Agricultural biotechnology developments


Since the very evolution of agricultural biotechnology, scientists have fancied using the genetic engineering tools to intensify the nutritional as well as other properties of foods for the benefit of the consumer. The initial products to be commercialized, however, were more to accommodate the so-called input traits, genetic modifications that made insect, virus and weed control easier or more competent. These first products were rapidly adopted by the U.S. farmers, and now account for the majority of soybeans, cotton and corn grown in the United States.

Agricultural biotechnology developments have been directly aimed towards consumers, sometimes collectively referred to as output traits. As the technology advances furthermore and we know more about the genes and biochemical pathways that control the attributes that could offer more direct consumer benefits, the long-awaited promise of genetically engineered food with more direct consumer benefits moves closer to reality.

The year 1990 saw the approval of first genetically engineered food ingredient for human consumption by the U.S.Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the enzyme chymosin, used in cheesemaking. It is estimated that today 70% or more of cheese made in the U.S. uses genetically engineered chymosin. The first genetically engineered food, the FlavrSavr™ tomato, was approved for human consumption in the U.S. in 1994.

18 countries and seven million farmers now grow genetically engineered crops. Leading countries are the U.S., Argentina, Canada, Brazil, China, and South Africa. Cultivation of genetically engineered crops globally has expanded more than 10% per year for the past seven years, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA, James 2004). This amounts to a 40-fold increase in the worldwide area of transgenic crops from 1996 to 2003. Thus, in spite of continuing debate about the technology it is keeps on being adopted by the farmers globally.

“In 2003, GM crops were grown in 18 countries with a combined population of 3.4 billion, living in six continents in the North and the South: Asia, Africa and Latin America, and North America, Europe and Oceania. The absolute growth in GM crop area between 2002 and 2003 was almost the same in developing countries (4.4 million hectares) and industrial countries (4.6 million hectares), the three most populous countries in Asia—China, India, and Indonesia, the three major economies of Latin America—Argentina, Brazil and Mexico, and the largest economy in Africa, South Africa, are all officially growing genetically engineered crops.”

The leading genetically engineered crops globally and in the U.S. are soy, maize (corn), cotton, and canola. In the U.S., transgenic virus-resistant papaya and squash are also cultivated.

Research in plant biotechnology has focused chiefly on agronomic traits—characteristics that amend pest resistance, reduce the need for pesticides, and increase the ability of the plant to survive unfavorable growing conditions such as drought, soil salinity, and cold. Biotechnology traits that have been developed and exploited to date have primarily focused on pest control (mainly Bt crops) or herbicide resistance. Most plant pests have proven either problematic or uneconomical to limit using the chemical treatment, traditional breeding, or other agricultural technologies and in these cases in particular, biotechnology has turned out to be a useful agronomic tool. Herbicide resistance allows farmers to control weeds with chemicals that would otherwise damage the crop itself.

Cotton and corn varieties have been used to introduce unified two different traits, such as herbicide tolerance and insect resistance. The addition of new traits, such as resistance to rootworm in maize, and the combinations of traits with similar functions, such as two genes for resistance to lepidopteran pests in maize, is expected to increase. While the betterment of agronomic characteristics in major crops has been highly prosperous, few products genetically engineered to meet the needs of consumers as well as the food processors have not yet been commercialized. Recently, however, a renewed emphasis on developing agricultural biotechnology applications more relevant to consumers has accompanied continuing efforts to develop crops with improved agronomic traits. Although genetically engineered crops with enhanced health, nutrition, functional, and consumer benefits have lagged behind agronomic applications, research on many such products is in the advanced stages of development. These applications could improve human and livestock nutrition and health, the nutritional quality of food animals for human consumption, and create ingredients with superior properties for food manufacturing and processing.


Crop yield

Modern biotechnology techniques are used to transplant developed crop varieties with one or twogenes which bestows a new character that would increase the yield of the crop.While increases in crop yield are the most apparent applications of modern biotechnology in agriculture nonetheless it is also the most difficult one. Effects that are mastered by single genes are the area where the current genetic techniques succeed the most. Characteristics that are associated with crop yield (e.g., enhanced growth) are mostly under the control of a large amount of genes, each of which have a marginal effect on the overall yield.

Reduced vulnerability of crops to environmental stresses

Crops that can withstand biotic and abiotic stresses need to be developed by the addition of genes that can withstand these stresses. For example,the two essential limiting factors in crop productivity are droughtand overly salty soil. Biotechnologists are analyzing plants that can grapple with these immoderate conditions in the desire of finding genes that help them in doing so and finally reassigning these genes to the more preferred crops. The latest build up in this regard has been the discovery of a plant gene,At-DBF2, from a tiny weed Arabidopsis thaliana, which is highly used for research. When the tomatoandtobaccocells were inserted with this, the cells were able to resist the environmental stresses like salt, drought, cold and heat, far more than ordinary cells. If the initial reports are successfully proved in the larger field trials, then At-DBF2 genes can help in producing crops that are engineered to hold up to more harsh environments. Transgenic rice plants that are resistant torice yellow mottle virus(RYMV) have also been created by the researchers. This virus is responsible for destroying majority of the rice crops in Africa and it also makes the other existing plants more allergic to fungal infections.

