According to Rick Weiss (science writer), science is an elegant way of getting the truth. Molecular biology and other tools of modern biotechnology add elegance and precision to the pursuit of science. However, everyone cannot appreciate this elegance in the pursuit of truth, which is finding solutions to thwart poverty, malnutrition and food insecurity in many developing countries. Instead this elegance is being used for a debate focused on its initial use in the industrialized countries and its potential risks to human health and environment. The debate about the potential utility of modern biotechnology for food and agriculture presents a challenge for modern sciences to contribute to the solution of human problem. Those who accepted the challenge believe that biotechnology is a Promethean science [In Greek mythology, Prometheus was a Titan who introduced to the human being "Fire": an innovation with enormous benefits and risks depending upon its use; since then Promethean means daringly original and creative], while those who are skeptical view this as a scientists obsession. In the present attempt, biotechnology is being presented as a continuum of biological sciences, which has evolved with the passage of time depending upon its needs. The risk and benefits associated with this technology has also been explained along with the possible reference to the context. The readers are the best judge to decide whether biotechnology is a Promethean" science or a scientists obsession.
The history of scientific progress and concerns
Mendels laws of genetics based on inheritance patterns in pea were originally
published in 1865 but it took 35 years for others to grasp their significance
when they were re-discovered in 1900 and another 20 years to take control over
genetic traits when Muller Stadler discovered (in 1920) that radiation could
induce mutations in animals and plants. Since then, science has witnessed steady
progress in understanding the genetic makeup of living organisms including microbes,
humans and plants.
Between 1930s and 1940s, several new methods of manipulating chromosomes and genes were discovered, such as the colchicine-induced doubling of chromosome number, commercial exploitation of hybrid vigor in maize and other crops, use of chemicals (such as nitrogen mustard and ethyl methane sulphonate) to induce mutations and tissue culture/embryo rescue techniques to make viable hybrids from distantly related species. The discovery of double helix structure of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953 triggered an explosive progress in every field of genetics the "Green Revolution" being an outcome of that.
The last decade of 20th century witnessed a rapid transition from Mendelian to molecular genetic applications in agriculture, medicine and industry. The progress in genetics from 1900 to date has, therefore, stressed that knowledge and discovery represent a continuum, with each generation taking our understanding of the complex web of life to a higher level. It would, therefore, be a mistake to worship or discard experimental tools or scientific innovations because they are either old or new. Just as it took 35 years for biologists to understand fully the significance of Mendels work and another 6 decades to see its miracles, it may take a couple of decades more to understand fully the benefits and risks associated with new genetically improved organisms: a process that has been accelerated by Human Genome Project that involved investment of substantial public and private resources into the development of new technologies to work with human genes. The same technologies are directly applicable to other animals and plants thus giving rise to a new scientific discipline known as genomics, which has contributed to powerful new approaches for identification of genes and their application in agricultures and medicine. We must now think how to use biotechnology effectively in our scientific endeavourers. However, before this we must take a stock of the Green Revolution and the reason(s) forcing us to use new technologies.
The Green Revolution:
The term "Green Revolution" coined in 1968 by the late William
Gaad was stimulated by the first good harvest of wheat in India and Pakistan
in 1968. This was largely caused by widespread introduction of semi-dwarf varieties
of wheat supplied by Dr. Norman Borlaug. At that time, both India and Pakistan
had a fairly large quantum jump in terms of wheat production, which instigated
"Gaad" to coin the term "Green Revolution". At the same
time, the high yielding rice variety IR-8 from the International Rice Research
Institute (IRRI), Philippines, had become available. Thus, in the next few years,
both rice and wheat production started moving forward in many parts of Asia
and Latin America and in some pockets of Africa as well.
Green revolution technologies provided fine examples of genetic manipulation using complex set of breeding and selection procedures through which the "Norin-10" and the "Dee-gee-woo- gen" dwarfing gene were introduced into commercially acceptable varieties of wheat and rice, respectively. The real magic of the revolution was evidenced through rice for which per capita production went up and the per capita area went down. Between 1968 and 1988, it was widely accepted and proved that Green Revolution technologies are aimed at yield enhancement and land saving approaches. As a result farmers of the developing countries irrespective of their holding were enormously benefited. The global cereal production doubled, per capita food availability increased by 37%, per capita calories available per day increased by 35% and real food prices declined by 50%. Global poverty fell fast between 1965 and 1985 mainly due to agriculture research that increased cereal yield and created more work places for the adults.
After almost thirty-two years of Green Revolution, a new thrust is needed because
800 million people still have too little to eat. Many live with agriculture
almost untouched by the Green Revolution. Food farming is increasingly dogged
by water shortage and diversion. Most worryingly, since mid 1980, progress against
poverty has slowed down sharply and so has progress deaths of 5 million children
annually in the developing countries and affects 20-25% of their economic growth
due to childhood sickness. Today, one third of pre-school children in these
countries and half of the children of South Asian region are malnourished. About
40% and 46% population of south Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, respectively is
living in absolute poverty. The demand for daily per capita calories is growing
from 2100 to about 2700 in developing countries while sub-Saharan Africa is
still lagging behind the region in having their per capita calories below minimum
requirement (Farooq and Azam 2002).
