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Presentation in Asian Agriculture Congress held in Manila during April 24-27


Biotechnology in food security and environmental protection: The initiatives of the International Society for Plant Pathology and China's priorities


Wenhua Tang

Dept. of Plant Pathology, China Agricultural University, Beijing 100094 China


Peter Scott

CAB International, Wallingford, OX10 8DE, U.K



Biotechnology is a unique priority in the life sciences for the new millennium. The largest challenge that human beings face in 21st Century is food security. The first �Green Revolution� in agriculture resulted in many high-yielding crops. Traditional knowledge and technology are still valuable to reduce poverty and food shortage. But with the increasing population new knowledge is needed and new technologies should be adopted. In this report, the current status of biotechnology used in plant protection in China is briefly introduced. The facts worldwide showed that biotechnology dramatically promoted development of agricultural sciences and technologies. The International Society for Plant Pathology actively encourages the development of biotechnology in agriculture for food security in this century. It can be proposed that biotechnology could be the most attractive approach to meeting the needs of the global population for food security. Some problems in the development of GM plants are discussed.



Part I  Global food security: initiatives of the International Society

for Plant Pathology


The International Society for Plant Pathology (ISPP) is the international body representing the science of plant pathology. It was closely associated with the 1st Asian Conference on Plant Pathology, held in Beijing in August 2000.


ISPP is the body responsible for the series of International Congresses of Plant Pathology. At the 7th International Congress of Plant Pathology (ICPP98), Edinburgh, August 1998, a Special Public Meeting was convened on Global Food Security: The Role for Plant Pathology. The Organizer, W. Clive James, provided the following background brief:


The enormity of the problem


During the World Food Summit in Rome in 1996, Heads of States agreed to halve the number of hungry people by 2015. Today there are 800 million, almost all of them in developing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America.


Hunger and poverty are inextricably linked and the solution does not rely on one factor, but on an interrelated complex of factors that includes population, technology, policy and social changes.


What are the facts about Global Food Security?


         World population is 5.8 billion

         80% live in developing countries, where the population increases 1.9% per year

         More than 800 million people do not have adequate food

         1.3 billion live on less than $1 a day

         50% of poor people live in Asia, 25% in Africa, 12% in Latin America

         Most poor people live in areas where the land is marginal and ecosystems are fragile

         Global food production is 5 billion tons per annum


Why do diseases and pests of crop matter?


         Crop diseases, pests and weeds reduce production by at least one-third, despite the use of pesticides worth $32 billion

         Crop diseases alone reduce production by more than 10%

         For example, potato blight, the disease that caused the Irish famine in 1845, is again becoming prevalent


What are the options for managing crop diseases to improve food security?


To address this question, five distinguished scientists addressed different aspects of the issue:


Clive James (Chairman, International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotech Applications): Global Food Security. Norman Borlaug (Nobel Peace Laureate, Mexico): Food security, plant pathology and quarantine. Cyrus Ndiritu (Director, Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute):

Human capital investment in plant pathology: a view from the South. Robert Williams (Deputy Director General, CAB International): Public-private sector partnerships in plant pathology that will contribute to food security. Paul Teng  (International Rice Research Institute, Philippines):

Practising plant pathology in changing agricultural systems. Abstracts of the presentations have been archived at:



These presentations were followed by a public discussion, during which ISPP was challenged to establish a Task Force on Global Food Security.


ISPP Task Force on Global Food Security


The Executive Committee of ISPP took up this challenge and formed a Task Force on Global Food Security. It would address initially the nature of the global food security problem, and the principles and modalities whereby plant pathologists may realistically tackle it.


The Task Force has initiated several Activities, which are summarized here.


Activity A:

Changing Public Policy and Opinions on Global Food Security




         There is currently much ignorance about and apathy towards the importance that plant diseases play in causing food insecurity through outbreaks and chronic yield gaps of 30-70%.

         Most plant pathologists agree that modern R & D technologies are required to manage crop diseases to ensure increases in production and productivity, especially in the farming systems of the developing world that produce surpluses to feed urban populations.  It is also generally agreed that new technologies are urgently needed to increase productivity of the marginal lands where most resource-poor farmers reside.

         Public opinion on the role of modern R & D technology to develop crops with improved resistance or tolerance to diseases, and techniques for disease management, mostly ranges from opposition to apathy, often based on misinformation or no information.

         There is an urgent need to rally public support behind the use of technology in agricultural research to ameliorate the problems of poverty-associated hunger in the developing world.  There is an equally urgent need to inform the public about the magnitude of the food problem.

         An important instrument in shaping public support for technological approaches is enlightened policy based on sound science. 

