Unravelling the mysteries of biotechnology

  • 14/04/1993

SEVERAL writers have made a name for themselves by publishing dire warnings to developing countries of the dangers posed by new technology from the West. Many wind up exaggerating and making predictions that are as uncertain as those of the neighbourhood astrologer.

However, Henk Hobbelink's book is a rarity as it is based on meticulous statistics, especially concerning the secretive but rapidly growing biotechnology industry. Hobbelink's tale is about how genes -- the building blocks of life -- are being turned into a merchandisable commodity. He gives the reader a detailed account of how the production and marketing of seeds is becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of multinational companies and how this is robbing small and marginal farmers of their right to make independent choices. The author, while not underplaying the benefits of biotechnology in agriculture, repeats what stockbrokers, too, have started saying: The benefits of biotechnology are exaggerated.

Hobbelink is excellent in demystifying biotechnology research. He challenges the false sense of security created by international seed banks regarding the future of preserving biodiversity. Loss of genetic diversity is happening not only in the field, which is common knowledge, but also in international gene banks and Hobbelink quotes the chairman of Pioneer Hi-bred, the world's largest seed company, as saying the world could be losing more genetic diversity in gene banks than in the field. Even at USA's main gene bank, only 28 per cent of all stored samples were found healthy after testing. Hobbelink brands these centres "seed morgues" and accuses them of false reassurances.

In demystifying biotechnology, Hobbelink devotes an entire a chapter to the Original Biotechnologist, the farmer. The high sophistication of indigenous farming systems is judged by analysing the efforts of farmers in various parts of the world to plant different crops side-by-side on the same plot.

"Farmers in India," he writes, "use more than 80 crops in multiple cropping combinations and researchers in Mexico established that 1.73 ha would be needed to obtain the same amount of food as one ha of a mixture of maize, bean and squash."

So what is the difference between biotechnologists, old and new? The farmer based his genius on a broad and holistic approach to a specific agronomic and socioeconomic situation, but the new researcher tends to look for universal solutions at the molecular level. This bias for universal solutions is leading research into an extremely narrow genetic focus. A new variety that is resistant to drought or disease is a real solution at the local level, but only if it fits into prevailing farming practices -- and these can differ considerably from one location to another.

As with the Green Revolution, the question is not whether biotechnology will reach the poor, but how and with what consequences. Biotechnology offers a powerful tool to improve agricultural production, but it can also provide the means to increase the degree of monopoly control over agricultural production.

A most exciting and promising possibility is to decrease the need for chemical inputs in crop production. But Hobbelink notes that whether this will happen depends upon the direction research takes, especially as private companies look only at the profit columns.

As for biotechnology research in the Third World, it does not offer much hope, especially to the small farmers. The most serious problem with national biotechnology programmes in developing countries is that a substantial part of the research is directed toward major cash crops. For example, Brazil, uses tissue culture to produce sugarcane with high yields and tolerance to herbicides, and enzyme technology to improve the fermentation process that turns sugar into alcohol. This saved the country an estimated one billion dollars in energy expenses over the past decade, but it has taken up 2.3 million ha dedicated to food production by small farmers.

Similarly one of the five agricultural research priorities of the New Delhi-based International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology relates to the production of herbicide-tolerant crop. Apart from the fact that herbicide tolerance is already being extensively researched by Northern multinationals, it is doubtful whether it would have much relevance for most Third World farmers, who in any case cannot afford to use herbicides.

Hobbelink maintains biotechnology would help farmers in the developing world if it is used to retain natural biodiversity. But will this happen ? No, says Hobbelink, at least not until the public and public institutions have a voice in setting priorities.

Technology as such is not a solution, but a tool -- a very special tool with a degree of built-in direction toward a certain type of development. Its success depends only in part on its scientific quality. It depends also on the way it is made, the circumstances in which it is developed and used, the interests of those who introduce it and the situation of those at whom it is directed, Hobbelink says.

This book is essential reading for anybody who is keen to take a closer look at the future of research and industry in biotechnology. General awareness of the impact of the Green Revolution took a decade; with the bio-revolution there may yet be time to raise such crucial questions as how the technology should be developed, by whom and for whose benefit? Hobbelink's book is most fascinating and an easy read on these issues.

But beware, for the book is aimed at readers who are interested in the developing world and so it focuses more on the structural changes that biotechnology may provoke, rather than on improvements it might bring to the farmer's field.

A weakness about books such as Hobbelink's is that its impact on Western policy-makers is almost negligible. In fact, Hobbelink mentions that when he presented his findings to the European parliament, the reaction was negative.

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