Biotechnology in agriculture, forestry and fisheries - FAO's policy and strategy

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Developments in biotechnology
Applications, impact and potential
Issues and concerns in biotechnology with special reference to developing countries
FAO's policies and strategies
Concluding remarks


In this document, biotechnology is defined as "any technique that uses living organisms to make or modify a product, to improve plants or animals, or to develop microorganisms for specific uses" (after the Office of Technology Assessment, US Congress). The document focuses on the development and application of modern biotechnology which is based on the use of new enabling techniques of recombinant-DNA technology, often referred to as "genetic engineering".

Biotechnology has great potential to influence and benefit agriculture, forestry and fisheries. Modern techniques of biotechnology offer the potential of moving any cloned gene from any organism into any other organism and confer much greater precision and speed in achieving results as compared to conventional techniques. In conjunction with conventional technologies, modern biotechnology holds promise of increased and sustained productivity, efficient processing for improved product diversification and utilization, adaptation of product quality to functional requirements, and decreased reliance on agrochemicals and other external inputs. It may also promote better conservation and use of genetic resources, and environmentally friendly management of natural resources. However, the number of marketable products and their influence at the farm level still seems to be limited, but is likely to increase in the next decade.

Biotechnology also poses certain challenges. These are largely determined by how, where and when it finds application. In general, the fast-paced research, predominantly funded by private-sector investment, and use of intellectual property rights in industrialized countries are seen as evidence that the application of biotechnology will hold the key to competitiveness and comparative advantage in many fields, including agriculture and food.

Biotechnology, with its vast potential and challenges, is thus of the utmost importance to agricultural development, and hence to FAO. The science of developing biotechnological tools cannot make a distinction between developing and developed countries. However, the application of such tools in the development process requires preconditions which are easily found in many developed countries, but which hardly exist in most developing countries. The current paths of research and development have given rise to concern that the disparity in harnessing biotechnologies for agricultural and economic development may increase between industrialized and developing countries.

The preamble to the FAO Constitution requires that the Organization work towards raising levels of nutrition and the standards of living of all peoples, securing improvements in the efficiency of the production and distribution of all food and agricultural products, improving the conditions of rural populations and thus contributing towards an expanding world economy. Therefore, one of the major tasks for the Organization is to ensure that the benefits of biotechnology will be shared by people in the north and the south, in both large and small, and rich and poor countries.

In recent years, various FAO bodies and conferences such as the Tenth Session of FAO's Committee on Agriculture, 1991; the FAO Conference 1989; Sessions of the FAO Commission on Plant Genetic Resources, 1989 and 1991; FAO/CTA International Symposium on Plant Biotechnologies for Developing Countries, 1989; and the 20th FAO Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific, 1990, have strongly recommended that FAO, as the lead UN specialized agency for food and agriculture, must respond to the potential and challenges of modern biotechnology for agriculture, forestry and fisheries.

This paper, therefore, examines the pattern of biotechnological development in developed and developing countries, the application, impacts and potential of biotechnologies in agriculture, forestry and fisheries. It then analyses some of the issues and concerns in biotechnology such as trade substitution, biosafety, and intellectual property rights, with special reference to developing countries. Finally, it elaborates the elements of FAO's policy and strategies on biotechnology.

Developments in biotechnology

There exists a gradient of biotechnologies, depending on the degree of sophistication, complexity, stage of development and application. The lower side of the gradient comprises simpler but widely used techniques such as in vitro culture, rhizobium technology, fermentation. The upper side of the gradient includes advanced techniques involving genetic engineering. The gradient of biotechnologies may be matched with the gradient of national capabilities, economic investment and efforts to provide the possibility of choosing the appropriate techniques and approaches with the most positive impacts. The pattern of use and development of biotechnologies in developed and developing countries thus varies considerably.

The pattern in developed countries

In the industrialized countries, a new pattern of biotechnological research funding has emerged. With the availability of property right protection of biotechnologies and prospects of vast markets for biotechnology products and the techniques, the bulk of the research is funded, carried out, and controlled by the private sector. For instance, since 1976 when GENENTECH, the first biotechnology company, was established, the new techniques have spawned a variety of industries that now comprise more than 400 start-up firms, more than 200 established firms that have diversified into biotechnology, and more than 200 supply firms in the United States alone. The new biotechnology industry in the United States produced pharmaceutical, diagnostic tests and agricultural products worth close to US$2 billion in 1990. A similar trend is seen in Europe and Japan. It is estimated that about 60 percent of the biotechnology research and development funding in industrialized countries is from the private sector. Thus, the private sector has been a major force in enhancing the capability of these countries in this field.

