Biotechnology Promises Fresh Gains
TWO plants sit side by side in a greenhouse.
One is healthy and untouched by pests.
The other is leaf-eaten. Having bored a small, brown hole through one of its cotton bolls, a worm now sits drowsily on the inside of a blossom.
"That's going to make zero cotton," says Rob Horsch, manager of crop transformation for Monsanto Company's agriculture group here.
What's the difference between the two plants? Biotechnology.
The first plant is a new bioengineered variety that's unappealing to pests.
Twenty years after the green revolution, which boosted wheat and rice yields dramatically in parts of the developing world, biotechnology is preparing to boost production again. The biotech revolution, if one can call it that, will be far different from the green revolution that preceded it.
"It's going to be more like a silent revolution than a bomb," says Luther Tweeten, professor of agricultural economics at Ohio State University.
"The green revolution did one good thing. It helped third-world farmers produce more food," says Rebecca Goldburg, who is a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, an environmental group based in New York.
But it also pushed farmers into using pesticides, chemical fertilizer, and irrigation that, in some cases, caused environmental harm.
"We have to worry a lot more about the appropriateness of what we are doing this time around," Dr. Goldburg says.
It's hard to call biotechnology a revolution.
Despite the hype from supporters and detractors, its initial impact will be modest. Although biotechnology will affect a wider range of agriculture than the green revolution ever did, commercial products will take years to get to the marketplace. Scientists can only manipulate simple traits of plants at the moment. In the end, the technology will probably have a greater impact than the green revolution. But it will be cumulative, not a dramatic one-year burst of productivity.
"We will look back and call it a revolution," Dr. Horsch says. Wary consumers
The scientific breakthroughs are only half the battle. A recent study prepared for the United States Department of Agriculture suggests that public education will be crucial for the technology to be a commercial success. Consumers are wary.
Bioengineered bovine somatotropin - or BST - is a prime example.
BST is a growth hormone that occurs naturally in cows. Researchers have created a bioengineered version that can boost and prolong a cow's milk production by an average of 5 to 20 percent when introduced into a cow's system.
Some Midwestern farmers, horrified at the prospect of more milk flooding the market, have mounted an effective protest that has put Monsanto and other BST producers on the defensive. Agriculture economists and pharmaceutical companies have countered by touting BST's benefits. Consumers will pay less for dairy products, they say. Hormone's potential limited
The reality is more mundane than either side cares to admit.
Monsanto estimates that if 40 to 50 percent of US farmers use the product on 40 to 60 percent of their cows, US milk production would go up 5 percent. Professor Tweeten calculates that if 80 percent of farmers adopted BST - an optimistic assumption - the average US family would save $9 a year.
"A lot of people think BST is a revolution," Tweeten says. "It's no big deal."
All of biotechnology is that way. It will be years before advances match the annual gains made through plant breeding and other traditional agricultural techniques. Those traditional advances typically add $2 billion a year to US national income, Tweeten says. Even when fully implemented, bioengineered BST might add $1 billion a year in national income. Thus, it will take 20 BST-like advances every decade just to match the progress of today's farmers and processors.
Besides the economic impact, there are other biotechnology concerns. Animal-welfare advocates worry that BST will put added stress on cows. Biotechnology's best-known opponent, Jeremy Rifkin, helped organize a supermarket boycott of milk produced using the bioengineered BST. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) already has ruled that milk from bioengineered BST is safe for human consumption. It has yet to rule on BST's impact on animals.
Other bioengineered products are also under fire. When the FDA announced in May that it would not require labels on genetically altered foods, Mr. Rifkin gathered more than 20 famous chefs and food gurus to publicize those foods.
The flap has sensitized even biotechnology's most ardent defenders.
