Crop improvement through Biotechnology Biotechnology in the World

Crop improvement through Biotechnology Biotechnology in the World

Food prices experienced in 2008 are believed to have pushed 100 million people into hunger worldwide. And, the world population continues to increase further straining food supplies. Currently at 6.7 billion people, the world population increased from 3 billion in 1959 to 6 billion by 1999, and is projected to grow to 9 billion by 2050.  Poorer countries are faced with a 40 percent increase in their food imports bill this year, and experts say some countries food bills have doubled in the past year. So, the UN FAO acknowledges that biotechnology provides powerful tools for the sustainable development of agriculture to help meet the food needs of a growing population.

Crops improved through agricultural biotechnology have been grown commercially on a commodity scale for over 12 years. These crops have been adopted worldwide at rates exceeding any other advances in the history of agriculture. Agricultural biotechnology has been shown to multiply crop production by seven- to tenfold in some developing countries, far beyond the production capabilities of traditional agriculture, and the global community is taking notice. In 2007, 12 million farmers in 23 countries – 12 developing and 11 industrialized – planted 252 million acres of biotech crops, primarily soybeans, corn, cotton and canola. Eleven million of these were small or resource-poor farmers in developing countries.

Foods consumed today are derived from plants and animals whose genetic make up has been modified by sexual crosses and mutations. Recombinant DNA provides a new tool to make genetic modifications, and this technology is termed genetic engineering or biotechnology. Technically, researchers are now able to transfer genes using recombinant DNA methods, not only within a species, but also from one kingdom to another, which can lead to significant changes in various attributes of agricultural crops.

Arguably, the biggest environmental impact of biotech crops has been the adoption of no-till farming. Herbicide-tolerant crops like biotech soybeans allowed farmers to almost completely eliminate plowing on their fields, resulting in better soil health and conservation, improved water retention/ decreased soil erosion and decreased herbicide runoff. In fact, no-till farming has led to a global reduction of 14.76 billion kg of carbon dioxide (CO2) in 2006, the equivalent of removing 6.56 million cars from the roads for one year. Biotechnology derived crops are improving water quality both through less herbicide and pesticide in runoff from fields, and in the future through reducing phosphorus excretion in livestock by using biotech derived feed that contains reduced levels of phytate.

The risks associated with biotechnology are not unique, and tend to be associated with particular products and their applications, not with the production process or the technology per se. In fact, biotechnology processes tend to reduce risks because they are more precise and predictable.

  • Molecular markers are also used to determine the genetic profile of a line or variety. Random primers are used to scan the genomic constitution of the plant through molecular methods. The information will also provide details on the parentage of the line, the possible traits, and the unique identity of the plant useful for germplasm collection.
  • With genetic engineering, more than one trait can be incorporated into a plant and are called stacked traits. These are currently corn and cotton crops with both herbicide and insect tolerance traits. Transgenic crops with combined traits are also available commercially such as the herbicide tolerant and insect resistant maize and cotton. While other working aspects are: rice with higher levels of iron and beta carotene (an important micronutrient which is converted to vitamin A in the body); long life banana that ripens faster on the tree and can therefore be harvested earlier; maize with improved feed value; delayed ripening papaya; papaya ringspot virus resistant papaya; tomatoes with high levels of flavonols, which are powerful antioxidants; drought tolerant maize and wheat; maize with improved phosphorus availability; arsenic-tolerant plants; insect resistant eggplant and rice; edible vaccines from fruit and vegetables; low lignin trees for paper making among others.
  • One of the important concerns is the use of the virus-derived promoter which are introduced sequences in the transgenic plants that regulates how much, where, and when the encoded protein is expressed. This includes the cauliflower mosaic virus 35S which was used in some commercial GE crops, eg. Bt 11, Bt 176, Mon 810 maize, and Roundup Ready soybean. Speculations that the “35S promoter could affect the stomach and colonic lining and cause a growth factor effect with the unproven possibility of hastening cancer formation in those organs.
  • Biotechnology could be used to solve large scale environmental problems, such as water treatment, soil bioremediation, and gas bioscrubbing. New pharmaceuticals are now based on detailed knowledge of protein and DNA structures and specific molecules could be produced in fermentation-for example, recombinant proteins, DNA fragments and new antibiotics. Rare food products can be produced for many uses by genetic manipulations of microorganisms, for example genes coding for cheese making enzymes, cloned from calves and expressed into active enzymes by yeast. New corn and cotton seeds have been genetically engineered to produce biological pesticides that do not pollute the environment, and the number of biotechnological patients could be increased in many other fields of application.


