Biotechnology / Relevance for Caribbean Agriculture
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CTA. 2004. Biotechnology / Relevance for Caribbean Agriculture. Knowledge for Development. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands
Permanent link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/10568/63784
Global promise of biotechnology The turn of the century was celebrated by the announcement of the complete genetic code of the human genome. Since then the science of genomics has continued to unravel the genetic sequence of an increasi
Globally, biotechnology is providing powerful tools for sustainable development in an increasingly broad range of human activities including: agriculture, fisheries and forestry; human, animal and plant health; pharmaceutical, biochemical and food industries; and waste management, bioremediation and a range of environmental conservation endeavors. The biotechnology tools include in vitro culture; identification of candidate genes and gene isolation; bioengineering techniques that allow modifications to genes, biochemical pathways and organisms; molecular marker technology, which aids in accelerating breeding, ensuring sustainable systems of resource exploitation, traceability through DNA fingerprinting and developing methods of disease diagnosis. These tools have revolutionized agriculture in every step along the food production system, e.g. bioseeds (resistant to biotic and abiotic stresses, increased productivity and higher nutrition & quality), mass propagation systems, biopesticides, novel vaccines, therapeutics and delivery systems, biofertilizers, improved postharvest properties and novel, value-added foods. In addition biotechnologies are spawning biotechnology industries in a wide range of areas leading to numerous new products or services. Biotechnology has been hailed as a scale-neutral technology that would benefit developing and developed nations alike. How should the Caribbean embrace biotechnology and harness the benefits for agriculture? Agriculture in the Caribbean The Caribbean region consists of 23 island states and four associated continental countries. The region as a whole has a population of 37.7 M and a total land area of 61 M ha of which approximately 25% is under agricultural production and 11% is arable. The island states account for 37% of the total land area (22.9 M ha) and 94% (35.6 M) of the population. Agriculture is largely based on plantation crops such as sugarcane, banana, cocoa, coffee and tobacco. Over the past decade, globalization has had an adverse impact, with considerable loss of export markets. There is remarkable pressure on arable lands particularly in small island states. Consequently, agriculture is carried out largely on small holdings providing little opportunity for achieving economies of scale and global competitiveness. The geo-political fragmentation of the region, where territories are separated by political ideology, language and oceanic or land barriers poses a serious challenge for developing appropriate mechanisms for technology development, transfer and cooperation within the region. Other challenges include fragility of the island ecosystems and associated worries of environmental degradation, poor human resource capacity in individual nations, low investments in research and lack of an enabling environment to foster innovation and entrepreneurship. The Caribbean region has other weaknesses, which stem from the extremely diverse and fragile ecosystems and the high pest and disease pressures associated with most tropical countries. This requires crop varieties and animal breeds with tolerance to biotic and abiotic stresses and broad adaptability. The conglomeration of seed companies into larger companies has shifted focus from niche breeding to breeding for larger countries and territories. The lack of regional efforts of breeding and seed production has also placed the region in a seriously disadvantageous position. The seeds, considered to be a vehicle of innovation, have become a handicap to becoming competitive in agriculture. The decline of the plantation sectors in many islands has led to migration of labor out of agriculture. As a result the population involved in agriculture is declining and aging with the additional threat of loss of indigenous skills and food security in the region. On the other hand, the Caribbean region has a marine coast line of 26,826 km, approximately 1.5 times larger than that of the USA, providing an enormous potential for developing its marine resources. Further, it lies between the Central American and South American mega centres of biodiversity and is considered to be a biodiversity ´hotspot´, with an estimated endemism of 2.3% of plant species and 2.9% of vertebrate species on only 0.15% of the Earth´s surface. It is also considered to be a centre of diversity of numerous crops including corn, pepper, cucurbits, pineapple, cotton spices to list a few. The region also houses an international collection of cocoa and other regional collections of crop germplasm. The strong tourism sector allows for developing backward linkages with agriculture and popularizing local brands and innovations. It should be emphasized that, in addition to the local knowledge residing in the indigenous peoples of the region, there is also a rich heritage inherited from Africa, India, China, Europe and the Middle East. The high levels of literacy, comparatively high per capita GDP, relatively good income distribution and a population that is innovative in many aspects of life provide opportunities to foster a culture of innovation. The proximity to the North American market and emerging