus the relative benefits (productivity, food security or otherwise);
- Whether they are more (or less) appropriate than existing conventional methods in the crop sector for food production and agriculture, given the realities of life in developing countries;
- Whether some of the biotechnologies are more (or less) appropriate than others;
- Whether some biotechnologies are more (or less) suited to certain regions in the developing world than others.
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