Somewhere Over the Genetic Rainbow, BioMoney

A Quest for the Seeds of Wealth

They say this is the age of biotechnology. For many companies this means a search for wild strains of plants and animals, new raw materials from which genes can be extracted to develop chemicals, foods, drugs, and other products we've yet to dream about. There is money in this search, with growth in the biotechnology sector to increase from $4 billion to $50 billion by the year 2000.

At issue in the developing world is compensation for extracted biological raw materials and access to new biotechnology. Tropical nations harbor most of the world's plant and animal species. Costa Rica alone accounts for 5% of the total. An estimated 1% of the 250,000 flowering-plant species on our planet have been evaluated for their medicinal qualities, not to mention the genetic traits of thousands of wild or local plant varieties that could improve the drought- or pest-resistance of cultivated food crops.

Certain interests in the global biotechnology industry would like to extend the United States' patent protections for genetically altered life forms and other biotech products to developing nations. This, some argue, would establish legal instruments for monopoly profits and control over natural resources by the industry.

To Share or Not to Share

According to the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), based in Ottawa, Canada, genetic material taken from the developing world already contributes $5 billion to the agricultural economy of industrial nations. Real and anecdotal evidence of this contribution abound, deserving greater attention.

For example, the Peruvian tomato variety Lycopersicon chmielewki, a scraggly looking, sticky-leaved wild tomato, is worth $8 million per year to U.S. tomato processors due to its soluble solids content. And the rosy periwinkle, native to Madagascar, is the source of drugs used to treat Hodgkin's disease and juvenile leukemia. Its worth? A cool $160 million annually. Another Madagascar treasure, the vanilla bean, is grown by some 100,000 farmers on the island. Their livelihood may be threatened significantly if one U.S.-based plant genetics company successfully develops cheap vanilla flavoring from plant cell cultures. Likewise, low-cost, genetically engineered pyrethrum could affect the household budgets of 200,000 farmers in developing nations. Today Kenyan farmers grow the chrysanthemums that are the source of two-thirds of the world's pyrethrum in that $100 million market.

The loss of relatively high-value agricultural product markets by many farmers can be likened to the loss of the world market share for autos by metropolitan Detroit, for fine wines by France, for tea by China, and for bananas by several Central American nations. The European Commission concluded that it will become possible to replace tropical agricultural commodities like palm oil or manioc with products grown in the European Economic Community and other industrialized countries. The implication for many of the world's farmers is frightening.

Genetic Homogenization on the Horizon

While supporters of biotechnology argue that economic losses to farmers and agricultural nations will be countered by greatly increased worldwide food production, ecologists wonder about the fate of genetic diversity. The organization RAFI estimates that the genetic diversity of our planet's 20 major food crops decreases by about 2% annually. Witness the potato.

Traditional potato farmers plant tubers from the previous harvest, rather than potato seeds, which are not genetically true to the parents. Tubers, however, are quite susceptible to disease. So, many larger-scale and commercial farmers purchase certified disease-free tubers, expensive to import. A genetically engineered true potato seed (TPS) would help reduce that import cost. But, says RAFI, the introduction of TPS into the Andean highlands, for example, could mean that traditional potato varieties would no longer be economically useful. So what?

The worry is that biotechnology will accelerate reliance upon a few varieties. For potatoes, already 60% of commercial production in the U.S. is linked to a single variety. Genetic uniformity of this nature theoretically leaves a particular crop seriously vulnerable to disease, pests, and climatic vagaries. Biotekkies reply that precise manipulation of genetic material can reduce these risks by creating resistance and, furthermore, that genetic diversity can be increased in this way. There is considerable faith in the magic of recombinant DNA technology to produce new hybrids by many scientists, for sure.

Pay to Play

Skeptics of DNA recombinant technology point out that the genes that confer tried and true genetic resistance usually exist in wild plants or local crop varieties. The Green Revolution fueled neglect for such native strains, especially in wheat, rice, and corn. An estimated 1,500 varieties of Indonesian rice have disappeared over the past 15 years due to this neglect. One cause of famine is linked to the inability of high-yielding crop varieties to withstand recent droughts in Ethiopia, although war certainly did not help farmers living through that particular situation.

One well-recognized production problem with new hybrids is their dependence upon externally purchased inputs like fertilizers and pesticides, and their soil moisture demand. A study of four Filipino villages that switched from traditional to modern rice varieties between 1970 and 1981 found that yields had risen by more than 70%, but farmers' income declined by up to 50% due to falling rice prices and a three-fold increase in cost of inputs.

A looming predicament for farmers worldwide is that with greater corporate control of biotechnology due to intellectual property protection through patents, they may be legally obliged to pay royalties for seed derived from patented stock. Will farmers be able compete successfully in world markets if they choose not to pay, but select an alternative course? These are interesting times.

For some the big picture issue is not biotechnology per se, but loss of genetic diversity and the terms of trade between North and South economies. Partnerships, the buzzword of the '90s, may be the key. Genuinely sincere, mutually understandable, and equitably beneficial information exchange between scientists and farmers about genetic improvement is a major partnership challenge that we will face during the next seven years and beyond.

J. W. King. 1993. Breeding Uniformity: Will global biotechnology threaten global diversity? Amicus Journal, Spring (Vol. 15, No.1).