In this article we will discuss about the co-relation between biotechnology and agricultural biodiversity.
Gene transfer between cultivated and wild plants has always occurred within the limits of species if the two types of plants were in close proximity and flowered at the same time.
No new problems can be expected from transgenic plants except if the gene transferred from the GMO to the wild plant significantly increased the biological fitness of the recipient. This generally seems unlikely a priori and can, and should, be checked experimentally by risk assessment.
Some people feel there is a crucial difference between transfer of genes from conventionally bred plants to their wild relatives and transfer of man-made transgene constructs from a GM plant into a gene pool. Whether ecological risks may result from the introduction of a man- made gene construct into the gene pool of a species is a different question.
Farmers all over the world use a remarkable number of landraces and varieties of many different crops. These are usually closely adapted to the local climate and topography, and are also used to produce foods for different purposes.
To judge by what has happened on the US soybean market, this will not be the case. Although virtually all herbicide resistant soybeans derive from a single transformation event in Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soya, hundreds of different varieties have been derived from it by different seed companies using traditional breeding to develop soya varieties that suit different climatic and soil regions.
This shows that at least with this dominant transgenic crop biotechnology has not led to a loss of agricultural biodiversity. On the other hand, judging from the last 100 years in Europe, the diversity of varieties of farm animals and crops has, in fact, diminished considerably, but not because of any biological hazard emanating from some of the breeds, but because farmers need to produce economically.
Many old varieties of apples have disappeared, for example, because of the preference of food retailers and consumers. The rapid consolidation in the global seed market may be a concern in this respect and anti-trust legislation may be needed to prevent the dominance of oligopolies with limited competition between few producers.
It can be argued that only wealthy farmers will be able to afford transgenic seeds. However, the technology is well suited to small farmers, since it is packaged in a small seed grain, which can be reproduced locally. However, if the seeds are to reach small farmers, there need to be many seed outlets (public cooperatives or private companies) and adequate agricultural extension programmes.
Under what economic and political conditions will biotechnology benefit agricultural productivity and thereby help biodiversity? The original green revolution which improved wheat and rice production in Asia was initiated by research carried out in the public sector.
Today’s innovative research in biotechnology is mainly done by a few large companies with modest contributions from public sector and small companies. Companies strive for intellectual property rights (IPR) through patenting for return on their research investment. This is largely unavoidable with the present IPR systems.
Provisions need to be made so that the agricultural research institutions of LDCs obtain access to information as well as patented materials and procedures needed for regional farmers.
Unfortunately financial support to the agricultural research systems of LDCs has been substantially cut in the last ten years: this trend endangers world food security and needs to be reversed. A limited number of transfers of specific patents to LDCs have already occurred from companies such as Monsanto and Syngenta for producing virus-resistant sweet potatoes and Vitamin A enriched golden rice.
This approach; including the possibility of enforced licensing, is probably more practicable than changing the world’s patenting system which does, however, need to be adapted in order to deal with living organisms.
A new issue arising in the field of IPR is the attempt to protect traditional, indigenous knowledge through novel international legislation. Lack of food appears to be, and is largely, a problem of distribution; there is not sufficient food available to those who need it.
The poor simply do not have the money to buy enough. Since in LDCs most of the poor still live on the land, it is here that production has to be increased so that there is not only enough for survival but a surplus which can be sold to buy other goods and services.
Increasing local agricultural productivity is the most effective way to do this and should, according to many economists of the public sector including those of the UNDP, embrace modern biotechnology as an important component.