WASHINGTON _ The Green Revolution, the massive internationaleffort of the 1970's to solve the world's hunger crisis by breeding newvarieties of plants and changing agronomic practices, forever alteredthe earth's capacity to sustain humans. But while it saved hundreds ofmillions of lives, the Green Revolution also spawned a new generationof agricultural, health, natural resource management and energyproblems in developing countries.Without much fanfare, a three-year old U.S. government program istesting the hypothesis that the tools of biotechnology can solve some ofthose problems. In September 1991, the U.S. Agency for InternationalDevelopment (USAID) launched a six-year, $6 million program calledAgricultural Biotechnology for Sustainable Productivity (ABSP)."What we are doing is trying to prevent the Rwandas of the world fromhappening. There's only one way to address the world's food needsand protect the environment and that's to increase productivity,"explained Judith Chambers, a biotechnology specialist who managesthe ABSP for the USAID. "Biotechnology represents the mostadvanced technology available to increase productivity."Led by Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing, ABSP fundswork at a consortium of universities _ including Stanford Law School,Texas A&M and Cornell University _ as well as contributing toprivate collaborations between U.S. companies and companies fromdeveloping countries. The overall goal is to produce "environmentally-compatible, improved germ plasm through collaboration andexchange."Costa Rica, Egypt, Indonesia and Kenya are all participating in ABSPwith hopes of developing better maize, sweet potato, potato, cucurbitsand tomato varieties through genetic engineering. In addition, amicropropagation program for developing superior parthenocarpic(asexual) plants such as pineapples and bananas is also a focus ofABSP. The countries and plants targeted were carefully matched: thecrops are staple items in the diet of these countries.DNA Plant Technology Inc. (DNAP), of Oakland, Calif., AsgrowSeeds (a division of The Upjohn Co.) and ICI Seeds are the three U.S.private sector participants to win ABSP grants. While Asgrow and ICIhave focused on genetically engineering staple crops for pest andpathogen resistance, DNAP is working with companies in Indonesiaand Costa Rica on tissue culture micropropagation.The Green Revolution was based on conventional plant breedingtechniques and the heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides. Indeed, manyplant varieties were bred specifically for their ability to respond tofertilizers. But fertilizers and pesticides, used liberally by many largefarmers in the developing nations of the world, are taking a serious tollon the environment.Chambers told BioWorld that pesticides are poisoning the water andsoil of many nations and have created a severe pollution problem inEgypt's Nile River. Genetically engineering high-productivity pest-and disease-resistant crops could offer relief to the batteredenvironment.In addition, pesticide-resistant crops could help small farmers indeveloping countries who can't afford pesticides and fertilizers.Typically, their fields and plots are besieged by pests and producechronically low-quality products in low-yields.MSU's John Dodds, managing director of ABSP, told BioWorld thatbiotechnology techniques may fuel the second Green Revolution, onewhich must be vastly more "environmentally-friendly" than the first."We won't see yield increases from genetic engineering of the samemagnitude seen in the first Green Revolution," he said."But we will be able to produce equal or more food on the sameamount of land with earth-sensitive technologies. If we are going tofeed a rapidly growing population we're going to have to do it on theland we have. The earth has a finite size and we're getting out towardthe edges."Dodds predicted that while farmers in industrialized nations will savemoney once pest- and disease-resistant seeds are in wide use, farmersin developing nations stand to benefit even more because ofproductivity gains. "The ultimate goal of this program is to create aplant that will grow more effectively and will yield more material ofhigher quality in a hostile environment," said Dodds.Plants grown on large U.S. farms lead a relatively lush life compared tothose grown on small plots by small-scale, poor farmers. But a seedthat could thrive in both environments, without heavy use of pesticidesand fertilizer, would be a global blockbuster.Under the aegis of ABSP, DNAP has joined forces with a private firmin Costa Rica called Agribiotechnologia de Costa Rica (ACR), S.A.based in the nation's capitol city, San Jose. The two firms are refiningtechniques to use advanced bioreactor systems to rapidly produceplanting materials for coffee, pineapple, banana and ornamental palmcrops.According to DNAP's managing director of research for new crops,Neal Gutterson, the collaboration with ACR allows DNAP to build astrong relationship with one of the prime pineapple and bananagrowing countries in the world. Though DNAP sees geneticallyengineered carrots, peppers, peas and tomatoes as its "bread andbutter," it believes that developing elite, disease-free new strains ofpineapples and bananas could be lucrative in the future."This relationship could ease DNAP's entry into that market,"Gutterson told BioWorld. Bananas, including plantains and cookingvarieties, are one of the world's most important staple crops. AsGutterson puts it, "bananas are big." But they are extremely difficult togrow since they must be vegetatively propagated.The tissue culture technology that ACR and DNAP are working on willallow the two firms to propagate banana seedlings at a faster rate thanever before possible."If we developed a superior new banana, we'd immediately want tocome up with 10 million plants to plant all over South America,"explained Gutterson. "Using traditional propagation techniques, thatwould take prohibitively long for any company hoping to build abusiness." n

-- By Lisa Piercey Washington Editor

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