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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?

Artificial solutions?

A look beyond the horizon of the year 2000 might show an agriculture without any seed at all. 'We want something that has the ease of handling and high germination efficiency of a seed, but has the genetic uniformity of a clone', says Dennis Gray of the University of Florida. (42) Gray is working on 'artificial seeds'. Normal seed consists of an embryo (resulting from fertilization) surrounded by a reserve of the necessary starch and nutrients for germination and initial growth. Using what scientists call 'somatic embryogenesis', artificial seed technology consists of the mass multiplication of plant embryos in fermentation tanks, each of which is then encapsulated in a jelly-like coat. To some extent it is a sophisticated form of tissue culture resulting in a manageable end-product that can be stockpiled, sold and sown. The California-based biotechnology firm Plant Genetics Inc. (PGI) is generally acclaimed as the front runner in this field as it is involved both in the growing and the encapsulation of the embryos. But others are following fast (see Table 5.2). Supported with funds from the EEC Eureka project, Rhone Poulenc, Nestle and Limagrain are involved in a joint research project on artificial tomato seed, and the Japanese giant food processor Kirin Brewery is building a special research laboratory for the purpose.

The implications are, at least in principle, enormous. The French biotechnology magazine Biofutur calculates that ten fermentation tanks of ten litres each can provide the whole of France with the 'seed' it needs for its entire carrot production. Some figures indicate a production of 80,000 embryos per litre per day. (43) A few tanks more, and the rest of the world is provided for as well. This might sound like science fiction, and to some extent it is. There are still formidable technical hurdles to be overcome. At the current state of the technology, production costs are a problem too. An average artificial seed now costs about the same as a hybrid tomato seed. Translated to major crops, however, the costs to the farmer would be exorbitant: to sow a hectare of sugar-beet, soybean or wheat with artificial seed would currently cost $4000, $13,000 and $50,000 respectively/44 This is the main reason that much of the research is currently focused on the high-value vegetable seed, such as carrot and celery. But several companies are now working on automating the methods of mass propagation, which would bring the costs down further. Encapsulated artificial seeds also provide for the opportunity further to enhance the chemical connection: Plant Genetics Inc. is working with Ciba-Geigy to encapsulate a fungicide together with the somatic embryos.


Table 5.2 The work on artificial seeds


Table 5.2 The work on artificial seeds - continued

The question is not so much whether artificial seed technology will reach the farmers' fields, but when. The stakes for the industry are high. Perhaps the greatest danger of mass introduction of artificial seeds technology is, again, the further narrowing-down of genetic diversity, and its accompanying increase in crop vulnerability. This will undoubtedly lead to a further increase in the use of pesticides, be it of biological origin or not.

Whatever happens, use of the 'good old chemicals' in agriculture will persist for at least the foreseeable future. The chemical industries are the first to admit it. 'There certainly would not be enough food produced to feed the world without pesticides', says Reg Norman, Managing Director of Ciba-Geigy Agrochemicals. 'Without plant protection chemicals, cereal yields would drop in pans of Europe by one-quarter in the first year and by almost one half in the second', threatens the European Chemical Industry in its advertising. But the Third World needs the chemicals most, according to the industry. With stagnating sales and tighter environmental control in the North, it is the developing countries where growing markets will be found. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) calculates that developing countries will increase their pesticide use from some $2 billion in 1980 to over $5 billion in the year 2000. (45) It might be that resistant crops and big-pesticides, generally designed for growing conditions in the North, manage to find their way to the farmers' plots in the foreseeable future. But the production facilities of the 'ordinary chemicals' will still be there. They might have the same fate as DDT and other chemicals: largely banned in the North but massively used in the South. An ICI spokesman puts it this way: 'Where large numbers of people are undernourished or even starving, use of plant protection chemicals can make the difference between food and starvation.' (46) It can also mean the difference between starvation and sickness, as the two million people poisoned by pesticides each year (47) might argue.

Notes and references
1. Quoted by Jack Doyle in Altered Harvest, Viking Press, New York, 1985, p.90.

2. Quoted by Jack Doyle,'Biotechnology's Harvest of Herbicides', in Genewatch, Vol.2, Nos.4-6, Boston, 1985, p.19.

3. Schulman et al, in Newsweek, 18 February 1985.

4.Quoted by Jack Doyle, 1985, op.cit., pp.109-10.

5. OTA, Pest Management Strategies in Crop Protection, Vol. l, Washington, 1979.

6. OTA, quoted in Jack Doyle, 1985, op. cit., p. 190.

7. FAO, quoted in F. Wengemayer: 'Biotechnik far die Landwirtschaft aus der Sicht der Industrie', in Entwicklung + Landlicher Raum! Vol.20, No.5/85, 1985.

8. Pablo Bifani, NewBiotechnologies for Rural Development, ILO, World Employment Programme Research, Geneva, 1989, pp.43-4.

