22 November 2009

Agriculture : The Uses of Biotechnology

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Genetic science in agriculture:
The uses of biotechnology

By Roger Baker / The Rag Blog / November 22, 2009

I recently wrote about GMO’s on The Rag Blog ("The Future of Agriculture: Genetics and the Limits of Oil") and I want to expand a little on the thoughts I presented in that article.

Biotechnology is a powerful new tool that we are just learning to use, but it can give certain targeted benefits to agriculture. Maybe you could engineer a strain of cotton with some poison alkaloid genes expressed in the cotton bolls to defeat boll weevils for years or a decade, assuming boll weevils were your main problem.

We would all likely agree that we don't want to see Monsanto in charge of this work, but what if some U.S. government lab offered the results of the weevil resistant gene spliced cotton seeds to all southern U.S. farmers, both big and small at low government subsidized cost? A sort of shallow band aid approach reflecting our simple current understanding of gene splicing that might be of obvious benefit for a time, but that ought not to be privatized.

But what if global warming is your main problem, as is typically likely with many food crops? Here gene spicing will do little good. Why?

Because in the case of global warming, you really need to find strains of existing plants where nature and natural selection have already solved the problems of climate acclimation involving many genes in ways we do not understand and won't for many years. This assumes that our government would put a reasonable amount of effort into the basic research, now that we have the lab tools to greatly advance our deep understanding of how biology works.

Global warming (intensifies droughts in the Southwest, and floods in many cases) plus peak oil will hit U.S. and world agriculture quite hard and the forced response will require improved tolerant strains and varieties of crops from our genetic resource banks (now largely privatized?) to be developed and planted.

If I were advising some scholarly young person which branch of science to go into to make a good living for decades to come, I think I would now advise them to go into public sector agricultural science, and perhaps plant breeding in particular. Agriculture will have to become a lot more localized and I believe that crop experts good at passing on practical advice way down to the backyard garden level will be in big demand.

There is another side to the current revolution in genetic science, and that is personal medicine. The use of genome analysis and genetic engineering to solve medical problems on an individual level is likely to become a very profitable and effective branch of medicine since it can provide individualized advice on preventive medicine.

But biotechnology is rapidly moving to China. They have cheap, dependable, and skilled lab workers there and the highly targeted pharmaceuticals and methods like antibodies and genome analysis are labor-intensive.

This all cries out for socialized medicine or strong regulation of the biotechnology industry. Since I assume the Chinese have socialized medicine for their own domestic care, the emphasis maybe
should be to ensure that the American companies don't charge a hundred times the real cost/Chinese price for delivering the same medical benefits in the U.S. -- now that we have largely failed to reform the high cost drivers in our medical health delivery system.

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