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Crop Biotechnologies in Developing Countries

In developing countries, there is a need for continued focus on the optimization of agricultural output, in conjunction with conservation of the natural resources base, via improved crops and crop management systems. The implications of climate change make it necessary to integrate considerations regarding adaptation, uncertainty, vulnerability and resilience into agricultural research strategies and programmes. The various biotechnologies available have the potential to play a significant role in this process.

Crop biotechnologies have developed incrementally over the past century, but progress has accelerated greatly over the last two decades, leading to many important scientific achievements and impressive technological advances. A wide range of crop biotechnologies are available and some are increasingly used in developing countries, especially tissue-culture-based techniques (such as micropropagation), mutagenesis, interspecific or intergeneric hybridization, genetic modification, marker-assisted selection (MAS), disease diagnostics and bioprotection, and biofertilization.

As with other maturing technologies, there have been mixed experiences with crop biotechnologies in developing countries. Genetic modification has had limited but real success in modifying a few simple input traits in a small number of commercial commodity crops, adopted also in some developing countries. The wider application of genetic modification has been slowed down by severe limitations on the kinds of traits available, complex intellectual property rights regimes and regulatory issues, and the often negative perception of the public. While there have been significant successes in the adoption by farmers of a few first-generation transgenic varieties, there have also been unexpected market setbacks as farmers sought to avoid high seed costs and other restrictions.

The major breeding and crop management applications to date have come from non-transgenic biotechnologies encompassing the full range of agronomic traits and practices relevant to developing countries' farmers. For example, mutagenesis is widely used in developing countries and more than 2 200 mutation-derived crop varieties have been obtained worldwide in the last sixty years, mainly in developing countries. Interspecific hybridization allows the combination of favourable traits from different species and has been used successfully in, for instance, the development of interspecific disease-resistant Asian rice and New Rice for Africa (NERICA) varieties. However, interspecific hybridization programmes can be slow and require a great deal of scientific expertise and skilled labour.

MAS is still at a relatively early stage in its application for key subsistence crops in many developing countries, although it has begun to produce some significant results, such as the development of a pearl millet hybrid with resistance to downy mildew disease in India. The costs and technical sophistication required for MAS, however, remain major challenges for developing countries. Micropropagation is used for the mass clonal propagation of elite lines or disease-free planting material. Many developing countries have significant crop micropropagation programmes and are applying it to a wide range of subsistence crops.

Biotechnology also offers important tools for the diagnosis of plant diseases of both viral and bacterial origin, and immuno-diagnostic techniques as well as DNA-based methods are commercially applied for this purpose in many developing countries. Biofertilizers are also being used in developing countries both to augment the nutritional status of crops and as alternatives to chemical supplements.

Biotechnologies such as cryopreservation, artificial seed production, somatic embryogenesis, and other forms of in vitro cell or tissue culture, are also extensively used for the conservation of genetic resources for food and agriculture in developing countries.

Biotechnology programmes have been effective where they complemented well-structured conventional plant breeding and agronomy R&D programmes. Key factors in the successful development of crop biotechnologies in developing countries have been: appropriate policy development, strengthened research and extension institutions, and enhanced capacities for researchers and technicians. The establishment of cross-sectoral regulatory measures has also been important.

The uptake of biotechnologies in developing countries is increasing gradually but remains patchy. Many biotechnological advances were made in industrialized countries in the private sector, leading to development of proprietary technologies that are often unavailable to scientists in developing countries. Farmers in developing countries, especially small farmers, cultivate crops and face problems that are particular to their cultural and environmental conditions, and have often limited purchasing power to access proprietary technologies. The spillover of research results obtained in industrialized countries by the private sector has therefore had only a limited impact on the livelihoods of subsistence farmers in developing countries. In fact, the most enduring successes to date have come from indigenous public-sector crop research programmes addressing farmer-relevant problems.

Even when there has been strong development of biotechnologies within the public sector in developing countries, they have not always been directed towards - or made available for - improving smallholder livelihoods. In fact, an inclusive process of decision-making about the allocation of resources for the development of appropriate crop biotechnologies was rarely adopted, undermining the successful development of crop biotechnologies. In some cases, even though the technology was sound and the products were potentially beneficial to farmers, there was limited or no adoption due to often-predictable infrastructure or market deficiencies. A promising approach to address such problems is farmer participatory research, but this must be coupled with measures to address a wide range of cross-sectoral issues from extension services to seed multiplication programmes.

For more information, see Current status and options for crop biotechnologies in developing countries [ - 382 KB], prepared for the FAO international technical conference on Agricultural Biotechnologies in Developing Countries (ABDC-10) that took place 1-4 March 2010 in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Page Last Updated: July 2010

©FAO/Jon Spaull
©FAO/Rocco Rorandelli