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close this bookBiotechnology and the Future of World Agriculture (GRAIN, 1991)
close this folderProviding the inputs
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentThe biased focus: herbicide tolerance
View the documentEroding the options
View the documentArtificial solutions?

Eroding the options

The focus on herbicide-tolerance does not mean that nothing is being done in other areas. Companies and public institutions are using biotechnology on different fronts in order to modify agriculture's input requirements. One of them is breeding for pest resistance. As such, this breeding objective is nothing new. Farmers have been selecting crops with resistance to insects, fungi and viruses for centuries, some of them with remarkable success. More recently, plant-breeders have been doing the same, although as noted earlier, the availability of cheap pesticides did not add to the incentives to focus on this type of research. Biotechnology now comes in as a potentially very powerful tool. Genetic engineering and tissue culture techniques allow scientists to enormously broaden the available gene pool in the search for resistance genes. No longer limited to the germplasm of sexually compatible relatives of the same species, genes can be cloned into crops from theoretically any host, be it other plants, micro-organisms or animals.

While herbicide-tolerant crops are likely to be the first genetically engineered crops available to the farmers, crops with built-in pest resistance might not take long to follow. Much of this research is being done in the public sector, but the chemical giants are also getting involved. Monsanto has already field tested a tomato incorporating genes to ward off tomato hornworms and fruit worms, as well as an engineered tomato with built-in resistance to a virus disease. (31) ICI is focusing on insect-resistant maize and virus-resistant sugar-beet, (32) and Sandoz works with PGS on virus-resistance for several crops. (33) 'Of course [the pesticides industry] is going to lose business as a result of introducing plants that are more resistant to insects or pests', says Riley from Shell Chemicals. But by investing in genetic engineering, 'we're likely to win more than we lose', he asserts. (34)

Although scientists warn that it will take several years before such new plants are available to farmers, the prospect is appealing: plants that themselves fight their enemies without need for external weapons. While the potentials are indeed enormous, the limitations are just as impressive. The resistance that biotechnology might breed into crops in the near future will be based on one or a few genes. The manipulation of entire gene complexes is still far too difficult to handle. Ed Dart, Research Director with ICI Seeds, thinks that crops with single gene traits such as insect-resistance are likely to become seed company standards during the coming decade. (35) This 'onegene/one-pest' resistance is relatively easy to overcome by pests, which are continuously adapting themselves to new situations. Just as pests can develop resistance to pesticides, they are also able to find a way round pestresistance in crops, especially when this resistance is provided by only one gene.

Current biotech research is heavily focused on an extremely narrow range of organisms and genes in the search for new instruments to combat pests and diseases. Graph 5.2 shows a breakdown of research reports on biological control agents as listed in Derwent Biotechnology Abstracts in 1989. The work on the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a case in point. A gene from Bt is responsible for the production of a protein that kills certain insects if they ingest it. This microbe and its 'miracle genes is covered in over 37% of all research papers on biological control agents listed by Derwent in 1989. Another six per cent of the papers report on other Bacitlus species, while another ten per cent focus on Pseudomonas, a microbe that promises to be of help in combating diseases caused by fungi. Taken together, these data suggest that over half of all listed biotech research on biological control agents focus on only two bacterial genera. And even this is probably an underestimate. As noted earlier, the Derwent Abstracts tend to under-represent the research in the private sector due to its secrecy. The private sector is likely to focus more strongly on those applications with clear commercial possibilities, of which Bt is the most important. Bt is, after all, responsible for 95% of all current big-pesticide sales. (36)

Research on biological control agents - Reports in 1989, by micro-organims

Engineering plants with Bt genes in them is just one of the different R&D strategies. Other strategies are the encapsulation of the toxin itself for direct use on the crop or the incorporation of the Bt gene into other microbes that naturally colonize the roots of crops or live inside the crop itself. (37) The vehicle might be different, but the 'cure' is each time the same: Bt's 'killer-gene' and the protein that it produces. Here lies exactly the danger of the cure. Researchers from the US Plant Genetic Institute have already found that several insect species can develop resistance to the Bt protein. (38) Research by Monsanto points in the same direction. With research efforts so much directed towards a single microbe, and a specific toxin of that microbe, farmers using the new crops with Bt genes in it might soon face the old problems again. Entomologist Fred Gould puts it this way:

If pesticidal plants are developed and used in a way that leads to rapid pest adaptation, the efficacy of these plants will be lost and agriculture will be pushed back to reliance on conventional pesticides with their inherent problem. (39)

All this is not to say that the use of biotechnology to produce pest-resistant crops or 'bio-pesticides' cannot be beneficial to the farmer and to agriculture in general. We desperately need an agriculture which uses fewer harmful chemicals and other external inputs. The question is whether the current reductionist, biotech pest control approach, almost entirely focusing on single genes 'that work', is one that will help to solve the problems. The view of the biotechnologist is narrow in the sense that it focuses on solutions at the molecular level only. It is also narrow in the sense that most biotech research is dictated by commercial interests. This normally means that the solutions sought must have a global character: TNCs do not tend to work for small market niches, but aim at large market shares. The molecular mind, together with the global market share concern, leads to what is probably the most fundamental threat to sustainable low-input agriculture: uniformity.

Genetic uniformity leads to crop vulnerability. The Irish potato farmers know what that means. In the 1840s, when their staple but uniform potato crop was wiped out by blight, more than one million people died of starvation. One and a half centuries later, the US maize farmers have also learnt the hard way. In 1970, 15% of the US maize harvest was lost to the devastating effect of a little fungus-causing blight, with some states losing over half of their harvest. The cause: genetic uniformity. South-East Asian rice farmers too, using the uniform varieties from the International Rice Research Institute, can sustain their yields only with massive use of pesticides. Many ask for how long.

Whether biotechnology will help to reduce the need for chemical inputs depends, then, to a large extent on whether it will contribute to introducing more genetic diversity in the farmers' fields; in principle it can. Biotechnology opens up a tremendous pool of germplasm which earlier was not feasible for plant- and animal-breeders. Although not creating new genes as such, it provides techniques to move germplasm between organisms that do not exchange genes naturally. It also can provide for quicker germplasm identification, better storage of genetic resources and the speeding-up of plant- and animal-breeding in general.

But in the same way as biotechnology can help broaden the genetic base of our agriculture, it also has the frightening means dramatically to reduce the diversity that still remains in the farmers' fields. With the industry avid for global sales as the driving force behind the big-revolution, increased uniformity is likely to be the dominating trend.

Though the capacity to move genetic material between species is a means for introducing additional variation, it is also a means for engineering genetic uniformity across species writes Jack Kloppenburg in his excellent study on the political economy of plant-breeding. (40) Another case in point is the likely widespread use of tissue culture. Through tissue culture, mass production of genetically identical plants is possible. Such cloned plants are exact copies of each other, and massive recourse to them in a certain crop would seriously increase the vulnerability of that crop. Some estimate that clonally propagated crops are six times more vulnerable to pests than their seed-bred counterparts. (41) The wide use of cloned crops will undoubtedly lead to the increased use of pesticides.