Research institutions in the public sector are now generally required to raise a substantial part of their budget from non-government sources, via contractual research, licensing agreements and royalties. This is tending to increase secrecy over research findings and to hinder free scientific communication. University professors, researchers and government institution scientists are increasingly becoming entrepreneurial and are entering private industry.

Another important trend is that large multinational corporations are purchasing smaller seed and biotechnology companies and diversifying their holdings. This allows them to develop a package sale of chemicals, seeds and equipment.

Heavy involvement of the private sector and market considerations greatly influence the topics and commodities chosen for research. Major crops, commodities and farming systems of great socio-economic importance to the developing world, but of little international market importance, do not figure in the biotechnology research agenda of industrialized countries. Furthermore, these countries are keen to reduce their production costs, increase the productivity, quality and value of their products and, thus, improve their overall competitiveness in the world market.

The patterns in developing countries

Biotechnology facilities are being established in most developing countries. However, the level of research, development and use of biotechnology for agriculture, forestry and fisheries in the developing countries is generally far below the level in the industrialized countries. Among developing countries, the status varies considerably. A few, such as Brazil, Mexico, India, China and The Republic of Korea, have sought to gain full scientific and technological capacity, especially in agricultural biotechnology. Others, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand and a few countries of Latin America, have built the capacity to apply biotechniques and develop biotechnologies useful for their agriculture and food industries. The participation of the private sector in gaining biotechnological capacity is not significant in most of these countries.

Many developing countries have inadequate funding, poor human resources and limited access to information, resulting in a relatively low-level capacity for research and technology development and exploitation, especially in the field of modern biotechnology research, which is costly and requires highly trained personnel. Most developing countries are vague as to their immediate aims in agricultural biotechnology. Few have appropriate proprietary-right protection systems or mechanisms to increase their access to protected techniques and products. Furthermore, there is negligible involvement of the private sector, which accentuates the problem of insufficient attention to biotechnology.

One of the major constraints on biotechnological development in developing countries is the poor quality and extent of higher education in frontier sciences, especially molecular biology. Besides, there are no or very weak links between universities and research institutions to reinforce each other and to utilize synergistically the scarce trained personnel resources. The university experts play a negligible role in national policy formulation, including that on biotechnology. Furthermore the universities are generally not oriented for efficiency in commercialization and are therefore not able to market biotechnology products of their own or others' inventions.

Some international and donor-country public sector institutions strive to ensure that attention is given to solving, through biotechnology, the food and agriculture problems of developing countries. Among this group are the International Agricultural Research Centres (IARCs) located or operating in developing countries. Capacity exists in several of these centres for utilization of advances in biotechnologies to solve certain problems of plant production and protection and of livestock production and health, and capacity is being built in others. For example, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is incorporating modern molecular biology in its rice research activities. Its programme is linked closely to the Rockefeller Foundation Biotechnology Network. The World Bank, the International Service for National Agricultural Research (ISNAR) and the Australian Government undertook a major study on the likely impact of modern biotechnology on agriculture. This study is being followed up by the participants by an expansion in the World Bank lending for biotechnology and by ISNAR's establishing an Intermediary Biotechnology Service to provide advisory services to national agricultural research systems.

Applications, impact and potential

Biotechnological research and development are moving at a very fast rate. For instance, three years ago, transgenics in rice, especially in japonica rices, were considered rather difficult because of the problem of regeneration through protoplast culture. But today, a large number of transgenics both in indica and japonica types are available and are being tested at various stages. It is therefore difficult to predict the potential and impact of a given technology beyond five years or so. This section gives a brief account of the current level of technology and refers to the developments likely to occur in the next three to five years.

The potential of genetic engineering in medicine has received much attention. The potential for advances in agriculture, forestry and fishery are similarly bright. Biotechniques are already being used to create new strains of crop plants, new plant and animal diagnostic products, animal vaccines, biological pesticides and herbicides, other biological control agents, and modifications in domestic animals used for food production. In some cases, applications are being held in check by the need for still more research to ensure that there are no harmful effects (or, if there are, they are greatly outweighed by the benefits) and by the slow pace of evolution of regulations governing the release of genetically modified organisms or products for general use or acquisition.

