Traits Potentials and risks

The advent of applications of biotechnology to agriculture offers the possibility of amplifying the achievements of traditional breeding that sustained the GR (Chapter 12). We summarize the reasoning behind this possibility into three categories:

(1) It broadens the spectrum of potential new products and traits through genetic engineering (recombinant DNA techniques, insertion of genetic materials) of plants and animals, including both wide crossings (gene transfers within species from wild relatives of the crop) and transfers of foreign genes (gene transfers across species).

(2) It accelerates the pace of plant breeding through use of selectable gene markers, promoters, and new scanning devices.

(3) It lowers the cost of conducting research and development due to productivity gains in research.

For the sake of smallholders, biotechnology offers the possibility of bringing specific new traits and improvements directly to the best local plant varieties that they already use. Yet, for the poor, biotechnology offers both potential benefits and potential risks. Some of the most important are the following:

• Potential benefits of agbiotechnology for poverty reduction.

i) Yield increases in crops, trees, and animals (including fish) produced in the agroecological and structural conditions of developing countries: tropical and semitropical and arid and semiarid environments, and in peasant farming systems (see Chapters 13 and 16).

ii) Arable area expansion into less-favored lands: varieties tolerant to acidic, saline, and lateritic3 soils and varieties tolerant to flood and drought.

iii) Multiple-cropping allowed by shortening plant maturation periods.

iv) Cost reduction via resource-saving effects: chemical-saving substitution of fertilizers with nitrogen fixation, low nitrogen tolerance, substitution of chemical pesticides with insect resistance (Hubbell, Carlson, and Marra, 2000; Klotz-Ingram et al., 1999; Pray et al., 2000; Traxler and Falck-Zepeda, 1999); seed-cost saving through the possibility of exact reproduction by

3 High content in iron and aluminum compounds.

farmers of seeds of high-quality or specific genetics, including hybrids (through the process of apomixis4).

v) Risk reduction: lower susceptibility to biotic stress—such as insect resistance (e.g., Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) crops5) and virus resistance—and to abiotic stress—such as improved tolerance of saturation (flood), dehydration (drought), extreme heat, or frost. Use diagnostics to detect and identify diseases or infestations, for instance, on seeds purchased or in soils (see Chapter 13).

vi) Improved storability: post-harvest insect resistance, delayed maturation (reduces transport and marketing costs by reducing damage to product, need for refrigeration).

vii) Nutritional improvements of food and feed: quality protein maize, improved micronutrient content ("Golden Rice" with high beta carotene/vitamin A content).

viii) Health benefits for humans and animals: reduced exposure to chemicals (Pray et al., 2000), new vaccines.

ix) Environmental benefits: reduced application of synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilizers, preservation of biodiversity through lower marginal cost of genetic improvements to a wide range of local varieties (see Chapters 3 and 14).

• Potential risks of agbiotechnology for the poor:

i) Staple food crops produced in tropical and semitropical and arid and semiarid environments and by smallholders are bypassed by research, leading to loss of competitiveness.

ii) Terminator genes used to enforce IPRs raise cost of access to latest technologies by preventing reproduction of open-pollinated seeds. Do note, however, that poor farmers can choose to continue to maintain and have access to older unmodified open-pollinated varieties.

iii) Traits pursued in private sector research are for nonpoor consumers (improved industrial processing, delayed ripening) to the neglect of poor consumer needs (more nutritious foods).

iv) Labor displacement by diffusion of labor-substituting (such as herbicide-tolerant) plant varieties.

v) Production in more-developed countries (MDCs) of substitutes for crops previously produced in less-developed countries (LDCs), particularly labor-intensive and/or smallholders' crops such as sugar and vanilla, creating trade substitution effects.

4 Essentially the growing of seed that is an exact genetic copy of its parent.

5 Crops that produce a protein in their tissue from an inserted gene derived from the naturally occurring soil microorganism Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). The protein has highly specific toxicity to some insect pests and serves as an "in plant" biopesticide.

vi) Consumer risks: allergies, unknown long-term health effects.

vii) Environmental risks: insect and virus resistance to commonly available and cost-effective means of biological control, gene flows to wild relatives (potentially creating "superweeds"6), and destruction of useful insects and species.

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