"I would never have guessed that you would have to defend in all public arenas such bioscience applications," says Clifton Baile, director of research and development at Monsanto's animal sciences division. If he had to do BST over again, "now I would look to see what a Green would say." `Genie is out of the bottle'
Public debate is necessary, even if it slows down biotechnology advances, says Marshall Martin, professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University. But he doubts that biotechnology research will stop in its tracks if BST is not successful.
"The genie is out of the bottle," he says. After BST will come PST or porcine somatotropin and, after that, a whole range of new products.
At a research farm of the Illinois Agriculture Experiment Station, supervisor Bill Fisher stands in the middle of dozens of squealing pigs. Some are long, lean US hogs; others are fatty, wrinkled varieties from China.
"We would just as soon not have this package," Mr. Fisher says, slapping the hairy back of a 2-1/2-year-old Chinese sow. The Chinese hogs carry only half the meat per pound that US varieties do. But they have one very desirable trait: Instead of farrowing 8-1/2 pigs per litter, the US average, Chinese sows give birth to an average of 11-1/2.
Researchers here are using various biotechnology tools to try reproduce that trait in US hogs. In some cases, gene-mapping has been used to determine which hogs to use for traditional crossbreeding. In others, scientists have merged parts of Chinese and American embryos and transplanted them into Chinese sows, which gave birth. The result: transgenic pigs.
The transgenic pigs look the same as traditional crossbred varieties. Researchers hope that by the year 2000, they will have created a new breed of lean, high-litter hog. If they could increase the average litter by just one pig, the boost would put millions of dollars into the pockets of Illinois farmers alone.
Don Holt, director of the experiment station, says that the BST milk controversy has had little impact on his PST pork program.
"The sensitivity to milk will always be greater because it's fed to babies," he says. Some biotech supporters say it's unfortunate the industry chose BST as its first commercial agriculture product.
Animal agriculture - even if it is bioengineered - won't increase the world's food production. It only increases the variety of what people eat. By one estimate it takes seven times as many resources to provide nutrients through beef as it does through grain. Thus, advances in bioengineered grain will be important to keeping up with the world's food demand.
The world today raises enough food to feed itself, says professor Martin of Purdue. Starvation continues because of poor distribution. Countries are unable or unwilling to pay for food imports and get them to their populations. The world could probably get by during the next 50 years without the benefits of bioengineering, he adds, but the earth would be stretching its resources to do it. Benefits for developed nations
Most of the commercial research in bioengineered crops will benefit the developed world more than the developing one. Here at Monsanto, for example, researchers are busy creating plants that are more resistant to insects, viruses, and pesticides. These traits would allow farmers to use fewer pesticides in smaller quantities without losing current production. That should help the environment, especially in developed nations where farmers have the resources and training to take advantage of the technology.
Monsanto and Calgene of Davis, Calif., are working on such products as tomatoes that ripen slowly when picked. That way, commercial growers could pick them when they're flavorfully pink and still get them to market before they're overripe.
For the developing world, the effects are mixed. Mexico, Jamaica, and a few other countries are already using bioengineered BST commercially. Some observers, such as Dennis Avery of the Hudson Institute, suggest China may be the biggest beneficiary of PST long-term. Some 85 percent of China's meat is pork.
But PST researchers caution that new biotech products often require new production methods. When Dr. Baile of Monsanto visited China, he found that PST was much more applicable to China's lean export hogs than to the fatty ones common in the countryside. Dramatic changes in culture and in agricultural production would be needed for rural China to take advantage of the technology. Sweet-potato project
To adapt biotechnology to the developing world, special research efforts are needed. For example, sweet potatoes are an important subsistence crop in many parts of Africa, but they're not well researched because they are not a big commercial crop. Under a special project, funded jointly by Monsanto and the US Agency for International Development, a scientist from Kenya is using the company's gene-transfer technology to develop virus-resistant sweet potatoes.
African farmers can lose up to 75 percent of their crop because of viruses. If the project works - and the strain is properly distributed - African farmers one day could see significant production gains.
But here, as elsewhere in biotechnology, that hope is at least a few years away.