The critics of the technology say that it was not resource friendly because the inputs (fertilizer, pesticide and irrigation) were required according to the estimated outputs (yield) and were beyond the capacity of resource-poor farmers who were unable to achieve the true potential of the technology. Some other concerns were also raised such as economics (the ability of the very poor farmers to adopt such technology), equity (in terms of inter and intra- generational equity particularly the impact on women), employment (whether the technologies are labor-displacing or labor-diversifying), ecology (such as genetic homogeneity arising from the replacement of a large number of local varieties by one or two high-yielding, high-tech cultivars over large areas and the problems arising from pesticide residues, excessive use of fertilizer and emergence of new pests and pathogens) and energy (in terms of increasing dependence on fossil fuel-based sources). The failure to make such distinctions in the early days led to a considerable degree of criticism, that Green Revolution technologies had "in-built" seeds of social discrimination. This criticism was mainly due to inadequate interaction with social scientists right from the early planning of such work. The role of the whole set of services, including credit and government policies for input/output pricing, agrarian reform and rural infrastructure development were never planned at initial stages.
Green Revolution disproportionately benefited the rich in the early years (McCalla and Brown, 2000) by giving them the necessity for complementary increases in fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation. Therefore, despite its massive performance, hundreds and millions of people are still food-insecure. This insecurity is not due to lack of overall production but more to the location of production and the access to food by countries, household and individuals living on the edge of subsistence. It also contributed to environmental degradation to the extent that millions of acres of arable land went barren due to water logging and salinity: an outcome of extensive irrigation. The next agricultural revolution must learn some lessons from the past. It must benefit the poor, improve the existing state of environment and do no harm in terms of further degradation. The next technology-driven revolution must be doubly green, increase food production at a faster rate than observed in recent years and in a sustainable manner without significantly damaging the environment. It should also improve rural income and increase accessibility to food by the poor.
Contrary to all these concerns, the miracle of the past four decades is that
todays farmers are feeding almost twice as many people far better from virtually
the same cropland base. The world used about 1.4 billion hectares of land for
crops in 1961 and only 1.5 billion hectares in 1998 to get twice the amount
of grain and oilseeds. Producing todays food supply with 1960 crop yield would
probably have required at least an additional 300 million hectares of land;
an area equal to the entire landmass of Western Europe. However, it must
not be taken for granted that the current balance between overall food supply
and demand will persist. It has been the result of successful interaction
among farmers, input supplies and an overwhelmingly supported public research
and extension system that furnished innovations and relevant knowledge free
of any cost. Little land remains now for agriculture expansion. Water and other
natural resources needed for agriculture are being degraded and diverted to
other uses. Therefore, in order to increase food production and maintain it
at the higher levels for foreseeable future, continued strong performance in
research and innovation is needed if we are to feed 3 billion more people over
the next half century in addition to the 6 billion we already have. With the
dawn of 21st century, whole new vistas in agricultural R&D were opened up
and "Biotechnology" is just one of them, which has the potential to
contribute substantially to this objective.
What is biotechnology and its components?
Biotechnology is any technique that uses a living organism or substances
from organisms to make or modify a product, improve plants or animals or develop
microorganisms for specific uses. The key components of modern biotechnology
||Genomics: the molecular characterization of all species
||Bio-informatics: the assembly of data from genomic analysis into accessible
||Transformations: the introduction of one or more genes conferring potentially
useful traits into plants, livestock, fish and tree species
|| Molecular breeding, the identification and evaluation of desirable traits
in breeding programmes by the use of marker-assisted selection, for plant,
trees, animals and fish
||Diagnostics: the use of molecular characterization to provide more accurate
and rapid identification of pathogens and other organisms and
||Vaccine technology: the use of modern immunology to develop recombinant
DNA vaccines for improving control against lethal diseases
To use this technology effectively in our scientific endeavors we must know
the risks and the benefits associated with it. Also, before its application,
we must ask:
||What are the challenges of the future agriculture?
||What are the opportunities for deploying biotechnological approaches to
meet these challenges?
||What are the potential constraints that the developing countries may face
in using these approaches?
Ever since its inception, biotechnology has become a lightning rod for an
increasingly impassioned debate with opposing factions making strong claims
of promise and of peril. Opposition to biotechnology and specifically to genetic
engineering is derived from several viewpoints. These include fears of high-tech
farming destroying the livelihood of small holders, concerns about artificially
created products competing with and destroying the marketability of "natural"
products and the presumption of environmental threat. However, the major concerns
are ethical, bio-safety and patents and Intellectual Property Rights (IPR).
Many critics fear that biotechnology is a scientists obsession, which is
being exploited to bring quick profits to the few even though it can do great
harm to the majority. Those who hold such views are profoundly concerned that
the increased application of biotechnology will harm not only us, but our future
generations as well. These concerns are genuine and cannot be ignored.
Transforming a particular variety of plant through transferring genetic material from another variety of the same species should not pose any sort of problem because this would be nothing but an accelerated way of achieving through biotechnological means an objective that could also be achieved through conventional breeding. Bioengineering of plants through genetic transfers involving related but different species of plants such as wheat and barley may also not be problematic. This way, we may already be tinkering with nature, but the boundaries of conventional or "natural" breeding system are so overlapping that this would also be acceptable because the likely result of such a gene transfer is unlikely to significantly modify or denature the plant. Triticale is one such example.
Beyond this, improvement of plants or creation/evolution of new varieties depends upon the collection and assemblage of desirable traits from individual plant species or even form other organisms. Critics of biotechnology say, that this way, scientists are "tinkering" with the natural order of things. However, one can argue (and rightly so) about our very own presence on this planet earth. Are we not changing the natural order of things by increasing in number, using more powerful technology and insatiable appetites for consumption and pollution? Indeed all these are affecting nature mostly in negative and potentially dangerous way. Global warming and biodiversity losses are two examples to illustrate this situation. Yet all these are as per general proposition of doing something for the welfare of human beings.