         ISPP, as the international mouthpiece for the world�s plant pathologists, and as a member of other international scientific organizations, is in a unique position to help shape policy and public opinion on the critical role that modern technology plays in ensuring food security, since many desired plant traits in the crop cultivars to be developed are related to improved disease tolerance.




The Task Force has developed a Policy Statement on "Plant pathology, food security, and sustainable development". This is reproduced as Annex 1. ISPP will use it as a benchmark for policy, and invites other institutions to adopt it also.


At the 1st Asian Conference on Plant Pathology (ACPP), the Executive Committee of ISPP issued a statement of support for the appropriate use of biotechnology in these terms: "We, the Executive Committee of the International Society for Plant Pathology, meeting in Beijing, China, August 25-29 2000, believe and support the application of modern biotechnology as a tool to enhance agricultural productivity; to feed and improve the lives of the fast-growing world population and to address environmental degradation, hunger, and poverty. We also strongly advocate using sound science as the basis for regulatory and political decisions pertaining to biotechnology. We promote the careful, unbiased and science-based evaluation of technologies and products of modern biotechnology."


Delegates to the 1st ACPP were invited to affirm their support for this position under the heading "Asian Plant Pathologists in Support of Biotechnology". The full paper is reproduced as Annex 2. Of the 387 delegates at the Conference, 110 (28%) signed the document to signify their support. They came from China (93), India (2), Indonesia (3), Iran (2), Japan (2), Korea (2), Kyrgyzstan (1), Pakistan (2), and Vietnam (3).


At the 1st ACPP, ISPP also organized a Media Workshop on "The role of biotechnology for solving plant disease problems in sustainable agriculture". ISPP President Peter Scott chaired a panel of distinguished scientists: Edward French, Tom Mew, Tian Po and Paul Teng. Each addressed an aspect of the subject and answered questions from representatives of sixteen Chinese and overseas media units. There was lively discussion representing a variety of viewpoints. The journalists prepared a number of media articles that were published in China, India and Malaysia. It is believed that this Workshop represented a small step towards a better understanding, on the basis of science, of the potential benefits of biotechnology in improving food security, and of the concerns that surround its application.


Activity B:

Quantification of the economic impact of some major diseases




There is a worrying lack of awareness among the general public of the effects of major plant diseases in reducing crop yields, and, as a result, threatening global food security. Serious plant diseases not only cause acute food shortages but also can cause far-reaching and long-term changes in cropping systems and societies. There is an urgent need to make policy-makers and the wider public more aware of the importance of major plant diseases to global food insecurity and the contribution of plant pathology research in resolving some of these problems, especially in the past 50 years. The continuing need for support for plant pathology research to make an ongoing contribution to global food security should be reinforced by such actions. Quantification of the economic impact of plant diseases through key examples will help to establish the importance of the issue.




A project is in progress to compile an historical account of the immediate and longer-term consequences of major plant disease epidemics on society, with a list of examples where successful interventions have been supported by sound plant pathological research and development. A small database of key reference material will be compiled.


Activity C:

Farmer training in simple disease management




In most parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, farming activities are largely carried out by peasant farmers whose activities are mainly for subsistence. The majority of farmers in this region depend on traditional farming practices to produce food crops, typically from a small piece of land to meet the requirements of one family. These farmers are generally ignorant of plant diseases and are hardly aware of yield losses caused by plant pathogens. This is important because in most countries within the region food security is a critical issue.


Diseases are a major constraint to production of cassava. Farmer practices have been identified as a major contributory factor promoting the spread and persistence of these diseases. The problem is compounded when extension staff also lacks knowledge of diseases, which often is the case in most parts of Africa. Every effort exercised to control diseases of cassava will go a long way to improve food security on the African continent.


Great benefit can therefore be expected from training farmers, extension staff and NGOs to acquire a basic knowledge of diseases that affect cassava production, and to help them to develop simple skills in diagnostic methods that can help in disease identification, in the selection of healthy planting materials, and to develop practices that reduce the effects of diseases on yield.




A pilot project is in progress to develop simple pictorial guides and facts sheets on diseases, in English and local languages. Selected farmers, extension staff and representatives of NGOs will be trained from one major cassava-producing district in the Ashanti region of Ghana. A team of research and extension staff will monitor farmers' fields to reinforce improved farmer practices. Incidence and severity of cassava diseases in selected farmers' fields will be documented and compared with that of the entire district. Those trained will be encouraged to act as trainers of other farmers in their communities, in an ongoing programme.


