Scientists developed recombinant DNA technology in the early seventies but may not have been aware of the immense possibilities this promised in the field of medicine, food production and technologies. Herbert Boyer genetically engineered the insulin gene in Escherichia coli and diabetes treatment changed forever. Since then recombinant DNA and biotech have made giant strides in pharmaceuticals and in agriculture with over 170 million hectares now producing higher than expected produce thanks to genetically modified plants.

Map of Brazil

Map of Brazil, Source: NationalGeographic

In Brazil alone, agriculture really took off, transforming the nation’s economy, with the help of biotechnology with world leaders Monsanto, BASF, Dupon, Bayer, Dow and Syngenta playing a transformational role in cultivation of GM crops. Over 40 million hectares grow GM crops in the country with 20% of grain production forming part of it. Volumes of production are high in Brazil but the focus is entirely here with no accent on research or development of any new molecules in the pharmaceutical sector.

There are possibilities of negative fallout of genetic engineering with fears of lethal and uncontrollable viruses being one, possibly a factor that led to the National Institutes of Health laying down rules on this technology. The possibility of lethal viruses arising out of biotechnology is a possibility in pharmaceuticals but it has not been so in the field of plant genetic engineering. Brazil is using technology, not inventing or formulating anything new in pharmaceuticals, choosing to buy drugs from abroad for local consumption. Agriculture may have helped poor farmers benefit economically. However, biotech and its benefits have not filtered down in a more general way to the poor. It is mainly large agribusinesses with investments in 300 hectares and more than account for major financial gains. Family held land with holding of 20 hectares of less produced most of the food in Brazil but the marginal farmers or workers have not received benefits in proportion to such farmers who saw a revenue of over USD 6.4 billion in 2014. Food production accounts for 40% of agricultural revenue and large farms produce 60% of other produce such as animal feed and cash crops. The disparity is great if one considers that USD 6.4 billion investment generates 40% of food products and USD 40 billion produces 60% agricultural animal food products and cash crops.

The only way biotechnology can see more widespread benefits filtering down to the weakest is when it is made available to small family farmers and help them get higher yields while also focusing Brazil’s energy on innovative and inventive aspects in pharmaceuticals.