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Biotechnology: the impact on food and nutrition in developing countries

G. Junne

Dr Gerd Junne is a professor of International Relations at the University of Amsterdam, and editor of the Biotechnology and Development Monitor.

Animal production
Plant production

Biotechnology promises to bring important changes in plant as well as livestock production. In both fields, it will affect all steps of the production chain, from agrochemical inputs and breeding to final food processing.

Animal production

The use of biotechnology in animal production has advanced more quickly than its applications in plant production. Worldwide, more than one-half of all biotechnology research and development expenditures are in the field of human health. At the experimental stage, a large number of drugs, diagnostic probes, vaccines and so on are frequently applied in livestock production prior to becoming available for use by humans. Developments in the pharmaceutical industry, therefore, have had considerable ramifications for animal production since many innovations in this area are also applicable to animals.

Applications of biotechnology to animal production centre on four fields:

· reproduction, selection and breeding;
· animal health;
· feeding and nutrition; and
· growth and production.

In the field of reproduction, new biotechniques such as embryo transfers, in vitro fertilization, cloning and sex determination of embryos have been developed for different types of livestock; for example, cattle. This is of considerable interest for breeding programmes in developing countries since importing frozen embryos can be less costly than importing live animals.

Animal health, the second field, can be improved with new biotechnology methods of diagnosis, prevention and control of animal diseases. Diagnostic tests based on the use of monoclonal antibodies and new vaccines against viral and bacterial diseases are also particularly relevant for developing countries.

Biotechnology research in the third field of animal nutrition concentrates on improvements in the enzymatic treatment of feed; the addition of inoculant to ensilaged fodder for better and faster conversion; and decreasing the anti-nutritional factors in certain plants, such as legumes, which are used as feed. In developing countries, such techniques might eventually increase the potential range of crops used to feed larger herds of livestock.

Experiments with hormones to improve milk and meat production (such as bovine somatotropin and recombinant porcine somatotropin) are the subject of much debate in industrialized countries because of their possible negative effects on animals and farm structures. In developing countries, however, specific needs for increases in productivity can be an overriding consideration which may lead to earlier large-scale adoption of this technology than in many industrialized countries. This field represents the fourth area of biotechnology application.

Plant production

There is scarcely any aspect of plant production that will hot undergo profound changes as a result of the application of biotechnology. Commercial applications of plant genetic engineering have not yet occurred. At the present time, more traditional aspects of biotechnology such as tissue culture have had an important impact, especially in the acceleration of the breeding process for new varieties and in the multiplication of disease-free seed material.

Provision of seeds

Plant breeding has been enhanced considerably by in vitro development of improved varieties which are better adapted to a specific environment. The application of tissue culture has several advantages, including:

· the rapid reproduction and multiplication of cultivars;

· the production of healthy cultivars, free of viruses and pathogenic agents;

· the rapid adaptation and selection of cultivars that are resistant to specific stress factors (for instance, salinity and acid soils);

· the availability of seed material throughout the year (rather than seeds which are subject to the seasonal cycle);

· the possibilities to produce species that are difficult to reproduce or that reproduce and grow slowly; and

· improved possibilities for the storage and transportation of germplasm.

Since the application of tissue culture does not require very expensive equipment, this technology can be applied easily in developing countries and can help to improve local varieties of food-crops. For example, using traditional methods for propagating potatoes, one tuber yields several kilograms of tubers after two years, while the same tuber can yield several thousand kilograms of tubers if tissue-culture techniques are used. In many developing countries, better selection from the varieties which are already available locally may help to improve food production considerably.

Reduced use of agrochemicals

Biotechnology can help reduce the need for agrochemicals which small farmers in developing countries often cannot afford. A reduction in the use of agrochemicals implies fewer residues in the final product. Worldwide, nitrogen-fixing bacteria are being used increasingly to inoculate the soil, thus allowing reduced inputs of fertilizer which is expensive and often presents a heavy drain on the scarce foreign exchange resources of developing countries. Biotechnology helps to identify the strains of bacteria most suitable for specific crops and soils and to multiply them for large-scale use.