Activity D:

Development of the ISPP Website




The ISPP's Website provides a core of information about the Society and about some aspects of plant pathology. It has considerable potential for development as an improved means of communication, through which change can be effected in line with the priorities identified. Development of the Website will not only provide members and other visitors with information about the Society, but will also provide information about plant pathology, why it is important, and what needs to be done about it.




A project is in progress to enhance the ISPP Website ( to provide information about the Society, including its objectives, activities and structures. This includes a focus on the activities of the Task Force on Global Food Security, as reported here. This is complemented by information about plant pathology, including the Society's Newsletter and the World Directory of Plant Pathologists. Alongside development of the Website, a ListServ has been established to provide for open e-mail communications between those with offices and functional roles in ISPP.


Part II  Current status of biotechnology used in plant protection in China


It is estimated that 22% of the world population lives in China, which occupies 7% of the world's cultivated land. Food security is therefore a tremendously important issue for Chinese people. With the population increasing and the area of cultivated land decreasing, and with the occurrence of natural disasters including pests and diseases, the problem is becoming even more serious. Science and technology have been promoted in China, particularly in the past decade. However, the challenge of food security is becoming more severe. The requirements for food with better quality and nutritional value are becoming more pressing with rising standards of living. The approach adopted in China to resolve the problem is dependent on science and high technologies. Although progress in biotechnology has been made, China still lags far behind advanced international standards in this area. The Chinese government in 1996 released a national research program including biotechnology, named the "863 Program". The achievements obtained from this program showed that biotechnology would be a very important tool in plant protection in the new millennium. The "S-863 Program" has now been approved and will be started soon. It assumes that biotechnology will be developed much faster in the future.


Progress of traditional science and technology promotes development of agriculture


l         Two-line-hybrid rice and new cultivars were developed. Two-line-hybrid rice has been planted on 3.7 million ha. The average increase in yield resulting from use of the new hybrid system reached 750 kg/ha.

l         Chemical control of plant pests and diseases is under continuous development.

l         Fertilizers: China is the largest market for fertilizers in the world.

l         Irrigation: The area of cultivated land under irrigation is increasing. Improved methods of irrigation result in saving water.


Biotechnology was used in the following areas related to plant protection


l         Rapid clonical propagation and virus-free apical meristem culture

l         Transgenic plants (crop genetic engineering)

l         Modification of biocontrol agents of plant pests and diseases

l         Molecular markers.


Transgenic plants


l         Forty-seven species of plants including cotton, rice, wheat, tobacco, potato, tomato, sweet pepper, soybean, papaya, petunia, poplar etc. have been modified by genetic engineering.

l         Target characters: resistance to insects, resistance to virus diseases, bacterial diseases, fungus diseases, resistance to herbicides, cold tolerance, salt tolerance and delayed maturity etc.


Importance of transgenic cotton


l         The control of cotton bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera) became an urgent task to secure cotton production. R&D of transgenic cotton resistant to bollworm were listed as a priority project in the 863 Program.

l         Damage done by the insect in China

Annual yield reduction (1992):                                              30% of total output

Value US$ 1.2 billion

Increase of bollworm resistance to pesticides             100 times


Technology of transgenic cotton


l         The crystal protein gene from Bt (modified cryIA) and double genes (cryIA/CpTI) have been transferred into cotton by using a highly efficient express plasmid (pGBI4A2B).

l         The modified genes were transferred both by a routine method (Agrobacterium mediation) and by a unique method (ovary injection) into cotton.

l         Selection of GM pants has been successfully performed.


Progress in transgenic cotton


l         More than 20 new transgenic cotton varieties or lines have been bred

l         GM cotton plants with the following characters have been constructed: strong resistance to bollworm, high yield and good fiber quality, broad adaptability.

l         A whole set of techniques was patented.

l         Benefits by using transgenic cotton: Transgenic cotton has been planted in 387,000 ha in China. The benefit obtained from planting transgenic cotton due to reduce costs of labour and insecticides is US$ 93 million.


Genetic modification of rice and results


l         Target insects: Paddy stem borer (Tryporyza incertulas), Striped rice borer (Chilo suppressalis), and Rice case worm (Cnaphalocrocis medinalis).

l         A Bt gene was transferred into a restorer line of hybrid rice (Ming-Hui 63 to Shan-You 63)

l         GM plants were approved for release into the environment under investigation.

l         The yield obtained from plot experiments was 0.7-0.8 t/ha

l         GM plants are resistant to pests (more than 95% mortality).


Transgenic rice resistant to herbicide (glufodinate)


l         The bar gene was transferred into parental lines of rice.


