Big Boost for Biotech
May 1, 2002
by Dennis T. Avery
The activist campaign to block genetically modified crops has probably been lost. This spring, India and China, the world’s two biggest countries, jumped into crop biotechnology with both feet.
After five years of dithering, India finally—and suddenly—approved biotech cotton. The Indian bureaucrats were finally shoved into action, over the objections of India’s clamoring activists, by the discovery that a huge tract of land in Gujarat State had been illegally planted with biotech (Bt) cotton. The crime was revealed when virtually all the other cotton in the region was ruined by bollworms, while the 25,000 acres of unapproved Bt cotton flourished. (The Bt cotton contains a natural toxin that kills bollworms.)
The Indian government’s first reaction was that it should burn the genetically modified fields, and arrest the seed company executives who had fraudulently claimed its new seeds were just another hybrid cotton. But the local farmers had just seen the most compelling crop demonstration plot in Indian history. They demanded the chance to buy the new seeds.
India plants more land to cotton than any other country (22 million acres) to supply its critically important textile industry. Unfortunately, heavy pest damage has kept its yields down to half U.S. cotton yields, and only one-third of China’s.
India announced in early April that it would allow Bt cotton sales. With the regulatory logjam broken, India’s Department of Biotechnology announced it would also fund research to genetically transform tobacco, rice, wheat, and potatoes—and let private researchers try biotech on mustard, tomatoes, and cauliflower.
“With [100 million acres] of transgenic plants under cultivation worldwide, India cannot lag behind others in this technology, “ said Manju Sharma, secretary of the government’s Department of Biotechnology.
As India was taking its first step into biotech crops, China announced it had just completed a crash three-month program to decode the entire rice genome. On April 5, a new Chinese biotech research center announced it had beaten both the Monsanto corporation and an international research consortium to mapping the rice plant, including millions of bits of DNA and more than 40,000 genes. The Chinese, and everybody else, say that understanding rice DNA will help us improve not only rice varieties but also other grain crops such as corn, wheat, barley, and rye.
India’s activists are crying foul. They’re furious that illegal plantings led to government approval. They’re even claiming that farmers in the United States and China are being forced to plant biotech crops against their will. In reality, of course, farmers in both countries are enthusiastic about biotech because it more effectively controls weeds and insects. The Chinese farmers, who apply farm chemicals from leaky backpack sprayers while walking barelegged through their own spray patterns, can eliminate ten to fifteen costly sprayings per year.
A new survey of world spending on plant biotechnology says China is suddenly second only to the United States—and the Chinese plan to ramp up their current $100 million per year in public biotech research to $500 million by 2005. The rest of the world is spending about $3 billion per year, with only $1 billion of it public funding.
The Chinese say they’ll now decode the genomes of corn, pigs, and chickens, as well as additional varieties of rice. All are staples of the Chinese diet. They want to use biotech to improve wheat, peanuts, tobacco, cabbage, sweet peppers, and petunias as well.
Martina McGloughlin, head of agricultural biotechnology for the University of California system, says, “This technology is being adopted by those in real need in a real world, as opposed to those of us in an affluent society who have the luxury (of) having theoretical concerns in a vacuum in an ideal world.”
The First World has not dropped out of the biotech crop picture, however. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service recently announced it has figured a strategy to genetically engineer wheat that will grow on acid soils. More than 30 percent of the world’s croplands are acid, including nearly half the tropical croplands where most of the world’s twenty-first-century population growth will take place. Naturally high levels of aluminum in acid soils normally stunt most plant growth, and wheat can’t survive there.
The ARS researchers think they can give wheat a gene from rye, which is seven times as acid-tolerant as wheat. The ARS researchers are collaborating with researchers in Brazil and Poland, both nations with acidic soils. However, they may also be thinking about the big acid-soil savannahs in such countries as Zaire and Zimbabwe. Both are facing enormous population increases within the next fifty years, which means sharply increased pressure on their unique wildlife species.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.