Agriculture : The Uses of Biotechnology


Genetic science in agriculture:
The uses of biotechnology

By Roger Baker / The Rag Blog / November 22, 2009

I recently wrote about GMO’s on The Rag Blog (“The Future of Agriculture: Genetics and the Limits of Oil“) and I want to expand a little on the thoughts I presented in that article.

Biotechnology is a powerful new tool that we are just learning to use, but it can give certain targeted benefits to agriculture. Maybe you could engineer a strain of cotton with some poison alkaloid genes expressed in the cotton bolls to defeat boll weevils for years or a decade, assuming boll weevils were your main problem.

We would all likely agree that we don’t want to see Monsanto in charge of this work, but what if some U.S. government lab offered the results of the weevil resistant gene spliced cotton seeds to all southern U.S. farmers, both big and small at low government subsidized cost? A sort of shallow band aid approach reflecting our simple current understanding of gene splicing that might be of obvious benefit for a time, but that ought not to be privatized.

But what if global warming is your main problem, as is typically likely with many food crops? Here gene spicing will do little good. Why?

Because in the case of global warming, you really need to find strains of existing plants where nature and natural selection have already solved the problems of climate acclimation involving many genes in ways we do not understand and won’t for many years. This assumes that our government would put a reasonable amount of effort into the basic research, now that we have the lab tools to greatly advance our deep understanding of how biology works.

Global warming (intensifies droughts in the Southwest, and floods in many cases) plus peak oil will hit U.S. and world agriculture quite hard and the forced response will require improved tolerant strains and varieties of crops from our genetic resource banks (now largely privatized?) to be developed and planted.

If I were advising some scholarly young person which branch of science to go into to make a good living for decades to come, I think I would now advise them to go into public sector agricultural science, and perhaps plant breeding in particular. Agriculture will have to become a lot more localized and I believe that crop experts good at passing on practical advice way down to the backyard garden level will be in big demand.

There is another side to the current revolution in genetic science, and that is personal medicine. The use of genome analysis and genetic engineering to solve medical problems on an individual level is likely to become a very profitable and effective branch of medicine since it can provide individualized advice on preventive medicine.

But biotechnology is rapidly moving to China. They have cheap, dependable, and skilled lab workers there and the highly targeted pharmaceuticals and methods like antibodies and genome analysis are labor-intensive.

This all cries out for socialized medicine or strong regulation of the biotechnology industry. Since I assume the Chinese have socialized medicine for their own domestic care, the emphasis maybe should be to ensure that the American companies don’t charge a hundred times the real cost/Chinese price for delivering the same medical benefits in the U.S. — now that we have largely failed to reform the high cost drivers in our medical health delivery system.

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3 Responses to Agriculture : The Uses of Biotechnology

  1. Biotechnology is already offering some help with health care issues in previously unimaginable ways.

    Three examples that were on the drawing table and/or in experimental cultivation as long ago as 2003, when I last read up on developments in this field:
    1. Bioengineered rice in California that, upon harvest, produces human blood of the type (A, B, O, Rh + or -) needed for shortages and disasters, w/out the risks of disease contamination in human blood stocks. The American Red Cross is very interested in this useful crop.
    2. Bioengineered bananas with odd- color peels (white, I believe) that will be used to dispense needle-free vaccinations, especially to children, in areas w/out refrigeration or trained nurses.
    3. Tobacco, an easily manipulated crop, modified to produce human enzymes that some humans do not produce, or don’t produce enough of for good health. Rare genetic defects in enyme production don’t affect very many people, and current pharmaceutical treatments cost HUNDREDS of THOUSANDS of GREENBACKS ANNUALLY PER PATIENT.

    I don’t want to eat GMO corn, tomatoes, or watermelons — damn shipped-green-from-Georgia peaches are bad enough! — but biotechnology holds a lot of promise for health care around the world.

  2. GrumpyOne in Austin says:

    While I share some of Mr. Baker’s views regarding privatization of genetic engineered products, I do not share any views of “global warming” which now of course is called “climate change.”

    Just the notion that humans can cause planetary climate change is just plain silly. Droughts in this country are reflections of the El Nino/La Nina natural occurrences that have been known for quite some time. These are cyclical events plain and simple.

    In fact, here in Texas there is a saying to the effect that weather here is dominated by, “Periods of drought interrupted by occasional floods.”

    Getting back to genetically engineered products, great caution is called for in this regard. But I don’t trust government much more than I trust private industry…

  3. Janet says:

    Bio engineering is a so far unfulfilled promise, and another way to wipe out the small farmer and enhance the grip of the corporations.
    The full human diet already exists and is already known. We have no need for expensive new seeds.
    We have a need to preserve the vast library of seeds developed over the last many thousands of years, instead of hoping that somehow modern technocrats can top that in a few years in their labs.

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