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The pervasive impact of Biotech – III

Number of US patents in agricultural biotech in the US clustered by private companies, universities, governmental institutions and non-US companies having US patents. Image credit: Paul W. Heisey

Agricultural Biotech aims at improving the yield of agriculture by increasing plant growth and adapting them to the specific environment. This includes creating a resistance to insects (pests) and to herbicides (used to kill competing plants).

The selection process is nothing new. It started, probably by chance, some 10,000 years ago when our ancestors noticed that certain plants were better for food, and, within those, certain varieties were faster to grow, more resistant to pests and or/better resistant to drought. Through many cycles of selection (cultivar) we came to a limited number of varieties that have been used for millennia. Biotech has brought new tools to further selection introducing the possibility to steer the natural variations that occur by chance and to stimulate and/or create new variations (genetically modified organisms). Farming technology has progressed hand in hand in the last 200 years tremendously improving productivity (and yield). Hundred and fifty years ago the US population didn’t reach 40 million and 53% of people were involved in farming. At the turn of this century population exceeded 275 million and only 1.8% of people were involved in farming (one should also take into account that today there is an inflow of farm products from other Countries but still the increased productivity remains amazing some 200 fold increase).

It is in these last 30 years that Biotech has started to have an impact is agriculture. Selective breeding goes back over hundred year, that is the process of forcing the combination of two varieties (like one resistant to certain insect and another requiring less watering) hoping that the combination resulted in a variety showing both characteristics. Notice the use of the “hoping”! There is no science, just blind experiment. It may also be interesting to remember that in the second part of the last century several attempts to generate new variety (hopefully better ones) used radiation of seeds. Radiation may lead to changes in the DNA and consequently to the creation of a new variety.

Starting in 1980 genetic engineering become a new tool for creating new plant variety. More recently, the use of CRISPR/Cas9 has provided effective, and scientific, tools to create new varieties, although we are still lacking a complete understanding of the impact of gene manipulation on the phenotype (its consequences) and GMOs (genetic modified organisms) are still a matter of hot debate. Notice that the point in GMOs applied in agriculture is about its safety and the potential need to use additional chemicals with increased environment pollution, it is not an ethical debate (which is the case once GMOs is moved to humans….).

Today several Countries accept the use of GMOs in agriculture. The Food and Drug Administration in the US has approved a range of GMOs. These improve plants resistance to insects, plant viruses and herbicides resulting in higher yield. As shown in the graphic, there are many patents in areas like modern biotech agriculture, general plant technology, plant biotech, vaccine for animals, bio-control and food/nutrition. We can expect, as population continues to grow and more and more food will be needed (also a shift towards vegetables to decrease the meat and its environmental impact), a quick evolution of biotech applied to agriculture.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.