regional economic blocks are seen as opportunities for expansion of markets and providing access to technology. Linkages can also be forged between technology-rich and more financially stable parts of the region for making greater strides. Strategy for biotechnology and agriculture development in the Caribbean In the face of globalization, regional agriculture must become competitive. Achieving international competitiveness requires that development efforts be focused on producing and supplying strategic niche crops, technologies and services that have a comparative advantage. However, there is a parallel need for fostering the production of indigenous crops to ensure food security and maintain agricultural employment. Further, in a knowledge-driven global economy development and protection of intellectual property is vital to have a global influence. Agricultural development in the region should therefore have a two-pronged strategy, harnessing the opportunities provided by globalization while at the same time sustaining livelihoods and food security by supporting the indigenous food production activities. Biotechnology applications should therefore provide support for both these strategies. Harnessing the strengths Focus should therefore be on exploiting the enormous marine and land biodiversity as well as the indigenous knowledge available in the region. The conservation of genetic resources becomes even more urgent in small island states, where alternate use of land is leading to rapid genetic erosion. Biotechnology provides novel tools such as microchip arrays that can be used to rapidly screen for genes and proteins, as well methods to isolate and engineer genes and mass produce novel products in bioreactors. It also provides tools for genetic resource monitoring and sustainable use and development of efficient strategies for the in situ conservation of bioresources. It is important to also develop strategic partnership with global leaders in each area to commercialize these products from these bioresources, so that pharmaceuticals, neutraceuticals and other industrial products can be developed, and countries can benefit. Similarly, the indigenous crop genetic diversity should be systematically exploited for developing novel ornamental, medicinal or other crop varieties that can be marketed within the hemispheric region. This can also lead to the development of niche agricultural industries in the region. Ornamental crops which require high capital and intensive production systems are ideally suited for the small farm holdings in the Caribbean. Linkage of the ornamental industry to the dynamic tourism sector in the Caribbean and proximity of the Caribbean region to the vast North American market provide opportunities for market expansion. Biotechnology is already impacting on cultivar development as well as providing the micropropagation services to supply planting material for distribution throughout the region, but needs to be developed in a focused manner. It also provides opportunities for developing specialty foods based on indigenous crops. Pest and disease problems are an important constraint in the humid tropics, but more so in the Caribbean, where agriculture in conducted in small farm holdings, clustered within agricultural areas. The movement of pests and diseases between small island states is a serious quarantine problem. Sustainable means of managing the insect pest and disease problems are imperative to the development of a competitive agriculture system in the Caribbean. Biotechnology provides tools to diagnose diseases rapidly and monitor their evolution and spread. These tools can greatly assist quarantine systems in the region which are already stretched. Further, a coordinated effort can be used to develop a service that can be extended to the hemispheric region. Biopesticides and genetic approaches also provide a more environment friendly approach to managing the pest and disease problems. This is particularly important in light of the strategy in many island states to promote organic agriculture with the aim to supply the niche highly priced markets in North America and Europe. Cuba is the forerunner in biopesticides research and development and the Caribbean region could use this model as a spring board to developing a range of products that can be marketed thorough out the tropical world. There is a growing impetus in the region for developing genetic resistance to biotic stresses in the region, in many islands. A cooperative approach can considerably strengthen this effort supported by molecular tools to develop it into an industry to supply the hemispheric region with tropically adapted germplasm. Patenting the tools developed can provide global leverage and economic returns. Overcoming the weaknesses A coherent biotechnology policy, within a broader science, technology and innovation policy is critical for creating an enabling environment that can foster biotechnology development. This is lacking in most Caribbean countries. The national policy should not only provide a vision and identify strategic priority areas for development but also encourage a culture of innovation through funding mechanisms that would promote collaboration in research and industry development in the identified priority areas. The policy should also provide fiscal incentives for funding research/ technology development initiatives as well as mechanisms to promote technology transfer and foreign direct investments. In addition they should support enabling systems dealing with intellectual property rights, biosafety and rewards. Constant public education and awareness campaigns as well as participatory systems