Had we encouraged societies of hunter and gatherer to live constantly in harmony with nature then todays people would have been living in squalor, want, disease and premature death. A human treatment required improved diet, education and health and resultant reduction in infant mortality (thereby increasing the number) and increase in consumption, which collectively assert a pressure on the natural system. The question is how to handle this pressure and to ensure that the patterns of development adopted are sustainable. It does not make sense to undermine the ecosystems on which our long-term survival depends. Therefore, this matter has become a calculus of potential benefits and potential risks associated with change, including the adoption of new technology.
The major risk associated with biotechnology, which could create potential
export trade problems for developing countries, is difference of opinion regarding
food safety and bio-safety in industrial countries. Development of new transgenic
varieties [The term "transgenic" is used for genetically modified
organisms or GMOs and refers to organisms that have been modified by the application
of recombinant DNA technology, where DNA is transferred from one to another
organism] of developing countrys food crops is likely to fall outside present
food and environment safety testing in industrial countries. Consumption patterns
may render developed countys bio-safety systems less relevant. The lack of
an export market for many of these food crops may also leave food safety testing
outside the Codex. Since many of these food crops are not consumed in industrial
countries, they would not have been tested for human consumption there. This
difference may lead to the development of non-tariff barriers to trade, which
developing countries have less ability and resources to address in the international
arena. Biotechnology is therefore, a solution not without problems, but it is
the one we cannot afford to ignore. For example, in pharmaceutical sector, new
drugs are being introduced every other day and none of them is 100% risk free.
Nevertheless, careful evaluation through extensive clinical trials indicates
that the benefits outweigh the risks when taken under prescribed conditions.
Likewise, there is no such thing as 100% safe food in todays world. There were
6.5 million cases of food poisoning in the United State of America in 1992,
resulting in 9000 fatalities. But, if the benefits of the technology outweigh
such risk one should move forward with both good science and effective public
education. Incentives are needed for research on developing countrys foods
crops without which poor farmers and consumers in these countries will not have
access to and benefits of technologies that would allow them to increase their
productivity. It is therefore, imperative that the risks and benefits are carefully
evaluated both at global and national open fora, ensuring that the risks and
benefits to all potential beneficiaries are recognized and considered.
Patent and Intellectual property right (IPR)
Another most crucial issue related with biotechnology is that of patenting
to which there is no direct answer. The ownership of animals and plants is recognized
and so is the right of owning and sale of a particular breed. Varieties of flowers
and livestock are also owned and sold; breeding of horses and other show animals
is recognized. Therefore, patenting of a gene or gene sequence should not have
been offensive. The offense, however, lies in the idea of owning a "building
block of life" rather than the actual living creature itself because building
block in question can be a part of many other living things. This is an issue,
which cannot be easily defined to the satisfaction of the majority.
Intellectual property right (IPR) is another hot issue. Supporters of patenting
point out that if the private sector is to mobilize and invest large sums of
money in R&D of agricultural biotechnology, it has a powerful claim to protecting
and recouping what it has put into the exercise. The other side of the argument
is the fear that patenting and exercise of IPR will lead to monopolization of
knowledge, restricted access to germplasm, controls over the research process,
a selectivity in the focus of research and thereby, increasing marginalization
of the majority of the worlds populations. Apparently, any legislation on these
issues will not function unless it has the support of the majority, which can
best be achieved through education and scientific evidence and not through the
assertive preemptive action by a vocal minority.
It is worth mentioning here that green revolution took place mainly in public
sector research establishments, in an era of free-of-charge and an open access
to genetic resources. Todays biotechnology revolution is taking place largely
in the private sector with associated intellectual property protection. This
is being done to the benefits of the companies and allows them to recoup in
the marketplace the often-high R&D costs involved. For example, bringing
a pharmaceutical to the market now costs about US$ 500 million; bringing a pesticide
to the market can cost about US$ 200 million and bringing a genetically modified
crop in the market can cost about US$ 30 million to produce plus regulation
cost of about US$ 5-6 million. What crop can bear such high costs in the commercial
market? The private sector therefore, has to protect their investment through
the so-called discriminatory laws such as patenting and IPR.
In the 21st century, the world of science has grown and changed beyond most
of the expectations. Today, a revolution is taking place due to huge investments
in biotechnology, enormous advances in computing and informatics and ground
breaking work in modern molecular biology. This progress has helped decoding
the very blue print of life and learning to manage the deployment and expression
of gene. Those who have excelled in these techniques are enjoying the benefits
of high yielding and environment friendly plants and new remedies for killer
diseases that many others can dream of.
Enhanced productivity and improving quality
Modern biotechnology has been used successfully in agricultural research
institutes. The un-controversial techniques such as tissue culture, gene mapping
and molecular markers have been and are being used since long to improve efficiency
of plant breeding system and improving developing countys food crop. A recent
advance using these techniques by the West African Rice Development Association
(WARDA), has resulted in a successful cross of traditional African rice with
high-yielding Asian variety. An exciting development from this work is the creation
of new plant type that can, during its early stages of growth, shade out weeds,
similar to the African variety, but has the high yield capacity of Asian rice.