Biotechnology and its prospects in Pakistan


Agriculture plays an important role in the national economy of Pakistan, where most of the rapidly increasing population resides in rural areas and depends on agriculture for subsistence. The importance and potential of biotechnology was realized as far back as 1959 when Pakistan’s first Commission on Science and Technology emphasized the need for setting up research organizations in areas of vital importance to national development. Biotechnology has since been promoted in practically every science policy document.

Developing genetically modified (GM) crops to meet the requirement of increasing population in Pakistan, most of the activities have been on rice and cotton, which are among the top 5 crops of Pakistan. Biotic (virus/bacterial/insect) and a-biotic (salt) resistant and quality (male sterility) genes have already been incorporated in some crop plants. Despite acquiring capacity to produce transgenic plants, no GM crops, either produced locally or imported, have been released in the country. Pakistan could easily benefit from the biotechnological experiences of Asian countries; especially China and India, where conditions are similar and the agriculture sector is almost like that of Pakistan. Thus, the exchange of information and experiences is important among these nations. The major crops grown are wheat, rice, cotton, sugarcane, and maize. Gram and other pulses, oil seeds, and fodder crops are also grown in different parts of the country on sizeable areas. In Pakistan, the average yields of crops, despite rapid increase in the Green Revolution era, are still low compared to other countries. Hence Norman Bourlag (3) also suggested that new techniques in addition to conventional plant breeding are needed to boost yields of crops that feed the world. Nevertheless, such scientific advances in plant breeding led to ‘green revolution’, in 1970s which was also witnessed in Pakistan.

Currently, there are 29 biotech centers/institutes in the country. However, few centers have appropriate physical facilities and trained manpower to develop genetically modified (GM) crops. In Pakistan, first plant tissue culture laboratory was established at National Agriculture Center, Islamabad in 1982. It is known to be the pioneer tissue culture facility providing laboratory in the country with emphasis on pre-basic virus-free potato seed and producing clones of other crops today, micro propagation and in vitro conservation are standard techniques in most important crops. NIBGE has produced some impressive results in a short time. Most recently scientists at the Institute have found a biotechnology-based solution which may help to eliminate PakiStan’s recurring cotton leaf-curl virus (CLCV), which has been a recurringproblem NIBGE undertook a rewarding programme of reclaiming nearly 11 million acres of saline and sodic soils by biological methods. This technology developed by NIBGE has now been exploited by the International Atomic Energy Agency for initiating an integrated model project for eight countries. The Centre for Advanced Molecular Biology (CAMB), during the past ten years the Centre has discovered forty-five new restriction enzymes which interfere with DNA replication. CAMB has also pioneered DNA based methods for the pre-natal diagnosis of Betathalassaemia. Methods for early detection of tuberculosis, hepatitis, and breast cancer have also been developed.

Use of modern biotechnology started in Pakistan since 1985 when most of the crop improvement activities using modern biotechnology are focused on rice and cotton, which are among the top 5 crops of Pakistan. Brassica, chickpea, chilies, cucurbits, potato, sugarcane, tobacco, and tomato have recently been taken up. Among indigenously developed GM crops, cotton is at a fairly advanced stage of commercialization. Similarly, virus-resistant and salinity-tolerant GM cotton is at the field stage of evaluation. Following cotton is basmati rice, which has also been evaluated in the field for 2 years although not yet submitted for approval. Three other GM plants (sugarcane, potato, and tomato) are also in greenhouses at the field stage. Although transgenic plants of these crops have been obtained, field evaluation was hampered due to the delays in approval of biosafety guidelines. No GM crop has been approved for commercial cultivation so far in Pakistan under Pakistan Biosafety Rules (2005). National bio-safety rules by the Ministry of Environment (MOEnv) have now provided an opportunity to evaluate the GM crops for safe release into the environment and for commercial cultivation. Pakistan has made considerable progress in the research and development sector of agriculture biotechnology and has developed several GM crops. However, commercial release is hampered due to delays and weak capacity of regulatory bodies related to biosafety and IPR (Plant Breeders Rights). It is expected that the farmers of Pakistan will reap the benefits of legally released and indigenously developed biotech crops in the next 1-2 years.

 written by . 

Ayesha Irum and Muhammad Ehetisham ul Haq











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