Agricultural Biotechnology – The Science And Fiction

A Santa Ram and M Indira

In the past two decades, biotechnology was perceived as a potential area that can contribute to agricultural sustainability.  Biotechnology is a vast assembly of powerful techniques, which are expected to yield potential benefits that extend the capacity of world agriculture to sustain exploding population.  Since biotechnology comprises many aspects, it is important to choose the most relevant ones that positively support the required developments.

Briefly discussed below are the technologies (Plant tissue culture and Genetic Engineering), their appropriateness and reported affects and the major issues concerning the common man.


Plant Tissue Culture in the context of seed production

In nature various genes of an organism act and interact in different ways to produce the manifested characters and related variations.  The marginal differences between individuals in populations imply that they are important for survival. An important law of natural selection, “survival of the fittest” is compromised in the premise “mass multiplication of elite plants to produce true to type descendants”.  As survival depends on fitness, residual variation is an important fitness indicator ensuring survival species1.

While the natural mutation process affects only a few plants, every tissue culture derived individual is a potential mutant.  Somaclonal variation that stimulates the mutation process, may be considered as the biotechnology equivalent of mutation breeding. Somaclonal variation is a universal outcome of tissue culture. It was projected as a useful means of inducing genetic variations that can be utilized in plant breeding. However, whether it is a  substitute or large supplement to natural genetic variations that are conventionally used in plant breeding needs to be judged.

In practice, production of seed is a much cheaper affair than the “mass multiplication” of tissue culture plantlets.  Given the advantages of production cost and natural selection endowments of seed, it will be the obvious choice of farmers.  Thus, tissue culture appears not to be a substitute to traditional seed propagation in the foreseeable future2.

Genetic Engineering

Diversity of living organisms is an endowment of the Mother Nature.  Biodiversity, whether it pertains to crop plants or wild weeds is a reflection of the capacity of nature to genetically engineer its various species for sustenance and survival.  Plant breeding that produced today’s crop plants used this elementary principle to evolve crop varieties by transferring genes from wild varieties and related species to crop plants3.

Artificial selection of plants from hybrid and backcross lineages is first order genetic engineering that works in unison with natural selection.  This process ensures fitness of the descendants and their survival and possible better performance over their parents in a variety of agricultural contexts like yield and resistance to biotic and abiotic adversaries such as insect pests, diseases drought, salt stress etc.  The superiority of this process lies in the fact that it exploits the genomic homologies of crop plants and their relatives existing in nature itself.

In contrast, genetic engineering is totally artificial3 (as to the choice of sources of genes) and random (as to the integration of genes in the crop plant genome) and its products have very little chance of being selected positively by nature. Transmission of engineered genes to the next generation (inheritance) appears to be a major problem as breakdown of the target trait expression was generally observed in the seed descendants of transgenic plants. In the genetic engineering experiments, available results indicate that additional genes conditioning particular characters lead to total suppression of the character, a phenomenon called co-suppression4.  This leads to the question of stability of genetically engineered crop plants in nature.

In the experience of plant breeders, resistance to pests and pathogens transferred to crop plants even from natural sources were defeated by the respective adversaries over a period of time and keeping alternative sources in the germplasm banks is practiced to combat this eventuality.  This happened even in the case of genetically engineered pest resistance of cotton5,6. This means that genetically engineered resistance is not different from what is available in nature.

Now the big question – Does this justify the multi-million dollar expenditure on genetic engineering.?

Appropriateness and effects

 It becomes important to consider the effects of the twin processes of tissue culture and genetic engineering on the performance of genetic engineering products.  True to the expectations, reduced yields of genetically engineered crops were reported7.  However, a point of appreciation is in order.  The harsh treatment meted out to the plant tissues through tissue culture and genetic engineering protocols should have ensured their death.  Instead, these tissues produced plants which produced yields, albeit lower.  If these plants are also carrying transgenes and expressing them, it may be possible to naturalize them through appropriate selection techniques in the mainstream plant breeding.  This calls for joint efforts of the proponents of genetic engineering and plant breeding.  If it happens at an early date, it may constitute a good alternative to the notion of genetic engineering as the putative sole possibility of feeding the hungry of the world.  Besides the scientific pitfalls described above, genetic engineering products were also questioned on account of the controversial effects of their consumption.  A major concern about the genetically modified foods is their potential to be toxic or allergenic.  Soybean carrying a gene of Brazilnut was found to be toxic3.  Shiva7 rightly pointed out that the increase of IGF-1 like growth factor in the milk of cattle administered with recombinant bovine growth hormone and vitamin-A in golden rice rendered them risky for consumption.  The likely risks of consuming these foods include prostrate, colon or post-menopausal breast cancer and hyper-vitaminosis.  These and several other ill effects of GM foods raise the issue of food safety.  It was said that, “the problem with biotech miracle is that its products are being prematurely introduced into the market, its promises and benefits are being exaggerated and its costs and risks are being denied and ignored”.