GM plants of other species of crops and plants


l         GM potato was modified by antibacterial peptide genes, Cercropin B/shiva A.

l         GM corn was modified by Bt gene cryIA for control of corn borer.

l         GM wheat was modified by cp gene of BYDV for increasing resistance to this virus disease.

l        GM tomato and sweet pepper were modified by a gene from CMV for control of this virus disease.

l        GM poplar was modified by Bt genes cryIA (c) and cryIA and scorpion neuro-toxin gene (Aalt) for pest control.


Biosafety regulation in China


Biosafety regulation is intended to promote R&D in biotechnology while preventing possible hazards to human health and the environment. The potential risk assessment of a GMO depends on the recipient organism and on its genetic manipulation. All genetic work including laboratory experiments, plot tests, industrial production, release and utilization of finished engineered products should get the approval from the relevant safety committees at different levels.


l         The Safety Administration Regulation on Genetic Engineering issued by SSTC was established in 1993

l         The Administration Implementation on Agricultural Biological Genetic Engineering was issued by MOA in 1996.


Genetic modification of biocontrol agents of plant pests and diseases


As one approach to the management of plant pests and diseases, biological control may have value in being compatible with sustainable agriculture. The advantages of biocontrol are freedom from risk, avoidance of resistance to chemicals in pests and pathogens, and benefit to the biological balance. A trend in China is the development of biocontrol as a pest management technology. In order to enhance sound development, new knowledge and technology are required.


l         More than 20 genes responsible for Bt toxin proteins have been cloned. More than ten strains of Pseudomonas fluorescens have been modified by Bt genes.

l         The first engineered Bt insecticide of B. thuringiensis, WG-001, has been approved to be commercialized. It was modified by genetic engineering to enhance expression of the Bt gene.

l         Genes coding 2,4-diacetylphloroglucinol, chitinase and b-1,3-glucanase have been cloned. Two strains of P. fluorescens and one strain of Bacillus subtilis have been constructed by genetic engineering for increasing effectiveness in the control of plant diseases.

l         A baculovirus of insects was modified by deleting some fragments, which do not influence the virulence of the virus, and inserting a foreign gene for speeding up the activity.


Summary: In China, 75 applications of transgenic plants and microorganisms have been approved for testing in plots. Among them, 55 applications are related to plant protection. 58 applications of transgenic plants and microorganisms have been approved for release in the environment under investigation. Among them, 46 applications are related to plant protection. 26 applications of transgenic plants and microorganisms have been approved for commercial use including cotton resistant to insects (13 applications), tomato resistant to virus disease (4 applications), sweet pepper (4 applications), BAOLINMIAN-NC32B (3 applications from Monsanto Com.), tomato resistant to low temperature (1 application), and transgenic petunia (Petunia).


Molecular markers


Molecular markers are an important and widely used tool for analysis of biodiversity, germplasm diagnostics, crop genomic mappping, asssisted crop breeding and isolation of functional genes.


DNA markers: RFLP, RAPD, SSR, AFLP,etc.

l         Wheat powdery mildew (Erysiphe graminis) resistance gene pm21 has been mapped on the 6Vs chromosome.

l         Resistance gene-Xa-23 from wild rice (Oryza rufipogon) to rice bacterial blight has been identified and tagged.



Future priorities


1.   Fundamental research:

Science and new technology are important bases in the development of sustainable agriculture. Biotechnology takes the first position. Discovery and use of new genes responsible for important functions are among the priorities.

2.   Biological safety assessment:

In order to avoid risks caused by GM plants and microorganisms, reasonable safety assessment is emphasized. Assessment must be based on science, which is the key to open approaches in the development of biotechnology.

3.   Collaboration and integrated research:

It is important to develop collaboration between countries and between scientists of different disciplines. Scientists of different disciplines working together will speed up the development of biotechnology in plant protection.

4.   The effective combination of genetic engineering and traditional science and technology is necessary for effective Integrated Pest Management.


Annex 1


ISPP Policy Statement




Food security for all is a precondition for the peaceful development of rural and urban societies.  Food security, obtained using technologies which are compatible with the environment, provides a basis for sustainable development.  The two parts of the food security equation are access to food, and an adequate supply of food; the former is a direct result of social, economic, marketing and pricing factors while the latter depends on the farmers' abilities to produce crops of high yields under economically viable conditions.


Technology is a key driver for maintaining high yields, for raising productivity and for increasing the overall production of food, thereby leading to excess at the individual farm level for sale, sharing or export. Regardless of what population growth estimates are used for projections of future population, all agree that there will be more people on this earth to be fed from a declining land area suited for cultivation of crops. There will also be increasing competition to use scarce resources such as water for non-farming operations.


