Since recombinant DNA techniques were first developed by University of California, San Francisco, and Stanford University scientists in 1973, biotechnology has found commercial application in medicine, food processing and, more recently, agriculture. This year U.S. growers planted 45 million acres of transgenic crops, including herbicide-tolerant, insect- and disease-resistant varieties. But while transgenic crops offer new options for California farmers, they raise questions as well. This issue of California Agriculture explores two of them: how privatization of proprietary rights to key biotechnology will affect public germplasm development, and how the problems of pest resistance may affect the long-term success of larvae-killing transgenic cotton.
Genetic materials ranging from DNA sequences to whole plants, as well as essential biotechnology tools and techniques, are being patented by private and public research entities. At the same time, a series of mergers and acquisitions in the agrochemical and seed industries has led to increasing dominance by a small number of corporations in these fields. Such industrywide changes signal a profound shift in the ownership of life forms and the recombinant DNA tools needed to manipulate them. These changes present problems both for growers of major crops, who find they have an increasingly limited number of suppliers, and growers of minor crops, who may find that transgenic research useful to them is never developed because the potential market is too small.
Plants genetically engineered to produce insecticidal proteins of the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis provide effective, environmentally safe pest control. However, current transgenic crops have in some cases encountered insect resistance, partly because they have been engineered to produce only a single type of Bt insecticidal protein, and partly because as crop plants age they may produce lower amounts of the Bt protein.
Contact: Pam Kan-Rice
University of California - Division of Agriculture & Natural Resources