In essence the best characteristics of both rice types have been combined, including
drought tolerance, disease and pest resistance and high yields.
The potential of biotechnology can further be evidenced from the production of a) "Golden Rice" containing the gene that enhances Vitamin A and was transferred from "Daffodils" and b) bioavailability of iron in rice, a gene that was inserted from "French bean". The potential of these advances are enormous as more than two billion people are anemic due to iron deficiency. In developing countries, 180 million children die annually from diseases linked to vitamin A deficiency, especially in Asia where poor children are weaned on rice gruel.
Reduction in pesticide use
One of most significant impacts of the biotechnology being observed consistently
during the period 1996-2000 (when first transgenic crops were adopted) is consistent
reduction in the amount of pesticides used in the production of transgenic crops.
Both Bt and herbicide tolerant crop varieties of soybean, corn, cotton and canola,
have contributed to this reduction in different countries (Table
1). Studies have shown that during 1998-2000 a total of 23,100 tons of active
ingredient of pesticide have been reduced in different countries (Table
||Pesticide reduction for selected transgenic crops in different
countries during 1998- 2000
| Source: Clive James, 2001.
By reducing massive amount of active ingredient, not only the environment is being gradually improved but efficiency of pest control has also enhanced by reduced cost and the number of sprays some of which damaged the soybeans and resulted in residues harmful for the following crops such as corn.
Improved pest control and productivity
One of the most significant benefits of transgenic crops is that they provide
with improved methods of insect pest control. Effective deployment of Bt crops
eliminated the yield loss that results from less than optimal pest control by
insecticides and provides the farmer with more flexibility and time for other
farm duties. This effective control results in higher yields. For example, by
growing corn varieties resistant to European Corn Borer (ECB), US corn grower
produced 1.5 and 1.7 million tons of more corn in 1998 and 1999, respectively
compared to the quantity that they produced with non-transgenic crop.
Food safety and health hazards
Approximately 59% of corn grain samples collected globally are contaminated
with fumosins: a secondary toxin produced by ECB. These toxins are detected
in corn grown in the warm and subtropical conditions with highest contamination
occurring in Oceana (82%), Africa (77%) and North and South America (63%). The
incidence of contamination in commercially available corn products made for
human consumption varied from 47% to 82%. Fumosins can produce fatal brain damage
in horses when fed at the level =10 mg Kg-1 or higher, liver and kidney damage
in many species and liver and kidney cancer in rodents. The highest level of
fumonisins contamination in corn has been reported in Africa and China, which
is the major cause of esophageal and liver cancer reported in subsistence farmer
who consume corn as a major dietary staple. Genetically modified corn plant
with Cry 1Ab insect control protein from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt)
are protected against damage from corn bores and reduce fumonisins levels up
to 90 % compared to conventional corn plants. Thus, protection of corn against
insect damage may have important health implications for farmers and farm animals
that are routinely exposed to fumonisins.
Decreases in pesticide poisoning
There are roughly 50,000 pesticide poisoning cases per year reported in
China of which 50 result in death. Farmers using Bt cotton suffer less pesticide
poisoning than farmers growing conventional cotton. Bt. cotton farmers used
80% less insecticide than the 48 kg ha-1 of formulated insecticide used by farmers
growing conventional cotton varieties. This is of tremendous significance for
developing countries where small farmers are at particular risk to pesticide
poisoning when applying insecticide with hand sprayers under difficult and often
The benefits outlined above are only some of the realities of modern sciences while one can dream of new scientific brake-through and new products such as edible vaccines, single cell proteins to feed cattle and clean wastes, hyper-accumulating plants to take toxins out of the soil, expanding forests and habitats where more species can thrive, sustainable development where human thrives in harmony with each other and with the environment and much more that can help humanity as never before. These opportunities are necessary focus of interest among all of us who believe that the full potential of science has yet to be realized in our continuing efforts to fight poverty and hunger, increase agriculture productivity and protect the environment.
The relevance of biotechnology to such objectives is now at the forefront of
international interest. The perceived promise and perils of biotechnology are
under intense public scrutiny. Firstly, despite the great advances made in the
last decade of the 20th century, development challenges have grown
more complex. In the new millennium, the demographic pressure is unprecedented.
The worlds population is expected to exceed 8 billion by 2025 i.e. an increase
of 2.0 billion in the next 25 years. Much of these increases will occur in cities
of the developing countries where urban populations will be more than triple
as per calculations made by Norman Borlaug, to meet projected food demands by
2025, the average yield of all cereals must be 80% higher than the average yield
in 1990, which should primarily come from increasing biological yield and not
from area expansion and irrigation, because both these commodities are becoming
increasingly scarce. Poverty and hunger will remain pervasive in the world.
Despite massive burst of output and productivity, dazzling changes wrought by
science and technology and the amazing achievements recorded on the planet,
the 47 least developed countries (LCDs) of the world (10% of worlds population)
still subsists on less than 0.5% of the world income. Some 40,000 people die
from hunger related causes every day. A sixth or more of human family has been
marginalized. The challenges are therefore:
||Comprehending and preparing for unprecedented increase in
||To ensure that this population has access to food in adequate quantities
at adequate prices, everywhere, at all times
||To produce this much food in a way that does not destroy the natural resources
on which we all depend.
These challenge are both technological (requiring the development of new, high-
productivity, environmentally sustainable production systems) and political
(requiring policies that do not discriminate against rural areas in general
and agriculture in particular) and will have to be accomplished at a time when
attention to agricultural development and rural well being is diminishing. An
essential aspect of the response to this challenge is to harness all instruments
of sustainable agricultural growth. Agricultural biotechnology is one such instrument.
