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Jan 13, 2006

Biotechnology for the Masses

Eradicating malnutrition and hunger, empowering farmers, and growing pharmaceuticals in everyday plants: these are some of the stated goals of plant biotechnology. Although the goals are noble and the basic science is sound, is there any science behind the high hopes?

The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) recently released a report detailing the impressive rate of spread of transgenic crops worldwide:
2005 marks the tenth anniversary of the commercialization of genetically modified (GM) or transgenic crops, now more often called biotech crops, as referred to consistently in this Executive Summary. In 2005, the billionth acre, equivalent to the 400 millionth hectare of a biotech crop, was planted by one of 8.5 million farmers, in one of 21 countries. This unprecedented high adoption rate reflects the trust and confidence of millions of farmers in crop biotechnology. Over the last decade, farmers have consistently increased their plantings of biotech crops by double-digit growth rates every single year since biotech crops were first commercialized in 1996, with the number of biotech countries increasing from 6 to 21 in the same period. Remarkably, the global biotech crop area increased more than fifty-fold in the first decade of commercialization.

Although some anti-transgenic crop organizations have tried to spin these results differently, the ISAAA has plenty of reason to be optimistic. Transgenic crop use is not only increasing in areas where these crops have traditionally been prevalent, most notably the United States, but they are persistently finding new venues, even in Europe, which has been notably strong in its resistance to transgenic crops. The report takes these results a step further, outlining potential benefits transgenic crops could offer society:
Bt rice, officially released in Iran in 2004, was grown on approximately four thousand hectares in 2005 by several hundred farmers who initiated commercialization of biotech rice in Iran and produced supplies of seed for full commercialization in 2006. Iran and China are the most advanced countries in the commercialization of biotech rice, which is the most important food crop in the world, grown by 250 million farmers, and the principal food of the world’s 1.3 billion poorest people, mostly subsistence farmers. Thus, the commercialization of biotech rice has enormous implications for the alleviation of poverty, hunger, and malnutrition, not only for the rice growing and consuming countries in Asia, but for all biotech crops and their acceptance on a global basis. China has already field tested biotech rice in pre-production trials and is expected to approve biotech rice in the near-term.

Later, the report lays out a broad agenda for the future of transgenic crops:
There is cause for cautious optimism that the stellar growth in biotech crops, witnessed in the first decade of commercialization, 1996 to 2005, will continue and probably be surpassed in the second decade 2006-2015. The number of countries adopting the four current major biotech crops is expected to grow, and their global hectarage and number of farmers planting biotech crops are expected to increase as the first generation of biotech crops is more widely adopted and the second generation of new applications for both input and output traits becomes available. Beyond the traditional agricultural products of food, feed and fiber, entirely novel products to agriculture will emerge including the production of pharmaceutical products, oral vaccines, specialty and fine chemicals and the use of renewable crop resources to replace non-renewable, polluting, and increasingly expensive fossil fuels.

The Washington Post echoes many of these claims in its recent article on the subject. Justin Gills writes:
The report notes that the world's most important food crop, rice, could be on the verge of a transformation. Iran has already commercialized gene-altered rice and China appears nearly ready to do so, the report says. Widespread acceptance of such rice could put crop biotechnology into the hands of the tens of millions of small rice farmers who grow nearly half the calories eaten by the human race.

Putting something “into the hands of” small farmers is much different from giving them control over the technology. Laborers all over the world have access to the technology to produce clothing, cars, or most any other product, but that does not grant them any control over the technology or its profits. Implying that such advances would be empowering seems misleading, and I am waiting for a more detailed proposal of how such empowerment would play out.

As the ISAAA report states, virtually all transgenic crops in use are engineered for resistance to herbicides (71%), insects (18%), or both (11%). Although these alone are impressive developments that could have positive implications for society and the environment, the “second generation” crops with more interesting traits—such as producing fuels or medical products—are yet to make an impact. Still, the promise of such developments is very compelling.

Last spring, while writing a story on transgenic crops for Texas A&M University’s student newspaper The Battalion, I interviewed Dr. Keerti Rathore, associate professor of soil and crop sciences at A&M. He noted that within the next few decades the patents on the first round of transgenic crops will expire. When that happens, a major barrier to wider ownership and development of transgenic crops will be removed. This would allow university scientists who had developed their own crops to provide them directly to small farmers, without strings attached.

This answered the burning question on my mind: why should universities fund (using taxpayer dollars) scientists working in a field that at this point only benefits major agricultural corporations? Apparently it is a long-term strategy. Academics may also be more likely to develop more innovative, humanitarian, or medically or environmentally-driven strains of transgenic crops, since they are not as concerned with sticking to what is currently profitable.

Although it may seem counterintuitive, the solution, it seems, is to invest even more funding in plant biotechnology research at universities, not less. Instead of assisting the large corporations, this could even undermine them in a sense, and in this case that is probably in the best interest of the general population. Universities, not so motivated by profits, are much more likely to put these crops “in the hands of” small farmers and give them a respectable degree of independence and control as well. Now that what I call biotechnology for the masses.

Cross-posted at Scientific Assessment

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