Biotechnological research, especially genetic engineering, on problems of field and tree crops, forest species and fisheries has a relatively short history. The knowledge of biological aspects of species and ecosystems needs to be expanded in may cases before new biotechnologies can be applied effectively. Even where transfer of one or more genes can be achieved reliably, expression of the transferred gene(s) may not occur in the expected way. The search for and identification and cloning of useful genes, effective vector systems, methods of gene transfer and promoter mechanisms should be intensified.

A perspective on both the difficulties and intensity of the research effort suggests that diagnostic tools will speed solutions in the next five to ten years to certain disease problems in several crop, forest, animal and fish species, such as black sigatoka of banana and plantain, and virus/viroid diseases of coconut and rice. Improved tolerance to certain physical stresses, such as heat tolerance in potatoes, may also be achieved, but prospects for improved resistance of varieties and clones to most abiotic stresses are longer term.


Modern biotechnologies can add greater precision and speed to plant breeding. Transgenics have already been reported in 40 crop plants, including maize, rice, soybean, cotton, rapeseed, potato, sugar beet, tomato, potato and alfalfa, but the new varieties are yet to be used commercially. Near-future opportunities for commercial exploitation include vegetables and fruits (potato, tomato, cucumber, cantaloupe and squash), followed by legumes (alfalfa) and oilseed crops (oilseed rape). A good number of the transgenics are herbicide-resistant plants whose widespread use is somewhat controversial.

Wide use is currently made of tissue culture techniques for micropropagation of elite clones and for freeing planting materials of pathogens. Monoclonal antibodies are also in use as diagnostic aids in the detection and identification of viruses and viroids. Another culture and microspore culture giving rise to haploids are being used in variety improvement to facilitate and accelerate breeding. Molecular maps and markers are being widely used to identify genes of interest to accelerate conventional breeding programmes. Efficient biological nitrogen fixation systems and strains for efficient utilization of soil nutrients are being genetically engineered. Other long-term objectives are the genetic manipulations of photosynthesis pattern and the production of hybrid seed through apomixis. A very distant possibility is providing nitrogen fixation capacity to cereals.


Among agricultural and allied fields, animal production and health have benefited the most from biotechnology, although practical use of transgenic livestock is only a future possibility. Wide use of monoclonal antibodies for efficient diagnostics, leading to safe and specific treatments of animal diseases, is a major breakthrough. Through genetic engineering, vaccines for the prevention of viral, bacterial, and parasitic animal diseases are rendered more effective and safe. Tailored vaccines exist for pig scours, chicken bursar disease and cattle tickborne diseases. Pathogen-specific vaccines are attractive goals. Other interesting possibilities are endocrine-directed vaccines to stimulate twinning in beef cattle, immunocastration, livestock growth rate increase and vaccines that compensate for various stress-induced production losses.

Advances in genetic engineering will also facilitate the production of male-only populations of screwworms, tsetse flies, ticks and various other ectoparasites for use in the sterile release technique of control or eradication. Furthermore mammalian tissue culture may replace whole animals in the 1990s for toxicity testing of certain chemicals. The culture technique can also be exploited for studying and analyzing pesticide metabolism and for herbicide pre-screening. In vitro fertilization and embryo sexing techniques have considerably increased the use of embryo transfer techniques for cattle breeding and trade. The value of the approach will be further enhanced if embryo cloning techniques can be reliably employed. Microbial and enzymatic treatment of roughages and genetic engineering of rumen bacteria both have great potential to improve animal nutrition. Growth hormones can be produced by genetically engineered microorganisms in quantities and at the low cost necessary for widespread use to speed and increase milk and lean meat production. Biotechnological tools (embryo culture, gene cloning, etc.) may also be used for conservation of genetic resources.


Successful regeneration through micropropagation or somatic embryogenesis has been achieved for about 100 forest species although, for most, considerable development work would be required before commercial propagation could be contemplated. In breeding programmes incorporating clonal testing, inclusion of a micromultiplication phase may facilitate more rapid deployment of superior genotypes than that afforded by sequential multiplication by cuttings. This will particularly be the case when gene mappling techniques are sufficiently advanced to permit accurate identification of superior genotypes without replicated clonal testing in the field, especially within a breeding line where substantial genetic disequilibrium exists. Furthermore, gene mapping may allow eventual identification of valuable genes, including those that contribute to quantitative traits.