It has moved to the center of the development debate fairly recently and that
marks it out for particular interest and indeed concern.
Another reason for the current scrutiny is that in recent years, agro-biotechnology
has exploded into a major private sector activity, mainly in the industrial
countries, with possibilities of even greater expansion in the future. The global
area planted with transgenic crops was 2.8, 12.8, 27.8, 39.9, 42.2 and 52.6
million hectares in 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001, respectively (James,
2001). Data obtained during 1996-2001 from 16 different countries indicated
that genetically modified crops could meet the expectations of both large and
small farmers in developed as well in developing countries. The beneficiaries
in 2001 were resource-poor farmers who planted Bt. cotton. An important
finding of the study made on Bt. cotton in China was that the smallest
farmers who planted less than I hectare, gained more than twice as much income
per unit of land (US$ 400 per hectare) from Bt. cotton as the larger
farmers (US$ 185 per hectare). Global market for transgenic crop has grown from
US$ 75 million in 1995 to US$ 3 billion in 2000 and is projected to reach US$
8 and 25 billion in 2008 and 2010, respectively. So, the biotechnology revolution
is there but it has so far been very much the preserve of the richer countries,
a fact that has distorted the debate on what biotechnology can do for the poor.
The situation in the developing countries
As pointed by Miguel Altieri (2002), an estimated 1.4 billion people live
and work in the vast, diverse and risk prone rain-fed areas in the developing
word. These people will not benefit in the foreseeable future by any of the
current biotechnological techniques because their systems are usually located
in heterogeneous environments and are too marginal for intensive agriculture.
They are mostly located far from the markets/institutions and tackling simultaneously,
the objectives like poverty alleviation, food security and self-reliance, ecological
management of productive resources, empowerment of rural communities and establishment
of supportive policies. To achieve these objectives, the scientific strategy
must be applicable under highly heterogeneous and diverse conditions in which
small holders live. These strategies must be environmentally sustainable, based
on the use of local resources and indigenous knowledge and should emphasize
on improving whole farming system rather than the yield of specific commodities.
The technologies generation process should be demand driven i.e. according to
the socio-economic needs and environmental circumstance of resource poor farmers.
Modern biotechnology does not meet any of these requirements. Thus, a
debate based on the best available empirical evidence on the relevance of modern
science for poor people in the developing countries with a purpose to identify
the most appropriate ways that molecular biology-based research might contribute
to the solution of poor peoples problems is lacking.
The problems of the poor countries are very different from those of the developed countries problems and context of the countries where most of the biotechnology debate currently takes place. Therefore, the position and conclusions from the current debate would largely be irrelevant for poor farmers and poor consumers in the developing countries. A more focused debate on the role of agricultural biotechnology in developing countries led by their own people would help identify and solve the problems. Because agriculture resources are diminishing, there is no option but to produce more food and other agricultural commodities from less arable land and irrigation water. It is needed therefore, to examine how science can be mobilized to raise further the biological productivity ceiling without associated ecological harm. Scientific progress on the farms as an evergreen revolution must emphasize that productivity advances are sustainable over time since it is rooted in the principle of ecology, economics, gender equity and employment generation.
Global challenges vis-vis biotechnology
The most important global challenges are:
||Alleviating poverty, improving food security and reducing
malnutrition of the rural poor and
||Providing sufficient income for the rapidly increasing numbers of urban
To meet these challenges it is imperative to address the associated problems
||increased demand for food
||reduced per capita availability of arable land and irrigation water
In global terms, increases in world food production kept pace with the increases
in the global population to date. According to the latest projections, world
food supply will continue to outpace population growth world wide, at least
up to 2020 because per cap capita availability of food has increased since 1993
and also is projected to increase around 7 percent up to 2020. Despite this,
approximately 0.8 billion of the global population of the 6 billion are food
insecure. This is because there is an intrinsic linkage between poverty and
food security. The access to food depends on income and in the developing countries,
more than 1.3 billion people are absolutely poor, with incomes of a dollar a
day or less per person, while another 2 billion people are only marginally better
off. These poor people are living mostly in the remote rural areas and under
diverse environmental conditions in different part of the world (Fig.
1). The maximum number (
= 48% to its total population) of these people are living in Sub-Saharan Africa,
followed by South Asia (
= 39% of its total population), while the minimum (
= 5%) lives in Latin America and are mainly dependent on agriculture for their
livelyhood (Fig. 2). Rural poverty thus, represents a very
high percentage of the overall poverty, which will increase further and will
certainly affect many more people globally. However, with increasing urbanization,
an increasing proportion of poor people will be living in the cities of the
developing countries in the next century thus, the number of people dependent
on agriculture will decrease further as is evidenced in Fig. 2.
Nevertheless, they will still be in a very high proportion (between 15-55%)
and will demand help from modern biotechnology to provide them with the food
security for the years to come. They will need biotechnology that can increase
rural instead of urban income because this will be designed to help the poor
both in rural and urban areas by reducing rural- urban migration and thus, competition
for urban workplaces. However, any increase in income is only possible by increasing
the agriculture employment. The question is: how biotechnological research can
help increasing this employment?
||Detail of population (% of total) living below US$ 1 per day
as estimated during 1987-1998 in East Asia and Pacific (A), China (B), Eastern
Europe & Central Asia (C), Latin America and Caribbean (D), Middle East
and North Africa (E), South Asia (F), Sub-Saharan Africa (G), Average total
(H), Average total, excluding China (I). Source: World Bank Report, 1999.
||Number of people (% of total population), mainly dependent
on agriculture in Developing countries (A), East and Southeast Asia (B),
Latin America & Caribbean (C), South Asia (D) and Sub-Saharan Africa
(E). Source FAOSTAT, 1999.