Much time will be required before genetic engineering is able to make available pest-resistant varieties of the most important crops. In the meantime, biological pesticides may help to reduce the use of agrochemicals. Though fungi are the cause of most plant diseases, they can also be used to control pests. Certain types of fungi control each other, while other fungi attack weed pests or harm specific insects.

About a hundred fungus species with insecticidal effects are known today. Biotechnology can facilitate the mass production of these fungi in a storable form and the use of these products may be less expensive than that of agrochemicals. As living organisms they will multiply under favourable conditions depending on the intensity of the pests to be controlled. In addition, improved screening techniques at an early stage may reduce the amount of agrochemicals needed to fight specific diseases.

Until now, most research efforts regarding the genetic engineering of plants have been spent making crops resistant to important herbicides rather than increasing their resistance to pests. However, this latter objective is not a high priority for researchers in most developing countries.

Increased production

Biotechnology can be used in many ways to achieve higher yields; for example by improving flowering capacity and increasing photosynthesis or the intake of nutritive elements. In the long term, genetic engineering will also help to increase production of the most valuable components of specific crops. Cassava and rice, for example, are the main sources of: calories for millions of people. However, the protein content of both staples is low and, for those who lack access to a variety of foods, this may lead to a diet which is not well balanced. Genetic engineering can be used to modify the amino acid composition of plant proteins in order to increase the nutritional value of these staple crops.

Productivity increases may lead to lower prices. Certainly, this would benefit the final consumer but the situation of the producers would not necessarily improve. The income position of the rural population is affected buy such factors as:

· changes in the prices farmers receive;

· the effect of the new technology on production costs;

· the impact of the new technologies on the volume of production as well as the effects of these changes on the demand for labour; and

· the impact on the costs of their own consumption.

Whether or not rural households are able to adapt to the new technologies themselves will also affect their incomes, as will their position as net buyers or net sellers. Accordingly, various segments of the rural population will be affected in very different ways as a result of specific applications of biotechnology in a given country.

Improved harvesting

The cloning of plants can help to reduce the work necessary for harvesting. When individual plants show more uniform characteristics, grow at the same speed and ripen at the same time, harvesting will be less laborious. A reduction in the workload is not only an objective in highly industrialized countries, it can also be very important for small farmers in developing countries, especially women who are already overburdened with many other tasks.

Improved storage

Food shortages would not exist in many countries if the problem of post-harvest losses could be solved. Microbiological reactions by toxicogenic, infective and spoilage micro-organisms cause the greatest losses. Biotechnology may contribute to solving these problems.

In the future, genetic engineering may be used to remove plant components that cause early deterioration of the harvest. For instance, a technique to reduce the presence of a normal tomato enzyme involved in the softening of ripe tomato fruit has been patented. The technique involves engineering plants with an antisense1 gene so that production of the enzyme is significantly reduced.

[1 Antisense genes prevent the interpretation of a corresponding "messenger gene". Otherwise, production of a specific protein chain, an enzyme, for example, would be started.]

Improved storage and better transport of food would increase the quantity of food available and improve the possibilities for a more elaborate division of labour between different districts and regions. However, this could also affect some producers adversely if they were unable to withstand increased competition and they would therefore lose their market position. As a further consequence, much of the income upon which their own food consumption depends would be lost.

Food processing

Since proteins and vitamins are often lost in traditional food processing, fermentation processes may offer a way to preserve them. Biotechnology can be used for the upgrading of traditional food processing based on fermentation such as the procedures used to produce gari, a fermented, gritty and starchy food derived from cassava. Biotechnology can also help to eliminate toxic components, either by genetic engineering or through food processing.

In addition to eliminating unwanted components, biotechnology can be used for the inexpensive production of additives that increase the nutritive value of the final product or that improve its flavour, texture or appearance.

