Opinion: biotechnology, a development pathway for agriculture
January 17 , 2013

By Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) biotechnology and biosecurity coordinator Pedro J. Rocha

Pedro J RochaBiotechnology has been defined by the United Nations (UN) as all technological applications that use biological systems and live organisms, or their derivatives, for the creation or modification of products or processes for specific uses. In this way, it is one of the areas with the highest potential for development and application for diverse human activities, including agriculture.

The tools of biotechnology have been forged on the field and in laboratories, and have brought a variety of applications, some of which are presented below along with reflections on this technology and the role of farmers.

Before developing this topic, it should be mentioned that the position of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) on biotechnology is objective and impartial, based on four pillars:

- Biotechnology is more than GM.

- IICA is fair and represents the position of the 34 member countries. This means it neither accepts nor rejects particular biotechnological techniques. IICA delivers information to decision makers so that their determinations are based on scientifically validated information.

- Biosafety regulatory frameworks are essential for a country and constitute a demonstration of their sovereignty.

- Biotechnology is a foundation and complement for various forms of agriculture.

Growers: biotechnologists by nature

It is clear that the power of observation, as well as understanding nature in general and biological phenomena in particular, has made it possible for human beings to develop activities that while always vital and complex for the sustence of humanity, are currently considered as obvious. Such is the case of agriculture.

Being able to identify those plants that could be ingested, deducing that fruits had seeds from which other plants could come, inventing the plow and planting in the ground, determining that there were cycles (flowering, pollination, growing, harvesting, etc), crossing plants, harvesting and storing grain, and providing food and non-food uses (fiber, medicines, dyes, poisons), are all examples of a deep understanding and a careful and efficient implementation of this.

These reasons lead us to consider that farmers, from their origins, are biotechnologists.

But the inherent complexity of the field and crop requires technological options to facilitate work and to obtain a proper cost-benefit ratio, represented for example increased productivity and profitability and reduced environmental impacts. With these objectives, the biotechnology industry has developed over time.

Biotechnology: a box of tools

There are many techniques used in biotechnology for agriculture, and they have shown that with applied knowledg, a rational and efficient use of natural resources and the enviornmental supply available in different regions of the plant can be made. Some are:

- The in vitro culture of cells and tissues: the possibility of exploiting the ability of plant cells to generate tissues or whole individuals of a single cell through a specially designed crop in a controlled environment

- Fermentation: apart from allowing for the production of alcohol and dairy products, it can accelerate the conversion of organic matter to produce compost. Fermentation is closely associated with the use of bioreactors, which employ small cells as factories for various products, such as important agricultural inputs (biofertilizers, pesticides of biological origin, etc) or other compounds (alcohol, growth regulators, etc).

- Biological control: this uses, for example, antagonistic fungi or other organisms (wasps, arthropods, etc.) To control diseases or pests affecting crops.

- Breeding: one of the processes by which new varieties or crops obtained.

- Molecular markers: multiple techniques based on bits of genetic information (DNA) that can be used for various purposes such as the characterization of populations, the establishment of parentage, quality tracking features, and materials selection in breeding programs.

- Genetic modification through transgenisis: this makes the introduction and expression of plant characteristics (genes) possible in a precise way, achieving what would not have naturally been possible by other means.

- Genomics: a technique to discover and analyze the genome sequence.

Some techniques have been used for many years and are still valid. They are complemented with more recent ones that while generated with the support of specialized science, can be used by any farmer.

Modified live organisms and biosecurity

Using the technique of transgenesis, involving the introduction of genes from one species to another, has made it possible to generate plants that are resistant or highly tolerant to biotics (Lepidoptera and viruses) and abiotics (drought and herbicides). The plants that have undergone such change are called transgenic or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

In 2011, it was reported that 160 million hectares of GM crops were planted, primarily soybeans, corn, cotton and canola. The modification events that are most used are resistance to herbicides (glyphosate and glufosinate-ammonium), high tolerance to insects (bt technology) and a combination of both (stacked events). The feature will soon be available in the market will surely be the drought tolerance. The feature to be next available in the market will surely be drought tolerance.

In Latin America, currently Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, Paraguay and Uruguay plant GM crops on their territories.

So far, there is no scientifically validated report showing that GM crops cause a negative impact on human health, animals or the environment. By contrast, after 16 years of trading in several countries, GM crops have been generating profits from the production point of view (easy crop management), economically, environmentally (use of fewer molecules in fewer herbicides applications) and socially.

A recent publication suggests a deleterious effect of GM corn on mice. However, the lack of scientific rigor of the information presented has obliged the international scientific community not to accept such a report as scientific or conclusive. Science is rigorous and any conclusions that are present to your name must withstand strict analysis under scientific method.

Working with live organisms implies acting ethically and at all times guaranteeing the the biological integrity of organisms and ecosystems. To fulfill this commitment, countries have agreed on sovereignty rules and protocols for the safe handling of GMOs.

The main instrument of biosecurity is the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB) which was signed by all the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean and has been ratified by the majority. With the PCB, countries undertake to implement measures to reduce the potential risks resulting from the application of this technology, defining aspects of transboundary movement and minimum procedures to be considered for the approval and release of GMOs for trade.

In response to the guidelines of the PCB, most countries in the world have biosafety regulatory frameworks, operating through national technical committees. They perform technical analysis and issue science-based concepts, to approve and regulate the release and trade of transgenics in each country.

Additionally, every two years, they will have global meetings to discuss specific issues. In 2012, this was conducted by the Conference of Parties (COP/MOP-6) in Hyderabad, India.

Agriculture and biotechnology

The various types of agriculture (organic, agroecological, GM, conventional, etc) have something in common: they are in agriculture and are looking to produce more, and better, with different tools.

Organic agriculture uses biotechnological techniques. However, as a rule it does not accept the two biotechnological genetic modification techniques: transgenesis and using ionizing radiation forĀ mutagenic purposes. This allows us to affirm that biotechnology is broadly a complement and a foundation of all forms of agriculture. Moreover, there is no mistake in categorizing biotechnology as a clean technology.

Final thoughts

- Biotechnology is a toolbox of techniques that has optimized the potential of natural resources.

- Biotechnology is a clean technology that complements existing ones.

- Since his inception, the farmer has been, is and will remain an efficient biotechnologist.

- There are various techniques, one of which is transgenesis, with which it is possible to genetically modify crops and introduce feature of interest. The technique is powerful and is being used under strict biosecurity measures in countries that have seen development opportunities in such crops.

- As for GM crops, the most anticipated feature is currently related to drought tolerance in corn and soybeans.

- The countries of Latin America and the Caribbean have a valuable opportunity in biotechnology to utilize their natural resources, strengthen national science and technology and strengthen the agricultural business with a reduction in negative impacts on the environment.

- IICA promotes the use of biotechnology in the broad sense and provides information for countries to make their decisions, whatever they may be, based on scientific information.