This question becomes increasingly important while keeping in view that environmental and social implications of the new technologies, especially the biotechnology, are yet to be fully understood. Also, there is much to learn from the past in terms of ecological and social sustainability of technologies, including traditional and those that are under pinned the Green Revolution technologies if the emerging problems are to be solved and the new challenges are to be met amicably. Since enormous new development in science have opened up new opportunities to develop technologies, it is possible to have high productivity without adverse impact on natural resources base. A strong component of "Agricultural Research" would be required to blend traditional and frontier technologies, which may eventually lead to the birth of eco-technologies with combined strength in economics, ecology, equity, employment and energy.
Significance of research in Agricultural Biotechnology
Pardey and Beintema (2001) provided an overview of the status and key trends
in global agricultural research. They estimated that investments in public agricultural
research rose from US$11.8 to US$21.7 billion from 1976 to 1995 (Table
Considering the latest figures (1995), a total of 47% of investments were made
in developed countries while 53% went to developing countries, specifically
to China (10%), Asia and Pacific, excluding China (21%), Latin America and the
Caribbean (9%), the Middle East and North Africa (7%) and Sub-Saharan Africa
(6%). The influence of individual countries was quite significant. Four countries
(France, Germany, Japan and the United States) accounted for two-thirds of the
spending in developed countries while three countries (Brazil, China and India)
accounted for 44% of spending in developing countries. This means that only
8.9% of the total investment made in developing countries were used in the remaining
countries. This amount is quite small when expressed as percentages of the agricultural
Gross Domestic Product (GDP) particularly in the developing countries (Table
3) and represented just 0.6 % i.e. for every US$100 of agricultural outputs,
developing countries are investing only US$0.61 in public agricultural research
and development. The developed countries on the other hand are investing 2.31%
of the agricultural GDP in the public sector. In addition to that some US$11.5
billion (only during 1990's) were invested in the private sector, which is roughly
one-third of the global agriculture research investments. Consequently there
was an enormous progress in the developed countries. In developing countries,
research was almost totally funded by the public sector and this is one of the
reasons that progress similar to that achieved in the developed countries could
not be achieved in the developing countries.
How should developing countries do this research?
Biotechnology clearly offers tremendous promise for addressing key problems
in food and agriculture. However, as mentioned in table 3,
resources for agricultural research is very limited in developing countries
consequently, their policy makers are faced with a series of very difficult
choices. How much importance should they give to biotechnology research? How
should they allocat e the biotechnology research resources with respect to the
different agricultura l sectors or to the different kinds of biotechnologies
||Public research expenditure (million dollars) and annual grow
th rate (percent per year) estimated globally during 1976-1996
| Source: Pardey and Beintema, 2001, * excluding China
||Worldwide investments made in the field of science and technology
up to 1995.
|*Gross National Product; ** Gross Domestic Products,
Figures in parenthesis are number of countries in each region,
Source: Pardey and Bientema (2001).
How should the y prioritiz e different kinds of problems (and specifically
those affecting poo r farmers) that might be addressed by the research? [It
should be kept in mind tha t the e xaggerated importance being given to biotechnology
in terms of funds an d scie ntific talent and its preoccupation is for goals
that are not always the priorit y in the short-term fight against hunger and
pove rty. Much of what is happening today is be cause of the hype and the charm
of a new and fashionable science, whette d by the interest shown by huge biotechnology
To be of benefit to the rural poor, agricultural research and developmen t shou ld operate on the basis of "using and building upon" the resources availabl e al ready through local people, their knowledge and their autochthonous natura l reso urce keeping in mind the aspiration and circumstance of small holders. Th e research agenda must include:
Crops with improved agricultural performance (yield) and reduced usage o f
agricultural chemicals (we must weigh biotechnological vs cheaper conventiona
l technolo gies to achieve this), Improved food quality (is this the priority
for th e short term need of poor nations?)
Ability to grow plants in previously inhospitable environments via increase
d ability of plants to grow in conditions of drought, salinity, extremes of
t emperature: a ex pected consequence of global warming. [we have to decide
which is easier , deployme nt of stress-tolerant crop varieties through biotechnology
and sold for a price a ll over the world, or work towards rehabilitation of
the land and preventin g the worsening of situation]. We should therefore:
||Think how to improve understanding of marginal agro-ecosystems,
|| Select var ieties that can give stable yields under any of the environmenta
|| Adop t cheaper and easily adoptable technologies of water saving and
drough t management
|| Choose synergetic, diversified and less risky cropping and crop-livestoc
k systems providing more stable yield
||Sele ct productive and sustainable agro-forestry alternatives for shiftin
g cultivation and
|| Ad opt sustainable income and employment generating exploitation of forest
, fis heries and natural resources as well as research reforms and access
to loca l market etc.