As regards the application of genetic engineering, many major traits of commercial importance to forestry are under polygenic control, and much remains to be learned about the operation of the genes involved before this technique can have a major impact for these characters. An earlier application of genetic engineering in some forestry operations may be the introduction of genes, some already available, known to confer insect of disease resistance. Other applications of biotechnology with obvious value for forestry, but as yet not widely supported by experimental successes, include: in vitro manipulation of the maturation state, e.g. the promotion of early flowering to reduce generation intervals, in vitro selection for traits such as disease resistance and tolerance to salinity; and the use of haploid cultures.


Two broad areas of biotechnology exist within the fisheries sector, namely natural products biotechnology (including mostly marine species); and aquaculture biotechnology. Commercially valuable products such as pharmaceutical compounds, pigments, oils, sterols, alginates and agarose are being extracted from micro- and macro-algae in many parts of the world. Aquatic invertebrates are currently being screened for biologically active compounds that may have, inter alia anti-carcinogenic or antiviral properties, whereas marine bacteria are currently utilized in treatments of oil spills and holding tanks in tanker ships.

Within aquaculture, induced increases in the chromosome complement (polyploidy) of commercially important species such as salmon and oysters have increased the growth and marketability of these species. Genetically engineered microbes can be used to produce fish growth hormones, which might then be used to improve feed conversion and growth rate. Synthetic reproductive hormones are produced commercially and used to regulate fecundity, breeding cycles, growth rates and sex determination in certain cultured species. In attempts to increase desirable culture qualities such as growth rate, disease resistance, temperature tolerance and marketability, transgenic fishes containing introduced genes from other species have been produced on an experimental scale. The application of advanced biotechnology to the fisheries sector is a relatively recent practice. Therefore, continued research can be expected to reveal additional commercially viable applications and products within this sector.

Processing and product quality and uses

Biotechnology could have great potential for improving the quality and diversifying the uses of agricultural, forestry and fisheries products. This technology could be used for processing products by both traditional and new methods in order to:

Biotechnology is being used in a number of countries to characterize the indigenous germplasm variability for therapeutic and biologically important substances. The use of biotechnology for the removal of toxic and antinutritional factors and for improving the quality of food products is gaining momentum. These techniques include the elimination or reduction of cyanogenic compounds in cassava and the incorporation of high protein in potato and sweet potato.

Conservation and utilization of genetic resources

New biotechnologies offer not only techniques to improve the conservation of genetic resources, but also new methods to identify, clone, transfer and express genes in different organisms. This has profound implications for the utilization of genetic resources, could broaden the germplasm base from which new genetic combinations can be created, and will allow scientists to pursue their breeding efforts with greater focus and speed. In vitro conservation and the use of techniques for germplasm exchange of certain plant species are already proving considerably more efficient than conventional methods. Furthermore, the generation of gene libraries provides a valuable adjunct to the conventional germplasm conservation methods. Molecular methods such as Restriction Fragment Length Polymorph (RFLP), isozyme and protein analyses are already being used for the characterization of genetic resources and the identification of useful genes. However, massive use of crop varieties reproduced through in vitro culture, which contain genetically identical copies of the parent, could provoke increasing genetic erosion.

Resistance/tolerance to stresses

Biotechnologies have been particularly effective in and could have great potential for developing genotypes resistant/tolerant to biotic and abiotic stresses commonly affecting crop, livestock, forest and fish species, and can therefore contribute to reducing inputs of pesticides and to stabilizing agriculture in marginal lands and inhospitable habitats. Genetically engineered de novo synthesis of biopesticides by host species for their own defence, development of biocapsules containing genetically engineered biopesticides and virus coat protein-mediated resistance represent tremendous opportunities for pest management. It is anticipated that genetically engineered vegetable and cereal crops, resistant to certain insects and viruses or tolerant to herbicides, will be commercially available by 1993. Genetically engineered biopesticides are near approval for sale in some countries. The efficiency of insect-based control of pest arthropods, pathogens and weeds and the production of sterile males for insect control can be enhanced considerably through genetic engineering. Furthermore, biotechnologies are aiding conventional breeding in developing genotypes resistant/tolerant to high and low temperature regimes, drought and excess water conditions and saline and other problem soil conditions. A major concern about these solutions, however, is their sustainability if the improved attributes are based on one or only a few genes, as has often been the case.

Sustainable production

Biotechnology may be used as a tool in the sustained production of crops, livestock, forest and fisheries by providing opportunities to:

In order to be not only environmentally friendly but also socio-economically viable and attractive, a more vigorous and focused research and development approach, especially by the public sector, is necessary. The private sector should also be encouraged to achieve the desired goal of sustainable development through the use of sound biotechniques.

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