To date, a relatively small number of commercial agricultural products have been developed through the application of molecular biotechnology techniques. Some vaccines against animal diseases, strains of yeast, and other products for cheese and wine fermentation, as well as few transgenic crops have been developed. Marker-assisted selection is still in its infancy due to the fact that detailed linkage maps are not yet available for several species. Requiring large investments, most of the research products that are being developed using genetic engineering are coming from the private sector in developed countries, even though all the research builds on the basic research funded by the public sector in developed countries. This section provides a conceptual overview of the present state of biotechnology applications to agriculture; the first section of Chapter 13 provides a technical overview that includes examples of specific products. ERS (2003) also provides a general overview of agricultural biotechnology issues.
Although traditionally private sector focuses more on applied research leading to marketable products, with the science-based biotechnology well underway, the private sector has increasingly taken on basic research. On the other hand, being origins of most scientific advances, public sector has also conducted applied agricultural research and, since passage of the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980, has become increasingly active in seeking intellectual property protection for their research outputs. In this new biotech era, the relationships between basic and applied research and between public and private R&D become closer than ever before. The close relationship between the University of California, Berkeley, and Novartis provide one example (Nestle, 2002, pp. 120-122).
Genetic engineering has been used to develop a variety of crop plants for different purposes, most of them related to solving production problems. Crops carrying the gene coding for the Bt insecticidal protein derived from Bacillus thuringiensis require less or no insecticide applications. Crops expressing the gene for resistance to gluphosate or to gluphosinate are easier to manage, because weed control in the field is done by the application of a contact herbicide (Roundup). At present, these two genes are the most common in the commercially available transgenic plants.
While few products are currently commercially available, a plethora of transgenic products covering a wide range of species are being developed, and are close to, or at, the field-testing stage, such as rice with pro-vitamin A, rice with increased iron content, male sterile Brassica, carnations with modified flower color and vase life, tomatoes and melons with increased shelf life, potatoes with altered starch composition, sweet potatoes with resistance to nematodes, and many species with resistance to a large number of different viruses. In the near future, it is expected that another group of "new generation" transgenic products will be created carrying more interesting and more complex traits, that can be of special interest for developing country farmers, such as crops with resistance to drought, to salinity, and to cold.
The most recent developments in the biotechnology area also indicate that the possible group of "new generation" products of genetic engineering should raise fewer safety concerns. One reason is the fact that new tissue-specific promoters (of the process through which RNA is formed along with DNA) are being set up. If these are used instead of the less-specific types of promoters available today, the problem of expressing a gene where it is not needed (like Bt maize expressing the Bt toxin in pollen grains) will be avoided. Another safety concern, that of giving rise to some unexpected product or toxin because the gene insertion occurs at random, and a regulatory sequence being disrupted and producing some unexpected product, will also subside. In fact, techniques for promoting site-specific insertion are being developed. Like any other field of science, more mistakes are made early on with a greater probability of defective products being developed. We expect future advances in biotechnology to yield a safer and cleaner generation of products that can be truly useful for the poor farmers in developing countries.
In assessing the safety of transgenics (or more generally, GMOs), it should be considered that their reproductive and agronomical behavior will be similar, if not equal to the behavior of the nonmodified species that was used to produce the transgenics, save for the added gene. Biosafety evaluations to date appear effective: To the present there appears to be no single case of documented environmental damage or of even an allergy reported as being due to their usage.
Unfortunately, implementation of biotechnology techniques is expensive to date, especially for research systems of developing countries. Not only is it expensive, potential users require considerable training, and its adoption requires the establishment of an appropriate regulatory environment with biosafety measures.
Biotechnology to date represents a set of techniques generally not available to developing countries. This means that for the full potential of the technology to be realized in developing countries, in particular, further innovations that can streamline its adoption and application are necessary. Biotechnology is not a cure-all nor an end-of itself; biotechnology should be seen just as one more tool to be used by research programs when appropriate and necessary. Biotechnology applications can make possible a large range of new products as long as there are not strong barriers to its adoption or applications. Nobody can realistically expect that researchers from developed countries will develop all the products necessary for agriculture in developing countries—it is not by chance that all the currently available transgenic crops are in a few species that are internationally traded. Biotechnology will have to become less costly both to make it worthwhile for researchers of developing countries to produce products specifically tailored to developing country needs, as well as for developing countries to use it themselves.
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