How should developing countries carry out research to work on this agenda?
||By focusing on their National Agricultural Research System
||In collaboration with other countries in their region?
||With the private sector? Or with the universities in the developed world?
||With what objectives (e.g. increased product ion, better animal health
etc.) and at what level (Federal or Provincial level, in public or private
sector) should the objectives of research in agricultural biotechnology
||Shoul d some (or all) of the biotechnology research in developing countrie
s preferably be carried out within the NARS or through collaborative regiona
||Should developing countries focus on developing the biotechnology product
s themse lves or should they focus on adapting biotechnologies that have
bee n developed elsewhere
||ndividu al developing countries differ greatly in their capacities to
d o biotechnology research and in the resources they have available for
suc h activit ies. How important are these differences for the role and
focus o f biotechnology in the agricultural research agenda?
||The nee ds of small farmers are generally being ignored in the so-calle
d "biot echnology revolution". How can the biotechnology research agenda
i n deve loping countries be focused towards their needs? What concrete
action s can be taken?
These are the kinds of issues that should be thoroughly raised and discussed i f biot echnology is to be deployed for the benefits of the poor in the developin g countrie s. More specifically, it should be discussed, how much of the limite d resource s (human and financial) dedicated to agricultural research in developin g countries, how much should be devoted to biotechnology?
What are the opportunities for deploying biotechnological approaches in
th e developing countries?
Some of the biotechnologies particularl y, offer tremendous potential to
address real prob lems facing farmers in developing countries. For example,
the area o f ge nomics, allowing the identification and characterization of
individual gene s influenci ng traits such as disease or stress resistance,
growth rate or yield and ar e of great value. The genetic material (genomes)
of several hundred species, including ma mmals, plants, fish, bacteria and viruses,
has already been sequenced o r sequencing is in progress and the information
generated from genomics studies i n other fields, such as human medicine or
basic science, may also be useful for th e application of genomics to food and
Most of this research (
65-80%) is carried out by the private sector in developed countrie s. For example,
Byerlee and Fischer (2000) from the World Bank compile d some rough figures,
which give a general idea of the relative investments being mad e by the different
players. The figures indicate that, annually, the private secto r probably invests
more than US$1.5 billion, mostly in developed countries; the public resear ch
organizations and universities in developed countries invest up to US$1. 0 bil
lion; the public sector national agricultural research systems (NARS) i n developing
countries invest US$10 0-150 million from their own resources (excluding dono
r funding); the 16 international agricultural research centres (IARCs) of th
e Consult ative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) together
inves t rou ghly US$25 million (about 8% of their total budget) and, finally
the donors, such as t he Rockefeller Foundation or non-profit technology transfer
organizations , invest US$ 40-50 million in developing countries. The biggest
single source o f inv estment is therefore the private sector and the majority
(about 90%) o f biotechnology research is carried out in developed countries.
Not only that the invest ments made in the developing world are relatively
small in this ar ea, there are also major differences between the individual
developin g cou ntries. Byerlee and Fischer (2000) classify the NARS into three
main group s based on their capacity in plant breeding and biotechnology research
(Table 4). The firs t group ("very strong") includes the NARS
in Brazil, China, India, Mexico an d South Africa, which have strong capacity
in molecular biology, including th e capacity to develop new tools for their
own specific needs. The second grou p ("medium to strong") has considerable
capacity in applied plant breeding research, as well as capacity to apply molecular
tools (markers and transformation protocols), but they depend on tools developed
elsewhere (a couple of NARS in Pakistan com e under this category). The third
group ("fragile or weak") has weak capacity in plant br eeding and virtually
no capacity in molecular biology (most of the NARSs i n Pakistan come under
this category). It is estimated that the NARS invest on average 5-10% of their
re search expenditures on biotechnology, which comes primarily from the NAR
S in the first group and a few in the second group. From the first group , recent
t rends in China are worth specific mention. Here, the government (whic h funds
a lmost all plant biotechnology research) has increasingly priotrise d biotechnology
in recent years to the extent that the resources allocated to plan t biote chnology
in the crop research budget have risen to 9% in 1999: an amoun t which is half
of the developing world's expenditures on plant biotechnology.
The large differences between developing countries with respect t o biotechnology capacity and financial/human investments (and to the focus of their biotechnology research) is also clear from the data in FAO-BioDec, a databas e dev eloped by FAO containing information on the development, adoption an d applicat ion of crop biotechnologies in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin Americ a and the Near East. Information is organized in two sections: the first coverin g production of genetically modified (GM) crops and the second covering othe r technolog ies grouped into four classes i.e. plant propagation (e.g. anther culture , micro -propagation, embryo rescue, protoplast fusion and culture), microbial (e.g . deve lopment of bio-pesticides or bio-fertilizers), molecular markers and, finally , diagn ostics (e.g. enzyme linked immuno-sorbent assays (ELISA)). The databas e publicly available since December 2002 on the FAO Biotechnology website.
Analysis of the data on the websi te shows that the majority of countries in Latin Am erica and Asia are either carrying out research on or field testing GM crops , wh ile few countries in the other regions have reached that stage. The countrie s like Argentina, Brazil, China, Cuba, Egypt, India, Mexico an d South Africa have well- developed biotechnolo gy programmes, with a wide range of initiatives. In addition, countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, The Philippines and Thailand in Asia; Cameroo n, Morocco, Kenya, Nigeria, Tunisia and Zimbabwe in Africa; and Chile , Colombia and Venezuela in Latin America have medium-sized biotechnolog y prog rammes, making use of a wide range of technologies, including molecula r markers and diagnostics, although the number of initiatives underway is no t substantial.
|| Capabilities wise rating of National Agriculture Research
Centers involved in
| C=Countries; Cr= Crops; G. Tot= Global total; Pri.In.C Tot=
private in country total; C/R= country /region *million acres; ** Percentages.
