Asia Seen as Next Focus of Agricultural Biotech Production

By Kathryn McConnell
USINFO Staff Writer

This is the second of two articles on the future of agricultural biotechnology research.

Washington - The next decade of research in crops improved by biotechnology will include a major role for the rapidly increasing number of projects in Asia, according to the head of a leading agricultural research institute.

Countries in Asia increasingly are investing in agricultural biotechnology research aimed at helping them meet their growing needs for food, feed, fiber and fuel, said Clive James, chairman of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).

ISAAA is a nonprofit international network based at Cornell University in New York with centers in the Philippines and Kenya.

Biotech crops, also known as genetically modified crops, increasingly are being grown in and approved for import by Asian countries, James said in a recent interview with USINFO.

The researcher, recently back from visiting several countries in Asia, said acceptance is strong among farmers in such countries as India, China, Pakistan, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and the Philippines where traditional crops often are destroyed by insects or harsh environmental conditions. These farmers stand to benefit financially from increased harvests due to genetic improvements that make certain crops resistant to insects and because such crops need fewer applications of insecticides, James said.

"The development of biotechnology will be a major development for all of agriculture" as scientists look for ways to improve a variety of crops that also effectively will be able to counter soil erosion and conserve moisture, James said.

Plants with genes conferring some degree of drought tolerance, which are expected to become available in approximately 2010 or 2011, will be particularly important for developing countries as drought is the most prevalent and important constraint to increased crop productivity worldwide, he said.

India is emerging as a key biotech leader in Asia, surpassing China for the first time in the number of hectares planted with biotech seed, James said.

In 2006, India tripled from the previous year the area it planted in biotech cotton, its first commercialized biotech crop. India now has a total of 3.8 million biotech hectares while China has 3.5 million such hectares.

The other countries in the top eight in of terms of number of hectares devoted to growing biotech crops are: the United States (54.6 million hectares), Argentina (18 million), Brazil (11.5 million), Canada (6.1 million), Paraguay (2 million) and South Africa (1.4 million), according to an ISAAA report on the global status of biotech crops released in January.

After cotton the next main crop to be commercialized in Asia likely will be "golden rice" - rice enhanced with vitamin A, which is important for vision and the respiratory, urinary and intestinal tracts, James said. Vitamin A deficiency can lead to children becoming prematurely blind.

China, the largest investor in Asia in biotech research, is expected to spend $200 million on biotech in 2007. "China has made a clear decision to invest in biotech because it doesn't want to be dependent on other countries for food, fiber or fuel," James said.

India is projected to invest $80 million in 2007 to develop a national network of research laboratories.

Already, with support for the U.S. Agency of International Development and Cornell University, India has been conducting research on major food crops it consumes - eggplant that is resistant to shoot borers, potato resistant to blight, and drought- and salt-tolerant rice, James said.

He said Vietnam is investing $70 million for new biotechnology laboratories, equipment and training.

Developing countries would benefit significantly from establishing partnerships with public and private sector organizations in both industrial countries and in advanced developing countries, such as Brazil, which have some experience in producing biofuels, according to the ISAAA report.

Biotech crops potentially can contribute to reduction of greenhouse gases, James said. Because these crops need fewer insecticides and herbicides, the reduced use of fossil-based fuels used to apply the chemicals saves carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere. Also, herbicide-tolerant biotech crops require less plowing, which keeps carbon in the soil, he said.

The outlook to 2015 points to continued growth in the global number of hectares planted with biotech crops - up to 200 million hectares in at least 40 countries, the institute said.

See also "Researchers Developing New Science-Based Crops, Experts Say."

For more information see Agricultural Biotechnology.

More information on ISAAA is available on its Web site.