Present-day applications of biotechnology in food processing are far more advanced than applications in the field of plant genetic engineering. The genetic manipulation of micro-organisms used in food processing is considerably easier than the manipulation of more complex plants. It is therefore intriguing that research centres primarily on plant genetic engineering, where there are still many obstacles to overcome, while the chance to improve food processing is largely neglected.

Old and new obstacles

The potential of biotechnology for improving food and nutrition in developing countries is vast indeed. The fact that such a capability exists, however, does not assure that it will be realized. Long before the development of biotechnology, many new technologies with the potential to improve the world's food situation had been developed, yet many of these techniques have still not been adopted in those countries that could profit significantly from their use.

Obstacles frequently stand in the way of the application of new technologies in the agriculture sectors of many developing countries. They include:

· weak linkages between international and national research institutions;

· poor communication between national research institutions and farmers;

· a lack of support measures (credit schemes, regular provision of improved seeds, demonstration plots and marketing outlets); and

· landholding structures which dampen the interest of landlords and tenants in introducing new technologies.

The same barriers that have prevented the acceptance of earlier waves of new technologies may also hinder the application of biotechnology, thereby preventing the realization of its full potential. Furthermore, the rapid increase in the number of biotechnology inventions which constitute proprietary knowledge will make their diffusion to developing countries even more difficult.

Substitution effects

The uneven rate at which different regions in the world adopt the new technologies will lead to large shifts in international trade flows, with products from one country displacing those from other countries. These substitution processes take various forms:

· export crops from developing countries can be replaced by the same crops grown in more temperate climates, as these crops can be made more resistant to colder weather;

· export crops can be replaced by the products of other crops (for example, high-fructose corn syrup derived from maize has become a substitute for sugar produced from sugar cane while fats derived from whey are replacing cocoa butter);

· export cropping can be replaced by "agricultural" production without soil; that is, by the industrial production of cell cultures in large fermentors (this is becoming the case for high-value, low-volume crops such as pharmaceutical plants as well as flavours and fragrances);

· agricultural exports from some countries will be replaced because other countries will be faster in applying productivity-enhancing biotechnology and thus will become more competitive and will be able to obtain a larger market share. As a result, production of several crops will be concentrated on larger estates in fewer countries.

Different net effects for different countries

All countries will be affected differently by the above-mentioned developments. Determining factors will be whether the country is a net exporter or net importer of agricultural products and the extent to which a country can apply new technologies on a national scale. Where countries are net importers and have a low technological capacity, they may profit from lower world market prices by choosing to increase food imports. In this case, the urban population will be better off, but farmers will have more difficulties in competing with low-priced imports. As a result, rural poverty and malnutrition may increase.

Where domestic farmers are able to apply the new technologies themselves, farmers can increase their production and income, thereby increasing their food intake and enhancing the quality of their own diets as well as improving the country's locally produced food supply.

As far as net exporting countries are concerned, the crucial difference again lies in the capacity to make use of the new technologies. Those countries which have developed the necessary institutional mechanisms for introducing new technologies rapidly to farmers and facilitating their application by supplying information, seeds and credit will be able to increase their market share.

The market expansion of some nations will be at the expense of countries that are unable to introduce new technologies at the same speed. They are, primarily, a number of African countries for which agricultural products represent more than 60 percent of total export income. A substantial reduction in their export earnings may have far-reaching effects on the incomes of a large share of the population and, consequently, a negative impact on its food consumption.


Biotechnology has tremendous potential for increasing food production and improving food processing although the real impact will only be felt after the year 2000 and it will differ from country to country. Productivity must first increase in developed countries before real benefits can be reaped in developing countries. Where biotechnologies are applied to production destined for domestic markets, "demonstration effects" can stimulate developments in other countries. In this case, there is considerable scope for cooperation among developing countries. However, where the application of this new technology aims to increase productivity in the export sectors, successes in some countries could be at the expense of the market position of others. In such an event, international competition may endanger cooperation among developing countries, which seems necessary for the application of biotechnologies that are specifically suited to their interests.

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