(Source: Pardey and Zambrano, 2001)
The needs of the developing countries:
Because agricultural biotechnology research is primarily being carried out
in the developed countries and by the private sector in these countries therefore,
most of the research and the biotechnology products being developed or released
are directed primarily towards the needs of farmers in the developed (and not
for the developing) countries. Also, the rich (and not poor) farmers can afford
these products. According to the latest analysis presented in Table
5, private sector conducted maximum number of above 11,000 field trials
on GM crops in the United States and the Europe (Table 5)
and that only a small number involve tropical crops and traits for stress resistance.
Abiotic stress (e.g. drought, frost, heat or salt) is a major limitation to
agricultural production in parts of the developing world. A vast area of soils
contains an excess of heavy metals in Brazil and Africa. Steadily increasing
acreage of agricultural land in Asia and elsewhere is becoming non-productive
because of salinity from poorly managed irrigation practices. In many environments,
crop performance is severely limited by drought. Research investments in these
areas could have major impacts on food security and hunger. However, preliminary
analysis of the data in FAO-BioDec indicates that no GM crops resistant to abiotic
stress have been released so far in developing countries and that only six GM
varieties are currently under field testing - in Bolivia (frost tolerant potato),
China (cold tolerant tomato), Egypt (salt tolerant wheat), India (moisture tolerant
Brassica) and Thailand (salt tolerant rice and drought tolerant rice). Contrary
to this, 3 GM crop varieties with herbicide resistance are already available
for commercial cultivation and 50 more are under field trials in the developing
countries. The database shows that 28 research initiatives are underway for
abiotic stress resistance in developing countries. In most of the research activities
being carried out in five Asian countries, very little research is being done
on drought resistance. Work on aluminum-resistant varieties is underway for
wheat in Mexico and sugar beet in China. Little research is being done on cold
tolerance, although Bolivia and China have progressed to field trials in potato
and tomato, respectively. The amount of research and testing devoted to abiotic
stress resistance is highly insufficient compared to the real needs of developing
countries and should increased substantially along with increase in research
investments. This is not possible without the participation of the private sector
who will not undertake high cost R&D without either functioning market place
or intellectual property protection. This is one of the major reasons why negligible
research is done in private sector on the developing country food crops such
as sorghum, millet and cassava and the developing country problems such as drought,
salinity and other abiotic stresses. The need of the day is to encourage such
research by lowering the relative costs of R&D.
How the relative cots of R&D be lowered to make it suitable for developing
According to McCalla and Brown (2000), as first option the active public-private
sector partnerships in research would have to be developed for improving and/or
evolving developing countrys own food crops. This would benefit both parties
through increasing the availability of crop germplasm to the private sector
and ensuring attention to the crops most important to the poor farmers in developing
countries. Intellectual property right protection needs to be carefully explored
in such partnerships in a way similar to what has been adopted in USA by Donald
Danforth Plant Science Center, which is jointly funded by Monsanto, the State
of Missouri, the Missouri Botanical Garden, the University of Missouri, the
University of Illinois and the Purdue University. State of Missouri supported
the work of the center in the form of tax credits. Such tax credits can further
be explored from the host governments for the R&D specific to developing
country crops associated with some form of non-exclusive intellectual property
Another approach could be like the one that is adopted by the medical sector where WHO, the World Bank and other development agencies are collaborating with pharmaceutical companies in the development of new vaccines against major tropical diseases. Establishment of global competitive grants research facility for R&D on developing country crops with non- exclusive intellectual property protection can also be initiated. The companies can be convinced to undertake research for which their intellectual property was nonexclusive, arguing that this R&D could lead to development of new enabling technologies, which they can apply on the crops other than the developing crops and which could have intellectual property protection on the final product. Increasing agriculture productivity of developing country will reduce poverty, which will automatically lead to agricultural commercialization, thus creating future competitive market for other commercial products.
The challenges that the developing countries in general and the least developing
countries (LDCs) in particular are facing are daunting. Their rapidly increasing
population needs food and economic security in the times to come. Biotechnology
can provide answer to this dilemma only if it is integrated fully into the breeding
programmes and becomes an important component of increasing yields and adding
nutritional values to their staples. The first generation transgenic crops such
as herbicide resistant and Bt. transgenics will never address the developing
countries requirements nevertheless, a combination of technologies such as mapping,
genetic transformation and micro-propagation can be appropriate. These techniques
can provide germplasm, which can eventually be incorporated into breeding programmes
or as direct use by the farmers. The performance of this germplasm will not
be input intensive because traits for biotic and abiotic stresses can be incorporated
into plants through marker assisted breeding. Achieving this objective however,
will require willingness of the public and private sectors in the developed
countries to work with policy makers, scientists, breeders and the extension
workers in the developing countries. Intellectual property rights would certainly
become concerns for the multinational willing to work in the developing countries,
which can be resolved through international agreements. The multinationals have
the technologies within their portfolios for use in the improvement of developing
country food crops. These companies should come forward and use them even if
these crops do not constitute a market for the foreseeable future. After all,
it a question of feeding 80% population of the world that is depending on such
crop and un- hoppitable production systems. Thus, all the available technologies
irrespective of their being "Promethean" or "Obsessive"
should be used to tackle this challenges.