Published on 10/11/01

Second Wave of Biotech Products on Horizon

Vaccine shots may soon be as comforting as eating mashed potatoes, as tasty as snacking on a banana or as refreshing as eating a salad.

"Very promising research is resulting in foods that may one day contain vaccines," said Michael Phillips, executive director for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization. Phillips delivered the 2001 D.W. Brooks Lecture at the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga., Oct. 1.

"Transgenic potatoes may carry the vaccine for hepatitis B, bananas may contain a cholera vaccine and lettuce a vaccine for measles," he said. "This is especially important for the developing world, where it's very expensive to purchase, transport and store vaccines."

Where vaccines require refrigeration or must be transported to remote areas, he said, food-borne vaccines would be especially helpful.

Biotech Crops Widely Accepted

The first wave of biotech crops -- those containing insect- and disease-resistant properties -- have been widely adopted in historic proportions.

"Today they're planted on more than 100 million acres around the world," Phillips said. "In the United States, in only five years, more than 65 percent of the soybeans, almost 70 percent of the cotton and 25 percent of the corn are varieties that have been enhanced through the use of biotechnology. For hybrid corn, one of the most recent technological revolutions in agriculture, it took almost 30 years to reach comparable adoption rates."

These adoption rates have been mirrored in other countries. In Canada, more than 65 percent of the canola, almost 50 percent of the corn and about 20 percent of soybeans are varieties improved though biotechnology.

Farmers' Competitive Edge

"At least 20 percent of the soybeans grown in Brazil today are Roundup-Ready soybeans smuggled in from Argentina," Phillips said. "That's how desperate farmers are to get their hands on this technology. They don't want to lose the competitive edge."

Phillips attributes the rapid acceptance to farmers' economic bottom line. "It either increases their yields or decreases input costs, or both," he said.

The most obvious savings for farmers has been chemical pesticide inputs. The National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy reports that cotton pesticide usage has declined by more than 50 percent.

Phillips said research is also documenting:

  • Increased fertilizer efficiency.
  • More flexible weed control, especially for soybeans.
  • Greater use of conservation tillage, protecting water quality and preventing soil erosion.
Second Biotechnology Wave

On the heels of the first wave, he said, is a second wave of biotechnology: Discoveries will shift the emphasis to products that include enhanced human foods, livestock and industrial products and pharmaceuticals.

"Over the next five years, biotechnology will develop many more products that will radically change American agriculture," Phillips predicted. "One extremely exciting area of research and development is the use of animals in pharmaceutical production. The most promising work is in milk and eggs."

Sheep's milk has been used in cystic fibrosis treatment, goats' milk in cancer therapy and mice's milk for arthritis treatment. Chicken eggs have also been used for treating the flu.

"And the production of therapeutic proteins doesn't cause any ill effects to the animal involved," Phillips said.

Reduced-fat Animal Products

Animals are being engineered to reduce fat, too, and to have less environmental impact.

While plants are being developed to deliver more nutrition, safer foods and even vaccines, some of the most interesting developments are in industrial chemicals.

"Research indicates that plants can be modified to produce proteins that become components of detergents, nylon, glue, paints, lubricants and plastics," Phillips said. "The potential is very high that plants can be the source of biodegradable plastic polymers that will benefit the environmental quality. We are viewing plants in a new way: as minifactories."

Phillips urged everyone to work together to achieve the promise of the technology. "It will require creative and sustained leadership from both (public and private) sectors to make it happen," he said.

Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.