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close this bookBiotechnology and the Future of World Agriculture (GRAIN, 1991)
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View the document(introduction...)
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View the documentA new threshold?

A new threshold?

This brief overview of the tool-box of the new biotechnologist shows one thing very clearly: the potential is enormous. We have focused here on agriculture and food, but the new biotechnologies are being applied in such diverse fields as health care, energy, chemicals, cosmetics and many other areas. Several observers, perhaps in an attempt to tone down the huge expectations but also the genuine concerns, stress that biotechnology as such is nothing new. Indeed, humanity has been transforming living matter since civilization began. Now, however, we are reaching a point where centuries of discoveries are coming together to form a technological blockbuster without precedent. There are three crucial elements in play. First, speed and scale: scientists now carry out complex processes with a routine unimaginable only a few years ago. Tissue culture techniques have dramatically cut the time necessary for breeding new varieties, and improved enzyme and fermentation techniques allow substances to be mass-produced. Secondly, and for the first time in history, nature's reproductive barriers can be torn down and trespassed: human genes are moved into bacteria, plant genes to animals and vice versa. Mice are linked up with rats and sheep with goats. Both fantastic and frightening if you think of all the possible applications. Finally, and perhaps most important, the technology is reaching a stage where lots of money is to be made out of it all.

The estimates of the future market for biotechnology products run into many billions of dollars. Some point to the medical applications already available; others stress the tremendous potential for transforming agriculture and food production. The actual dollar figures put forward by industry analysts vary considerably, with many of them being wild exaggerations, but the general conclusion is clear: the potential of the technology and the commercial markets at stake is enormous, especially for agriculture. There is no doubt that the progress which has been set in motion during the past decades will continue. There is also no doubt that the commercial market will increase. The question is whether the potential of biotechnology to solve some of the most pressing problems of humanity, especially in the Third World, will be realized. To approach this question it is necessary to analyse the development of the technology in its international socio-economic context and to have a closer look at the main actors involved.

Notes and references

1. Quoted in Susan George, Ill Fares the Land, Penguin Books, London, 1990, p.109.

2. Advertisement in AgBiotechnology News, March/April 1990 p.26.

3. Quoted in John Elkington, The Gene Factory, Century Pub;ishing, London, 1985, p. 24.

4. Edward Yoxen, The Gene Business, Pan Books, London, 1983, pp.33-5.

5. US Office of Technology Assessment, Commercial Biotechnology, An International Analysis, OTA, Washington, 1984, p.3.

6. Jack Kloppenburg, Martin Kenney: 'Biotechnology, Seeds, and the Restructuring of Agriculture', in The Insurgent Sociologist, Vol. 12, No. 3, Cornell University, Ithaca, Summer 1984.

7. FAO, 'Implications of New Biotechnologies for the International Undertaking', Paper for the Commission on PGR, CPGR/89/9, Rome, April 1989,p.2.

8. John Elkington, 1985, op.cit., p.112.

9. FAO, 1989, op. cit., p.3.

10. See OTA, 1984, op. cit., pp.44-57.