Issues of concern

Intellectual property rights

 Besides the above shortcomings, most of the transgenic crop plants are generated through the research and development efforts of multi national companies and are protected by intellectual property rights.  This takes the question of exploiting the genetically engineered crop plants into the realm of subsistence farming practiced by many small farmers in the developing countries.  These farmers can not afford to purchase the patented seeds of genetically engineered crops every year and the terminator and other gene protection technologies compromise the possibility of their saving seed from the previous crop.  Thus, the utility of genetically engineered crops in alleviating world hunger is not clear.  However, an important ethical question that can be raised in this context is regarding the origin of crop plants.  Of all the known crop plant species, only about twenty provide 90% of the dietary calories to the world population and all these species are known to have originated in the third world developing countries.  What are the rights of the people of developing countries on those species ?

Economic Aspects

A significant point that emerges in the context of world hunger is about the economic feasibility and viability of genetically engineered crops for the subsistence farmers who contribute significantly to the food needs.  Many of the multi national corporations are more powerful than the governments of some developing countries and can force their way into the world markets and thrust their products on the people.  Thus, developing countries may find themselves at the receiving end in the biotech trade paying premia and royalties for uncertain products.  This, in turn, will have a serious impact on their economy and food security.


In spite of all the great potential, biotechnology at its present state of development can not replace conventional tools of plant breeding that were evolved to work in tune with natural selection, the great directing force behind the evolution of all organisms.  As already stated, the various bio-techniques are originally thought to supplement the various tools that the breeders were using to improve crop plants.  Current levels of diversion of fiscal and human resources towards agricultural biotechnology research indicate a trend that may culminate in giving the main stream status to biotechnology leaving conventional plant breeding in the lurch8,9,10. This is likely to have serious implications for the subsistence cropping systems that supply a major part of the dietary calories to the teaming millions of the bludgeoning world population.  A much more realistic, integrated and equanimitous approach to agricultural research and the position of biotechnology appears to be the need of the hour.  We have to think of biotechnology as a possible supplement to food security than looking for alternatives to biotechnology to attain food security.

A Santa Ram, Biometrician, Central Coffee Research Institute, Coffee Research Station 577117, Chikmagalur District, Karnataka, India

M Indira

Reader, Department of Economics and Co-operation, Manasagangothri, University of  Mysore, Mysore – 570005.


Brush SB. 1995.  In situ conservation of land races in centers of crop diversity.  Crop Sci. 5:346-354.

Ghosh PK. 1995.  Impact of industrial policy and trade related intellectual property rights on biotech industries in India.  J. Scientific and Industrial Research 54: 217-230.

Ho M-W. 2001.  Perils amid promises of genetically modified food.  Financing Agriculture 33(3): 5-9.

Jorgensen RA. 1995. Cosuppression, flower color patterns and metastable gene expression states.  Science 268:686-69 1.

Moar WJ. 1992.  Broad spectrum resistance to Bacillus thuringiensis toxins in Heliotheres virescens.  Proc.  Natl.  Acad.  Sci.  USA. 89: 7986-7990.

Mc Gaughey V;H and Whalon ME. 1992.  Managing insect resistance to Bacillus thuringiensis toxins.  Science 258: 1451-1455.

Shiva V. 2000.  Biotechnology: The failed miracle.  Focus WTO 1(6): 5-1 1.

Manicad G and Lehman V. 2001.  CGIAR: Evaluation and new directions.  Biotechnology and Development Monitor 33: 1217.

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Morris M. 2000. Is marker assisted selection cost effective compared to conventional plant breeding methods?  In: Annual Report 99-2000, CIMMYT.


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