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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?

(introduction...)

'In two decades, we won't be spraying crap on plants any more. '
(Sam Dryden, then President of Agrigenetics, a US biotechnology company)'

'Screening of cultivars for genetic resistance to new, highly potent herbicides, is becoming as important as screening the same cultivars for genetic resistance to prevalent disease and insect pests.'
(Don Duvick, former director of research of Pioneer Hi-Bred seed company) (2)

Perhaps one of the most exciting and promising possibilities of agricultural biotechnology is to decrease the need for chemical inputs in crop production. Virtually every article on this issue starts off saying that biotechnology has unlimited possibilities in this direction. Newsweek promises its readers that biotechnology will produce plants which 'can destroy plant and insect attackers with little or no help from people'. (3) Howard Schneiderman, R&D Director of Monsanto, also paints a bright future:
I believe . . . that with the new biotechnology almost anything that can be thought of can ultimately be achieved. [He refers specifically to] new treatments for disease, new ways of controlling pests, crops which produce their own pesticides. (4)

This euphoria about the possible impact of biotechnology on agriculture is easy to understand. Biotechnology, at least in theory, can provide the tools for increased pest resistance in crops and for the reduction of dependence on chemical nitrogen fertilizers. Although the work is not as easy as it might seem, it is possible to transfer the genes responsible for pest resistance to crop-plants. Also, research is being carried out to genetically engineer micro-organisms that attack pests and diseases, the so-called biological pesticides.

The breeding of pest resistance into crops has always been a painstaking and expensive job and certainly has not received the attention it deserves. The US Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) believes that in the past decades there was less resistance-breeding because of the availability of cheap pesticides. (5) The main focus of plant-breeding has always been to increase yields rather than to reduce inputs. Private breeding programmes especially lack emphasis on pest-resistance breeding, according to the OTA. (6) In many ways, chemical pesticides were used to compensate for the lack of genetic resistance that might have been bred into crops. Increased emphasis on mono-cropping, based on a few very vulnerable varieties, has served to encourage an agricultural system that needs enormous amounts of pesticides but still loses 20 to 50% of the harvest to pests and diseases (7) Contrary to the impression generally given, crop losses due to pests and diseases have actually increased during the past 30 years. For example, US farmers lost some seven per cent of their crop to insect pests in the 1940s, a figure that had increased to 13% by 1974. (8)

Will biotechnology reverse this trend toward increased crop vulnerability and associated increased pesticide use? It might and it might not. To a large extent it very much depends on whether research priorities are sufficiently directed towards it. Biotechnology provides some very powerful tools to increase pest resistance in agricultural crops, but it certainly does not automatically cause a major shift to pest-resistance breeding. As pointed out earlier, biotechnology research is heavily dominated by the private industry which might have its own agenda. The OTA clearly had this in mind when it stated that:

Much of the agricultural research effort is being made by the agricultural chemical industry, and this industry may see the early opportunity of developing pesticide-resistant plants rather than
undertaking the longer term effort of developing pest-resistant plants. (9)

In this context, the optimistic expectations of Howard Schneiderman, quoted at the outset of this chapter, should be viewed with some scepticism. Schneiderman's company is among the largest pesticide producers in the world.