At the same time that the need exists to increase crop yields through increased productivity, there also exists the need to reduce current losses in yield caused by plant diseases.  Plant diseases prevent many crop varieties from expressing their yield potential even though optimal conditions for plant growth may be provided through adequate water, sunshine and nutrients.  The best estimates are that diseases cause an average of 15-30% loss in the potential yield of the major food crops. Even with a well managed and extensively studied crop such as rice, yield gaps of 50-70%, between attainable and actual farmers' yields, are routinely recorded in the irrigated lands.


To overcome these losses caused by diseases, researchers developed crop varieties with improved ability to resist pathogens (host plant resistance or HPR), and farmers have used management practices or chemicals to reduce the pathogen's effects on the crop.  HPR has been a relatively successful tool and has led to the deployment over large areas of crop varieties with single or multiple genes for resisting disease injury.  However, the dynamic nature of ecosystems has also led to successful co-evolution of pathogens, resulting in strains which emerge and successfully overcome the HPR bred into crop varieties.  This phenomenon has existed since the first days of the domestication and selection of plant varieties by humankind.


Until recently, plant breeders have been limited to using genetic material with the desired traits from the same species for improving crop varieties. There have also been diseases for which no natural resistance exists. Diseases such as those caused by viruses have caused millions of tons of crop losses.  The process of breeding is a time-consuming one and requires often more art than science to guess whether the required genes are being transferred into desired varieties.  With the advent of recombinant DNA techniques, a generalized toolset called genetic engineering now enables breeders to precisely transfer desired genes into plant material to create improvements.  These genes may be from outside the species, and may even be across kingdoms, and lead to transgenic plants.  Genetically engineered, transgenic papayas containing virus coat protein genes for tolerance to virus diseases are a successful example of this technology.


Modern biotechnology has also enabled molecular characterization of the genomes of crop species, from which the breeding tool of marker-aided selection has led to a shortening of the time required to transfer known genes into the desired varieties.  A successful use of this tool is the transfer of multiple Xa genes into rice varieties for resistance to bacterial blight disease.


ISPP advocates the use of modern biotechnology to improve crop varieties so that they may be used by farmers to reduce losses, and therefore contribute to the process of ensuring food security.  ISPP further believes in the safety of these crops which continue to be subject to strict government regulation before approval.  As knowledge expands on the molecular and ecological aspects of transgenic plants, ISPP supports the use of this new knowledge in determining and assessing the safety of such plants.


Norman Borlaug, Nobel Peace Laureate, has urged the use of biotechnology to help in the battle against starvation.  As plant pathologists, we recognize the role that plant diseases continue to play in food insecurity, and we believe that biotechnology can be a major contributor towards reducing losses and increasing food security.

Annex 2




We, the undersigned scientists attending the first Asian Conference on Plant Pathology, in Beijing, China, August 25-29, believe and support the application of modern biotechnology as a tool to enhance agricultural productivity; to feed and improve the lives of the fast-growing populations of the Asian region and to address environmental degradation, hunger, and poverty. We also strongly advocate using sound science as the basis for regulatory and political decisions pertaining to biotechnology. We promote the careful, unbiased and science-based evaluation of technologies and products of modern biotechnology.


Modern biotechnology has tremendous potential and offers remarkable innovations to support our region's efforts to attain food security and global competitiveness.  In particular, losses in quantity and quality of food caused by plant pathogens are known to be significant in many Asian countries.  Developing countries in general are expected to benefit more than developed countries from biotechnology in the areas of food and agriculture, health and medicine, environmental protection and trade and industry.


Products of modern biotechnology promise to reduce farmers' high input costs, increase their yields while helping conserve the ecosystem and enable crops to grow under normally unfavorable conditions.  Biotechnology products can even provide greater benefits to consumers, who are the ultimate beneficiaries of technological innovations.  For instance, modern biotechnology can be used as a tool to attain greater nutritional security through enhanced products qualities such as higher vitamin content, better protein quality and prolonged shelf life.  Modern biotechnology can also produce healthier oils and develop vaccines to fight dreadful diseases like cholera and malaria.


We recognize that no technology is without risk.  However, we have great confidence in the safety of biotechnology products which undergo regulatory reviews before they are approved by governments for general use.


We therefore advocate and promote the safe and responsible applications of modern biotechnology in science and technology, agriculture and food, health and medicine, environment and trade and industry.  Considering the tremendous potential of this technology, we urge policymakers to base their decisions on sound scientific evidence.


Asian Plant Pathologists in Support of Biotechnology


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