of development are required to ensure that there is no discord between the development goals and public interest. There is a disconnect between research and the industrial activities of the private sector. Many national institutions that were created to serve as the link between the University and the industry have largely failed. The new developmental paradigm requires that the university works alongside the private sector in industrial parks so that there is a close direct link between research and enterprise development. Such ventures require venture capital. The right environment should be created for the private sector and venture capitalists to become critical partners in biotechnology efforts of the country. The technological gap between the developed and developing world has been identified as the single most important constraint to biotechnology development in the developing countries and it is continuing to widen, as new biotechnologies are developed at a rapid rate. UNIDO, recognizing the weakness of developing countries in this area established two international centres (Trieste, Italy; New Delhi, India) for genetic engineering and biotechnology with the objective of transferring technologies to member countries. These should be fully utilized in the region. In addition, many biodiversity-rich developing countries have established bilateral collaborative programmes with technology-rich developed countries to allow access to biodiversity in exchange for technology. Others have established collaborative agreements with institutes in the US, where local researchers work with their counterparts in the US, towards developing local products and processes, which will benefit the local economy. Each country needs to define an appropriate strategy which also takes into account Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) issues to overcome this hurdle of the ever-expanding technology gap. The lack of a critical mass of scientists in an institution has been identified as another constraint to biotechnology development. This can be overcome by capacity building or by enhancing collaboration among players within the region. A regional policy mechanism is therefore essential to bring the critical mass of scientists together so that regional efforts can be strengthened through cooperation. Although many efforts were made in the past, these efforts could not be sustained. The only successful collaborations have been through the implementation of joint regional research projects, which helped to build trust among partners and led to other successful projects. The regional efforts should therefore focus on establishing competitive funding mechanisms with the goal of bringing Caribbean biotechnologists together to achieve regional development goals. Teams established through such mechanisms will develop a level of expertise, coherence and impetus that should enable them to attract independent funding. A consultative group of Caribbean biotechnologists can form the basis of developing the regional agenda. However, developing biotechnology based industries requires the involvement of a wide range of expertise from a variety of disciplines, if the team is to be functionally complete. It requires expertise in genetics, biochemistry, microbiology and molecular biology and competence in the use of molecular biology tools; it needs entrepreneurial skills relevant to biotechnological industries; as well as knowledge on enabling policies such as policies on biotechnology, biosafety, intellectual property rights. Furthermore, the ability to store, manipulate, manage and decipher information from very large genome based or protein based data sets or molecular marker data (bioinformatics) is imperative to function in a biotechnology enterprise. Other skills that are required are engineering skills associated with developing fermentation systems or waste management systems or technology development and team skills. The universities in the region should aim at recruiting graduates from a broad disciplinary base (biologists, chemists, information technologists, social scientists, agriculturists, engineers, medical scientists and clinicians) into postgraduate programmes that provide a flexible training environment that will provide the requisite grounding in a specific area and the team skills to function in a multi-disciplinary unit that can support biotechnology industry development. The biotechnology revolution heralds a new race in which the Caribbean is already behind. It is a critical area that must be developed to achieve the region´s development goals in a sustainable manner and for the region to function in an increasingly competitive global economy. Biotechnology development requires a coherent framework - a vision, focused strategic approach, the right policies and fiscal environment including tax regime, resource provision structure, capacity building, joint university-private sector projects, venture capital and multi-disciplinary highly skilled teams. There are several successful models, which can be evaluated and adapted to meet the needs of the Caribbean. The biotechnology revolution provides the opportunity to develop the region´s strengths, conquer its weaknesses and grasp the opportunity presented by the greatest challenge yet to confront mankind. Is the Caribbean up to the challenges? Are its scientists prepared to cooperate to overcome them? Can the region afford to be left behind in this technological revolution? September 2004 <i>P. Umaharan</i>, PhD is a Senior Lecturer in Genetics and Leader, Biotechnology Programme, Department of Life Sciences, The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago.