On April 9-12 over 19,000 people from around the globe came to Chicago for BIO2006, the 14th annual convention of the biotechnology industry. While big-name speakers, 1500 exhibitor displays and 25 country pavilions attracted much of the attention, panel sessions of practitioners in agricultural biotechnology discussed the current state of the industry and what the future may hold. The issues boiled down to increasing productivity, regulations that allow the industry to continue to develop and consumer acceptance.
Increasing productivity drives all industries and particularly new industries because they have no reason to exist if they are not more productive than older industries in meeting needs. From increasing food supplies to battling diseases and reducing pollution, biotech scientists and entrepreneurs are responding to concerns that people have raised about current conditions.
Efforts to increase food supplies for direct human consumption by using biotechnology were compared to the Green Revolution of 40 years ago that doubled farm production, increased farm incomes and farm wages, saved virgin land, increased demand for rural services and lowed food prices. The Gene Revolution is not a silver bullet to solve all food production challenges, but economic analysts, agronomic researchers and farmers from developing countries attested to 30-40 percent higher yields, 40-80 percent less pesticide use and 30-100+ percent increases in producer incomes. Biotech crop area in the world is expected to grow from 220 million acres in 2005 to 500 million acres by 2015 with much of that growth in developing countries.
Differences between the current Gene Revolution and the Green Revolution were also highlighted. Increasing food production was seen as a positive good in the Green Revolution with less concern given to environmental impacts. Most of the researchers were employees of government institutions or private non-profit groups and used breeding techniques that had minimal scientific risks.
The science of the Gene Revolution is more complex and knowledge is broadly disbursed. Some of the new technology is controlled by for-profit companies through patents, contracts and other protections of intellectual property rights. This has given rise to orphan crops and traits that do not provide economic incentives for companies to develop. Change has come at a pace to which only governments in developed countries and more advanced developing countries have been able to adjust. Less advanced developing countries have missed the early opportunities to benefit because they lack the scientific expertise to regulate biotechnology developed outside their countries or to develop products that meet their specific needs.
The complexities of the science of the Gene Resolution have caused some people in developed countries to have a strong sense of unease. Presenters noted that while developers of the new technology have been quick to talk about the benefits, skeptics have focused on the potential risks and possible long-term impacts of the new technology. Since most people in developed countries are far removed from food production, they are not aware of the productivity benefits of lower costs and less impacts on the environment.
The biotechnology debate is further influenced by developments in animal biotechnology and plant made pharmaceuticals. Animal welfare issues are prominent in animal biotechnology, and keeping plant made pharmaceuticals out of the food supply raises regulatory challenges. By one estimate over 300 pharmaceutical proteins are in the research and development process.
Agricultural biotechnology will not go away because increased productivity helps to solve real problems of increasing food production, lowering the cost of treating diseases and lessening the impact on the environment. Regulatory issues and consumer acceptance issues will need to be resolved.
Consumer acceptance is the key to solving the regulatory issues. Several speakers suggested that supporters of biotechnology in agriculture begin with the simple question of what are the problems that are to be addressed with the new technology, such as controlling insects in cotton and corn, making pork a dietary source of omega-3 fatty acids to improve human health and lowering the costs of treating conditions like diarrhea and cystic fibrosis. The next question is why the current production methods are falling short in achieving those outcomes. The final key question is what are the risks associated with this new technology. Zero risk is not an achievable goal, but most people want the benefits to substantially exceed the risks. If risks are not addressed, a logical assumption is that the risks are large in relation to the benefits.
Government regulations will eventually reflect the views of people with political influence. An ongoing dialogue is needed among regulators, biotechnology developers and consumers. To date much of the supposed dialogue has been one way-communication to “educate” the public and to study the public’s perception of biotechnology. A two-way communication process is needed that focuses on the benefits of biotechnology and the associated risks. This can result in regulations that allow the benefits of agricultural biotechnology to flow to consumers while addressing concerns.
One biotech entrepreneur working on human health issues stated that the technical side of the business was working well. His challenge was to have a regulatory process that allowed him to operate and instilled confidence that his production techniques were safe and effective. Then he would be able to achieve his mission of improving human health by lowering the costs of medical treatments.