Increased nutritional qualities

Nutritional qualities can be increased by altering the proteins in foods. Amino acids that are required by the human beings for a balanced diet can be provided by transforming the proteins present in the legumes and cereals.A good example in this regard is the work of ProfessorsIngo PotrykusandPeter BeyeronGolden rice.

Improved taste, texture or appearance of food

Modern biotechnology has been used to slacken the affect of spoilage so that fruits ripen longer on the plant which can then be easily transported to the consumer with sane shelf life. These results in the alteration of the appearance taste and texture of the fruit. Its important benefit was that; due to reduction in the spoilage the farmers from the developing countries could increase their share in the international market. Some negative effects have also been seen for example, engineered soybeans which resisted spoilage produced less tempehwhich depends on fermentation and is the important source of protein for the plant. The use of these altered soybeans resulted in a chunky texture that is less edible and less handy for cooking.

Production of novel substances in crop plants

Biotechnology is now being applied for novel uses other than food. For example,oilseedare being altered for production of fatty acids to be used in detergents, substitute fuels and petrochemicals. Many plants such as potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce etc have been genetically-engineered for the production of insulinand manyother useful vaccines. If in the near future clinical trials carried out are proved successful, the benefits of edible vaccines would prove to be enormous, especially for the countries still in their developing stages. These plants may then be grown locally at very cheap prices. These homegrown vaccines would also be beneficial as they would be avoiding logistical and economic problems that are being posed by having to transport medicines and maintaining the conditions for them so that they don't get spoilt. As these are going to be edible the additional use of syringes would also be no longer required which will in turn help by reducing a number of infections. In case of other medicines which cannot be directly administered to the patients such as insulin to diabetes patients; still there cost of production can be significantly reduced.

Major Concerns

In developed countries, the leading worry relates to the impact of genetically improved organisms (GIOs) on health and the environment. These safety concerns have been well recorded and are widely known. The issues that related to the genetically modified crops were administered in a report published by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics in May 1999. The first major issue of worry is biosafety. A number of large biotechnology companies are not yet ready to label their products as GM foods in spite of the fact that there have been intensive discussions on this issue. For countries like India this may affect them in a major way. Firstly, it is a land of small farm holdings. “There are now 106 million operational holdings in the country, and about 75 percent of them are one hectare or less. India has 25 percent of the global farming community, and farming provides a livelihood to nearly 66 percent of the population. There is concern that expansion of proprietary science and shrinking of“public good” research supported from public funds may lead to a situation where the technologies of the future remain in the hands of a few transnational corporations. Only resource-rich farmers may have access to them, thereby widening further the gap between the rich and poor. This could accelerate social disintegration.”( Genetic Engineering and Food Security:Ecological and Livelihood Issues : M. S. Swaminathan )

Secondly, competitive control over crop varieties may lead to a condition where by large areas of land are harvested using only very small numbers of genetic strains or hybrids. It is also a known fact that genetic homogeneity enhances genetic vulnerability to the different kind of stresses. Companies that are related to biotechnology are therefore coming up with different strategies for resistance, such as growing some percentage of non-Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) crop alongside the crops containing the Bt gene.

“The third issue is relating the prospective impact of Genetically Modified foods on biodiversity. This in turn has two significant dimensions involved. The first of which deals with replacing the number of local species of the plants with one or two new varieties, which would then result in genetic erosion. Modernization of agriculture has resulted in a narrowing of the base of food security, both interms of the number of species constituting the food basket and the number of genetic strains cultivated (see NRC 1989, 1996). Local cultivars have often been the donors of many useful traits, including resistance to pests and diseases. Under small farm conditions, every farm is a genetic garden, comprising several annual and perennial crops, and several varieties of each crop. The need of the hour is to enlarge the food basket and not shrink it further. The second dimension is equity in benefit sharing between biotechnologists and the primary conservers of genetic resources and the holders of traditional knowledge. The primary conservers have so far remained poor, while those who use their knowledge (for example, the medicinal properties of plants) and material become rich. This has resulted in accusations of biopiracy. It is time that genetic engineers and others promote and find ways to implement genuine biopartnerships with the holders of indig40Agricultural Biotechnology and the Poorenous knowledge and traditional conservers ofgenetic variability, based on principles of ethics and equity in benefit sharing. Unless R&D efforts on GM foods are based on principles of bioethics, biosafety, biodiversity conservation, and biopartnerships, there will be serious public concern in India, as well as many other developing countries, about the ultimate nutritional, social, ecological, and economic consequences of replacing numerous local varieties with a few new genetically improved crop varieties. To derive benefits from genetic engineering without undue risks, every nation should set up a multistakeholder Commission for Genetic Modification.” ( Genetic Engineering and Food Security:Ecological and Livelihood Issues : M. S. Swaminathan )

Challenges to Agricultural biotechnology in developing countries

* Lack of effective leadership

* Poor funding of agricultural biotechnology research and development (R&D)

* Lack of research focus and infrastructure

* Inadequate human resources and expertise

* Safety problems

* Substitutability effect

* Exploitation of rich indigenous resources of developing societies

* Ethical issues of agricultural biotechnology

* Less attention to R&D of interest to developing societies











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