9. Office of Technology Assessment, Commercial Biotechnology: an International Analysis, OTA, Washington, 1984, p.177.

10. Wood Mackenzie &c Co., Agrochemical Overview, 1983.

11. Derwent Biotechnology Abstracts, Derwent Publications Limited, London. Issues from 1986 to 1989 were scanned.

12. Rebecca Goldburg et al, Biotechnology's Bitter Harvest, A Report of the Biotechnology Working Group, USA, 1990, p.21.

13. Agricultural Genetics Report, Du Pont and AGS TransferResistance to Sulfonylurea Herbicides, Vol. 6, No. 2, April 1987, p.1 (cited in RAFl Backgrounder on Herbicide Tolerance, RAFI, March 1989).

14. Personal communication to author during a biotechnology conference in Norwich, UK, December 1989.

15. Rebecca Goldburgetal, 1990, op.cit., p.17.

16.Quoted in Jack Doyle, 1985, op.cit., p.15.

17. Quoted in 'Agrichemical Firms Turn to Genetic Engineering',Chemica/ Week, 3 April 1985, p.36.

18. Quoted in Jack Doyle, 1985, op. cit., p.15.

19. M. Chiara Mantegazzini, The Environmental Risks from Biotechnology, Frances Pinter Publishers, London, 1986, p.74.

20. Rebecca Goldburget al, 1990, op. cit., p.31.

21. Survey of US Environmental Protection Agency between 1977 and 1981, quoted in Jack Doyle, 'Herbicides of potential interest to biotechnology'. Unpublished manuscript.

22. Jack Doyle, 'Herbicides of potential interest to biotechnology', op. cit., p.33.

23. Jack Doyle,'Herbicides and Biotechnology: Extending the Pesticide Era.' Paper presensed to a NOAH conference on biotechnology, Copenhagen, l November 1988, p.9.

24. ├║Show Me: Monsanto's Marketing Woes', in The Economist, 10 March 1990.
25. Jack Doyle, 1988, op. cit., p.18.

26. Ibid., p.20.

27. David Pimentel, 'Down on the Farm: Genetic Engineering meets Ecology', in Technology Review, 24 January 1987.

28. Jack Harlan, cited in Jack Doyle,'Biotechnology's Harvest of Herbicides', 1985, op. cit.

29. P. Niemann, 'Herbizidresistenz als Zuchtziel', in NachtrichenbL Deutschen Pflanzenschutzdienst, No.41, Braunschweig, 1989, p.38.

30. European Parliament, Commission on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food,'Draft Report on the effects of the use of biotechnology', Brussels, September 1986. (Doe. PE 107.429/ rev.)

31. 'Insect Resistance in Third Monsanto Field Test', in AgBiotechnology News, July/ August 1987,p.5.

32. 'ICl's Agbiotech Goals for the 1990s and Beyond', in AGROW, No. 96, 6 October 1989, pp.5-6.

33. 'Plant Defence', Project Brief, in The Economist Development Report. October 1985.

34. Quoted in 'Agrochemical Firms turn to Genetic Engineering', Chemical Week, 3 April 1985,pp. 36-40.

35. Cited in 'ICl's Agbiotech Goals for the 1990s and Beyond', in AGROW, No.96, 6 October 1989, pp.5-6.

36. Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology Monitor, UNIDO, July-September 1986, p. 40.

37. 'Microbial Insecticides, Special Focus on BT', in RAFI Communiqu,, Pittsboro, January 1989, p.3.

38. 'Des resistance a la toxine de Bacillus', Biofutur, No.89, April 1990,p.12(insects referred to are Plodia interpunctella , and Heliothis virescens) .

39. Fred Gould, quoted in: 'Microbial Insecticides, Special Focus on BT 1989, op. cit.

40. Jack Kloppenburg, First the Seed, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1988, p. 244.

41. Gordon Conway (ed.), 'Pesticide Resistance and World Food Production', cited by Pat Mooney,'Impact on the Farm', in UNCSTD, ATAS Bulletin, Vol. 1, No. l, New York, November 1984, p.46.

42. Quoted in 'Artificial Seeds made from Clones', in AgBiotechnology News, 1987, p. 10.

43. C. Nouaille, V. Petiard, 'Semences Artificielles: Reves et Realites', inBiofutur, No. 67, April 1988, pp.33-8.

44. Ibid.

45. Cited in Pablo Bifani, 1989, op. cit., p.42. Figures refer to 90 developing countries.

46. All quotes in this paragraph are from 'Chemicals Help Feed the World'. Special advertising section of the European Chemical Industry, in Time Magazine, 16 October 1989.

47. Estimate for 1983 of UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. Cited in Omar Sattaur, 'A New Crop of Pest Controls', in New Scientist, 14 July 1988, p.49.