Publication of research from Mexico on the insertion of a gene from the Newcastle disease virus into seed corn for production of feed for chickens to develop immunity to the disease is the latest example of the ability of biotechnology to increase productivity of agricultural producers while being compatible with existing production practices. The research was led by Octavio Guerrero-Andrade of the Center for Research and Advanced Studies in Guanajuato, Mexico and published in August 2006 in Transgenic Research.

Newcastle disease is a common problem in poultry production around the world. In developed countries like the U.S., monitoring the movement of poultry, testing for the disease and vaccination are used to control it. These methods are also effective on commercial poultry farms in developing countries where facilities and management systems are available. This approach to disease management is less effective in the poorest areas of the world where farmers may not be able to afford vaccine, movements of live poultry are not monitored, testing is limited and ongoing technical assistance is need.

In much of the developing world, small flock poultry production is a developmental phase to help lift poor farmers, many of whom are women, and their families out of poverty. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN acknowledges that poultry production is the most efficient and cost-effective way to increase the availability of high-protein food and considers Newcastle disease as the single greatest constraint on the production of village poultry. Poultry death rates from Newcastle disease are often close to 100 percent and there is no known treatment. Vaccination is one part of overall good management practices. More information about poultry production as a development tool can be found at the website of the Network for Smallholder Poultry Development, a program coordinated by universities and government agencies in Denmark.

The research work in Mexico on Newcastle disease is encouraging because it shows again that biotechnology is applicable to more than just developed country problems. Developing country researchers are working on their unique production challenges rather than just relying on what has been researched in developed countries.

Economists get excited about research developments like corn with Newcastle vaccine for one reason – productivity. The key to economic progress for a low income farm family is increased output per unit of labor. Controlling diseases in livestock and poultry is one way that output can be increased with very little change in total inputs. Crop growers have been attracted to biotech crops because of the productivity improvements resulting from fewer weeds in fields, less insect pressures and higher yields. The same productivity benefits for livestock and poultry could be achieved by developing feeds tailored by biotechnology to address specific diseases.

This change in production practices strikes at the heart of the debate over “saved seed.” Opponents of biotechnology have argued that moving away from planting traditionally saved seed makes farmers beholden to seed companies. Farmers who are at a subsistence level economically are in that position because of low productivity of labor and other resources. Increasing productivity will require accessing productivity enhancing technologies like improved seed, fertilizer, pesticides and machinery that farmers in developed countries have used for decades.

Long before there was biotechnology, farmers in developed and developing countries increased the volume of production and improved the quality of production by using seeds that were developed off the farm. From hybrid seed corn of 70 years ago in the U.S. to improved varieties of wheat in India 40 years ago during the Green Revolution; improved seed has been a source of productivity increases. In the U.S., Canada, China, India, Brazil, South Africa and over a dozen other countries, biotech seeds are increasing productivity for farmers at all levels of economic development. As Economics Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University has noted about biotech crops, “…they`re very important for development because they have this huge benefit that all the technology comes packaged in the seed.”

Getting the vaccine-enhanced corn into the rural areas where it is needed will not be easy; it will not simply fall from the sky. If the corn-based vaccine is produced by a private company, protecting intellectual property rights will be important. The vaccine gene will need to be inserted into corn varieties that are adapted to local conditions. A simple test should be made available to verify to poultry producers that the corn has the vaccine. Poultry producers will need to learn about the benefits of the new corn and how it should be fed for the most effective control of Newcastle disease. The Mexican researchers used several different feeding regimes, and all of them gave protection, but one may be superior in family poultry production. The Network for Smallholder Poultry Development and similar groups will be essential for performing outreach and education to effectively use the new technology.

It would be convenient if new technology could be inserted into a production system without changing any other conditions, but markets do not work that way. Once the change process begins, it results in a line of reactions throughout the supply chain. Biotech corn for Newcastle disease control is a catalyst that can drive permanent change first for small, family-based corn and poultry producers, but also for other input suppliers and for consumers who will have available a larger and more stable supply of high-protein poultry products.