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FEATURED ARTICLE…

BIOTECHNOLOGY: CHANGING FARMERS’ LIVES
Lloyd Ongpauco Balinado
July 2014

A rapid growth in world
population entails a higher
demand for food, but loss of
crop productivity brought on
by natural disturbances hin-
ders farmers in meeting this
great demand—a worldwide
problem that seeks for imme-
diate attention and solution.
Plant biotechnology that pro-
duces genetically modified
crops is a potential key in
solving this problem, but
how?

What is Biotechnology?
Biotechnology, which lit-
erally means ‘the study of
making tools using living or-
ganisms’, is broadly defined
as the use of microorganisms,
plants, animals, their parts or
products to make materials
that are useful to man. It is
an interdisciplinary pursuit
that integrates knowledge
and techniques of biochemis-
try, microbiology, genetics,
molecular biology and chemi-
cal engineering to improve
human life, maintain a good
environment, form organisms
or products of essential val-
ue, and then contribute in
generating profit.

What is plant agricultural
biotechnology?
Specifically, crop im-
provement that utilizes bio-
technology tools is given the
term plant agricultural bio-
technology. This encom-
passes a set of techniques
used to adapt and improve
crops for specific needs and
opportunities.
How does plant agricultural
biotechnology take place?
Plant agricultural bio-
technology usually applies
genetic engineering, a tech-
nique encompassing the idea
that if all organisms contain
DNA, then it is possible to
mix-and-match them. It ac-
tually involves taking a desir-
able gene from one plant, an-
imal, or microorganism that
could then be incorporated
into an unrelated plant spe-
cies. This allows a wider
range of traits to be incorpo-
rated more quickly and more
reliably into target plant spe-
cies than possible with con-
ventional methods.
Plant agricultural bio-
technology is also exhibited
in a process called tissue cul-
ture that allows the reproduc-
tion of disease-free planting
material for crops in an artifi-
cial environment.

How does plant agricultural
biotechnology solve crop
problems and help African
farmers?
Crop quality can be im-
proved through the applica-
tion of genetic engineering.
Cultivation of GM crops such
as pest-resistant cotton gives
higher yields, thus, brings
higher profit to farmers. It
also controls the release of
greenhouse gases by reduc-
ing the use of pesticides and
protects farmers from heavy
exposure to such chemicals.
Herbicide-tolerant corn,
in addition, helps in reducing
the need for weeding—a huge
relief to African women who
spend approximately 200
hours a year just to weed a
hectare of land.
Insect attack is not new
in croplands. The insect
Maruca vitrata, for instance,
usually attacks black-eyed
peas, a subspecies of cow-
peas (Vigna unguiculata). This
accounts for a US$300-
million annual loss to small-
scale farmers in Africa. De-
velopment of a GM black-
eyed pea by introducing an
insect resistance gene from
the bacterium Bacillus thu-
ringiensis helps in controlling
the disease. This then keeps
farmers away from using ex-
pensive pesticides while mov-
ing them towards meeting
global demand for peas.
Aside from insect-caused
diseases, microorganisms al-
so contribute to crop prob-
lems. Xanthomonas wilt, for
example, threatens banana
which is a staple in Uganda.
It is a bacterial disease that
cannot be treated chemically,
and causes more than $500
million in crop losses annual-
ly. Using genes from sweet
pepper (Capsicum annuum),
Xanthomonas-resistant ba-
nana can then be produced.

What limits the use of GM
crops?
Only few countries
worldwide grow GM crops.
Many African countries, in-
cluding Uganda, are banned
from growing transgenic
crops. Excessive regulatory
barriers are imposed by the
national biosafety policies to
the adoption of agricultural
biotechnology. But according
to the non-profit organization
International Service for the
Acquisition of Agri-biotech
Applications, this is set to
change in coming years. This
will open the door for approv-
ing the cultivation of GM
crops.
Likewise, critics’ concerns
should also be considered
and addressed. Monitoring
plant biotechnology products
should be part of broader ap-
proaches to conserve biologi-
cal diversity and protect hu-
man health.

The promise of biotechnol-
ogy
According to a 2010 Eu-
ropean Commission report on
GM organisms, based on 130
research projects spanning
more than 25 years, “bio-
technology, and in particular
GMOs, are not per se more
risky than e.g. conventional
plant breeding technologies”.
Being open to new biotech-
nology tools allows farmers to
grow crops that have even
higher yields and a higher
nutritional content, and that
can withstand biological and
physical stresses—a promise
that could definitely change
farmers’ lives.

Reference
Juma, C. 2011. Preventing
hunger: Biotechnology is
key. Nature, v. 479, p.
471-472