Why Invest in Agricultural Biotechnology

In much of Asia. yields of major food grains are stagnant or declining in the face of population increases. Pests and diseases cause substantial preharvest and postharvest losses of crops, livestock, and fish. Solutions to many of these problems may lie in the various applications of modern biotechnology.

The use of molecular markers to tag specific traits is accelerating the breeding of new varieties of plants and animals. New understanding of plant and animal genes through genomics may offer ways of increasing crop yields.

These new developments when used in conjunction with developments in the physical and social sciences, offer more sustainable means for obtaining necessary productivity increases that are less dependent on environmentally damaging inputs of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Given appropriate policies and necessary human and financial resources, modern biotechnology could make an extremely important contribution to future agricultural growth.

During the next 25 years, Asia will need a Second Green Revolution, often called Biorevolution or Doubly Green Revolution. Conway (1997) pointed out that the next technology-driven revolution must be doubly green—it must increase food production at a faster rate than in recent years without significantly damaging the environment. It must also increase incomes and increase access to food by the poor. The differences between the Green Revolution and Biorevolution are described in Table 5.1. Compared to the Green Revolution of the 1970s, Biorevolution will be characterized by the following features:

(i) Potentially many crops (particularly high value and specialty crops), will be affected as well as livestock and aquaculture.

(ii) Potentially all areas, both irrigated and rainfed, will benefit from biotechnology R&D.

(iii) Technology development and dissemination will substantially involve the private sector with the public sector playing the role of facilitator and regulator.

(iv) Many processes and products will be patentable and protectable.

(v) Capital costs of research will be high.

(vi) Molecular and cell biology expertise will be required in addition to expertise in conventional plant breeding and other agricultural sciences

Modern biotechnology (genetic engineering) is not a silver bullet for achieving food security, but used in conjunction with other techniques it may be a powerful tool in the fight against poverty and food insecurity (Persley and Lantin 2000). Other approaches are available and should be used. Narrowing the yield gap between those obtained from farmers' fields and those from experiment stations using the current technologies is just one example. However, there is concern that some conventional alternatives will not be able to produce the desired results within a limited time. The advantage of modern biotechnology rests on the speed at which desired crop varieties are produced. In some cases, the desirable genetic combination of traits is simply not possible through common breeding methods, and can be done only through genetic engineering.

To increase food production by at least 40 percent within the next 25 years, Asian countries not only have to move toward the best technological frontier (to push farmers' yields to the optimum level), but keep moving the technological frontier itself. As long as product safety, environmental and ethical concerns, and IP issues are adequately addressed, modern agricultural biotechnology has the potential to significantly increase the quantity and quality of the food supply for developing countries.

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