ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network
28 June 2002


[from FAO Biotechnology Forum - details at end]
Re: 89: Starting afresh with agricultural biotechnology
On 28 Jun 2002 at 12:54, Biotech-Mod3 wrote:

I am Denis Murphy, for 10 years a biotech researcher at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK and now a professor at University of Glamorgan, UK. More recently I have written several lengthy reviews (in press) and I am currently working on a book on agriculture biotechnology. I also run a schools outreach program on biotechnology for 15-18yr olds.

What has struck me most forcefully, both as an insider in biotech research and technology (R&D) and as a more detached observer of the general debate, is the way the whole of agbiotech has been overwhelmingly technology driven, rather than market led, over the past decade. Time after time, lab researchers have come up with new techniques that have then been commercialised "because they are there".

We should be honest enough to admit that there was no thought about feeding the world or improving stress tolerance in crops when we embarked on our research in the 1980s. In my own field, the emphasis was all on biodegradable plastics & other oil-based industrial products, all of which have proved to be a lot more difficult to achieve than we originally thought.

The modification of input traits (herbicide & pesticide tolerance) came a little later & turned out to be scientifically very easy and potentially quite profitable - so Monsanto et al commercialised the technology at breakneck speed (e.g. compared to the introduction of hybrid maize in the US in the 1920s & 30s). There was no thought about the long term consequences, e.g. did we really need such crops & how would global markets or the environment react. This is where we find ourselves today.

In my opinion, civil societies in developing and industrialised nations should not simply accept whatever the researchers and agbiotech companies come up with and then try to deal with the consequences. Rather, society, via bodies like FAO, should take a broader view & ask - "what do we really need from agriculture over the next 25 yrs?" Is it really more yield? Perhaps salt tolerance? Maybe enhanced vitamin contents in crops?

Next, we ask "how can we best achieve this?" can we improve existing crops by introgressing traits from land races or wild relatives? Can marker assisted selection (MAS) help here? Can we domesticate new crops (also using MAS)? Or do we absolutely have to go down the transgenic route? If the latter is the case (& I am far from against GM technology in principle), then there are new methods of plastid transformation, removal of selectable markers etc that should rule out the possibility of transgene spread in the future.

Personally, I'd like to see all the first generation of transgenic crops (that were produced by the early & rather primitive techniqes we had available in the late 1980s) thrown out & to start afresh with a consumer-led drive to agricultural improvement.

Professor Denis J Murphy
Biotechnology Unit
School of Applied Sciences
University of Glamorgan
Treforest, Cardiff CF37 1DL
United Kingdom
email: dmurphy2 (at)
phone: +44 1443 483 747
fax: +44 1443 483 554

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