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Biotechnology:

we've never lived without it - can we still live with it?

 

by Hugh Maynard

 

As an adjunct to the program at the World Congress of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists, held in Indianapolis, Indiana at the beginning of October, a group of Canadian agricultural journalists were invited to visit the research and production facilities of Eli Lilly and Co. in nearby Greenfield. A major pharmaceutical manufacturer, the visit was sponsored by the company's Canadian livestock health subsidiary, Elanco, with the aim of examining the evolving world of biotechnology. The Quebec Farmers' Advocate managing editor files the following report on how biotechnology companies see their role as it relates to agriculture and food production.

 

What does biotechnology mean to you? In vitro fertilization; adding yeast to sugar to make alcohol; inserting a gene from bacteria into plants to make them disease or insect resistant; producing penicillin from molds; adding bacteria to silage to speed up preservation; genetically altering plant species to make them herbicide tolerant; preserving milk with lactic acid bacteria to make yogurt; or injecting the protein attributes of soybeans into corn to produce a complete swine feed from one crop.

These are all past, present and future results covered by the broad definition of biotechnology, and just the tip of the iceberg in a wide-range of processes that produce antibiotics, vaccines, foods and chemicals.

Despite being a part of everyday human life for centuries, biotechnology faces an increasing barrage of criticism, concern and questioning as science moves from observation and the utilization of natural selection (i.e. plant breeding) into the era of DNA manipulation and transgenic creation.

Dr. Warren MacKellar, head of biotechnology research at Lilly Research Laboratories, characterizes biotechnology as "taking advantage of biological systems to produce desired products," a definition that includes insulin manufactured for diabetics as well as sauerkraut.

The term "desired" is the key to the issues involved in this scientific area holding vast potential for change in the human world, particularly agriculture. Adding yeast to make bread rise would hardly be considered a controversial use of biotechnology, although humans could survive on unleavened bread just the same. Genetically altering a tomato, so that it will ripen only when stimulated by gas after being picked, could substantially reduce spoilage and enhance productivity. Despite a justifiable difference in perceived benefits, it is the tomato and similar biotechnological projects that are subject to the most controversy.

 

Demand for food

 

The major undoing of biotechnology, like farming, is that it has been too successful. Biotechnological processes and products have enabled increases in agricultural production, preservation of foodstuffs, a reduction in disease and the general prolongation of life. As the human population spirals upwards as a consequence of better health and nutrition, the demand for more agricultural production - and the more efficient use of what food is produced - follows in step.

Brendan Fox, president of Elanco, notes that not only will the population of humans double to an expected 11 billion within the next 50 years, but that demand for food will triple in the same time period. "South-east Asia is the future. Not only will population grow, but as incomes rise so will the demand for more food and better diets," he says.

Fox points out that the indicators are already in place: Taiwan is sitting on a surplus of $85 billion; India now has a middle class of over 200 million people, making the country the third largest milk producing region in the world, behind the U.S. and the former USSR, and with poultry consumption rising 20% annually .

"Commodities have always been getting cheaper for the last 100 years. So you have to get on the technology treadmill to compete," says Fox.

Within this context, using biotechnology to eliminate food shortages, prevent disease and reduce environmental pollution have become the raison d'tre of companies engaged in researching and developing new products. If porcine growth hormone reduces the fat content of hogs by one third, then that's more nutrition available from less feed. If vaccines help prevent shipping fever and scours, that's more productivity for the same time and effort. If bovine somatrophin (BSt) allows more milk to be produced from less cows, the amount of potential environmental damage from manure and over-grazing is also reduced.

 

All or none

 

With only one in 8,000 compounds tested ever making it market, and that one compound requiring a minimum investment of $100 million and eight years in research and development, companies such as Eli Lilly are becoming cautious in their decision making about which products to pursue past the initial discovery phase.

"We can't pick and choose which products are going to be approved outside of science, we can't guess the socio-political response 12 years down the road," says Terry Clark, manager of market development for Provel, the Elanco division responsible for marketing BSt in Canada. His reaction is to the pressure campaigns mounted by animal rights activists and consumer groups that have to date blocked the product's approval in North America. However, he remains confident that as long as science is used as the primary basis for evaluation with regard to safety and efficacy, companies will continue to take the risks involved in developing biotechnology products.

The Eli Lilly Co. uses recombinant DNA technology to genetically engineer three products: Humulin, manufactured insulin for diabetics; Tymasin, bacteria that can be added for the faster aging of cheddar cheese; and Optiflex (their trade name for BSt), the protein hormone that stimulates dairy cows to produce milk.

The genes responsible for these traits have been isolated, extracted and then inserted into E. coli bacteria for mass production through fermentation. This allows for the manufacture of the base material that would otherwise only be available in limited quantities relative to the amount required for practical application.

All made by the same process, Humulin and Tymasin are on the market while Optiflex waits in the wings. Clark says that companies have been hamstrung by allegations made against BSt because of regulations that don't allow potential manufacturers to talk about a product before registration in order to prevent any pre-marketing hype.

He believes the science behind BSt is sound and wants dairy producers to choose whether the product has any place in their herd management, not social activists like Jeremy Rifkin who seem, he says, to be against all forms of technological intervention in the livestock industry. "Let the market decide," emphasizes Clark.

 

A case in hand

 

BSt is already approved for use in 10 countries, notably the former USSR, Brazil and Mexico. Fox says that using BSt is not going to flood the world with milk but will be just one management tool amongst many - artificial insemination, for example - for improving dairy production.

He notes that the experience to date in Mexico leads him to believe that BSt will only be used on half of herds, on half the cows in the herd and for only half the lactation. "That equals one and a half percent increase in milk production with a two percent decrease in the cost of production," Fox says.

Fox also believes that BSt can be used by farms of all sizes with equal benefit. Whether 10 or 50 cows, dairy producers will be able to produce more milk per cow, thereby reducing the need to expand production and corresponding expenses such as a larger bulk tank, in order to stay profitable.

"Some of the best farmers are small farmers. Counting by the number of acres and number of animals is wrong. We need to look at innovation because attitude is more important than size," Fox concludes.

BSt is only the first of many biotechnological products that will likely be entering the agricultural sector in the near future. The business of biotechnology has a clear vision of their application: all innovations carry benefits and risks; claim the benefits and manage the risks - scientific, economic, environmental and social.

The market demand for farmers to produce more with greater efficiency is a historical trend that will exert immense pressure on the debates over justification, safety and the social consequences of new biotechnology in food production and will influence, in large part, to what extent society shares the same vision.

 

Next month, in part two, securing approval for the use of an agricultural or food product is a complex and equally controversial process. From toxicology to patents, what are the rules that govern the introduction of new biotechnology?

Copyright 1992 REAP Canada.

Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.


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