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close this bookBiotechnology and the Future of World Agriculture (GRAIN, 1991)
close this folderTransforming the output
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View the documentThe circle of sugar
View the documentThe chocolate crop
View the documentThe battle for vegetable oils
View the documentInterchanging products, markets and producers


'Thanks to biotechnology it will gradually become possible to replace tropical agriculture commodities such as palm oil or manioc with products grown in the Community and other industrialized countries. This could considerably upset agricultural commodity markets and spell disaster for Third World countries dependent on them if nothing is done.' (European Commission, 1986) (1)

'Given the technological and industrial preponderance of OECD countries (. . .) there is strong evidence that developing countries, notably those heavily engaged in agriculture, will bear the brunt of trade impacts for a long time to come.'
(OECD on impact of biotechnology, 1989) (2)

Trade has always been seen as the engine of economic growth. In early times people produced or collected food, often just the amount needed to feed themselves. As soon as people started interchanging surpluses, the very fundaments of their lives were affected. Trade introduced new commodities into their societies, changed cultural practices and power structures and created wealth and poverty depending on who was in the best position to set the conditions for the deal. In agriculture, people would produce surpluses of those crops that would grow best, and exchange them with commodities that could not so easily be produced in their region.

In later days, things started changing on a world scale, especially when the Europeans began colonizing a large part of what is now the Third World and imposing on its people the production of specific crops, the products of which were consumed back home. Today, much of the production of agricultural commodities in developing countries - especially those meant for export - is still heavily oriented towards these colonial crops. The geographical production centre of these crops often moved together with the interests of the colonial lords. Cocoa was brought into Africa from the Amazon forests, and coffee was taken from Africa to South America.

Rubber and oil-palm moved from South America to South-East Asia, and sugar-cane from Asia to the Caribbean. This reshuffling of colonial crops between Third World regions has not diminished much of their importance: today, about half of all the Third World's export income from agricultural products is derived from the mere ten crops listed in Table 6.1.

Table 6.1 Agricultural exports from the Third World (1987, selected crops, in US$ billion)

In many Third World countries these crops form the backbone of entire national economies. While an important portion of some crops, such as rice and sugar cane, is consumed locally, the dependence on single export crops is often frightening. In 1986, three-quarters of Cuba's export income was derived from sugar, almost two-thirds of Ghana's exports from cocoa, while coffee provided Colombia with over half its income. (3)

Economists, in trying to explain production and trade patterns, have pointed to 'comparative advantage' as one of the driving forces. In agricultural production this advantage has always been predominantly formed by geographical, climatological and other agronomic factors. Coffee simply does not grow in Europe or North America, which is why coffee drinkers in the North are dependent on coffee growers in developing countries, to the value of several billion dollars a year. During the course of the 20th century, however, this comparative advantage has been progressively undermined by technology.

Agriculture has passed through its mechanical, chemical, and genetic eras, in which respectively machinery, agro-chemicals and plant breeding diminished the importance of the limitations nature puts on agricultural production. Coffee still will not grow in the North, but plant breeders managed to adapt crops to wider growing conditions. Also, the development of chemical agro-inputs reduced the importance of soil-type and of natural parasites. In developing countries, the Green Revolution is one of the prime examples of how technology has helped to diminish nature's limitations. Agricultural production has been affected by technology in other ways too: industrial production of substitutes for agricultural products, for example. Technological advances made in the chemical industry have made it possible to produce certain commodities entirely back home in the industrial countries. Synthetic rubber has displaced much of the Third World's rubber exports and chemical dyes have destroyed much of Asia's indigo production. Natural fibres have been replaced by synthetics, and pharmaceuticals are being based increasingly on industrial chemicals rather than natural resources.

Technology, then, has affected agriculture and trade in agricultural commodities for centuries. In that context, the introduction of the new biotechnologies is the continuation of an historical process. The new element is the tremendous scope of its applications and the profoundness of its implications, especially for the Third World.

Biotechnology, like many other technologies applied to agriculture, is not developed and controlled by or for the producers of agricultural commodities, but by the processors and sellers of the end product. Chemical technology made it possible to move agricultural production from its agroecosystems into monocultures. Biotechnology goes beyond that. It provides the tools to dissect plants into their individual genes and gene complexes, and to take production out of the arena of agriculture altogether.

Biotechnology reduces the value of plant and animal production as such and moves the dollar signs to the sub-microscopic level. Why bother with such complex structures as plants, animals and farmers, if enzymes, microorganisms and genes can do the same job? It might seem elaborate and clumsy to first extract genes from plants and animals, then incorporate them into something else, only to produce substances that have to be further modified to resemble the food that we used to eat. But the detour is logical if one takes into account by and for whom the technology is being developed. Under the control of the food processors and chemical industries, biotechnology creates a new comparative advantage, this time of industry over agriculture. In this chapter we shall look at some of the important Third World commodity crops and discuss how the new biotechnologies are affecting them.