Biotechnology and Sustainable Agriculture—Policy Alternatives

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MacDonald, June Fessenden


Biotechnology—the use of an organism or its product(s)—is a centuries old technology. Humans have selected, improved, and used organisms and their products for decades: yeasts for bread, wine and cheese making, domesticated animals and crops for agriculture and food, antibiotics, insulin and other natural therapeutics for health care; and microorganisms for waste treatment and mining. The above examples may be referred to as the old, established or traditional biotechnology in which we have a great deal of familiarity and much favorable experience. In these traditional examples, genetic selection or modification was performed, for the most part, at the organismal level, e.g., plant and animal breeding.

However, the “new" biotechnology of the 1960s and later provides tools for the use of molecular and cellular, in addition to organismal, approaches. Several potential products of this molecular and cellular biotechnology for agriculture, food, and feed uses are at the research and development stage with commercialization expected in the early 1990s. Examples are microbially produced animal growth promotants for increased efficiency of meat and milk production and for improved quality of meat, genetically modified microorganisms for use as biopesticides and growth promotants, and genetically modified crops that are self-protected against insect pests and diseases tolerant to synthetic chemicals such as herbicides or improved in nutritional value.

This report sees the “new” biotechnology as an extension of established biotechnology. It is expected to have a major impact on many human activities, including agriculture and food.

There are strongly divergent views of agricultural biotechnology as our traditional approaches to agriculture are being dramatically changed by this new technology, e.g. Bovine somatotropin (BST, foods produced with decreased or no synthetic chemical pesticides, while animal rights activists are concerned about animal treatment, representing another concern for the agricultural producer.

This meeting gave voice to representatives of various directions and includes presentations on four subject areas of agricultural biotechnology relevant to sustainable agriculture: biopesticides, herbicide-tolerance in plants, disease control in animals, and animal growth promotants. Also presented are recommendations resulting from the workshops where participants discussed the presentations and brought in their points of view.

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Agricultural biotechnology; animal health; disease control; human health; growth promotants; price controls; overproduction


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