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Electronic Journal of Biotechnology

versão On-line ISSN 0717-3458

Electron. J. Biotechnol. v.4 n.3 Valparaíso dez. 2001 

EJB Electronic Journal of Biotechnology ISSN: 0717-3458
© 2001 by Universidad Católica de Valparaíso -- Chile

Biotechnology and Human Development in Developing Countries

Horst W. Doelle
Deputy Director
MIRCEN-Biotechnology Brisbane and the Pacific Regional Network
International Organization of Biotechnology and Bioengineering


Throughout the past century, humankind has made a tremendous effort to understand the biological intricacies of nature. It started with the traditional fermentation of food to the commercial exploitation of all types of biological cells. The most incredible advances occurred since the mid 1940s with the discovery of the life saving antibiotics, followed by the green revolution in agriculture in the 1950s to the present rapid progress in understanding the genetic basis of living cells. The latter progress has given us the ability to develop new products and processes useful in human and animal health, food and agriculture, and the environment (ADB, 2001). It appears, however, that at no stage have we been able to integrate these enormous discoveries into the natural cycles of matter. As a consequence, prevention is being replaced by curing continuously occurring medical and agricultural ailments. This can easily be visualized by the enormous over- and misuse of antibiotics causing a lowering of the immune systems and an ever increasing resistance against these drugs amongst microorganisms, which in turn requires the never ending search for new antibiotics. The intensification of agriculture during the green revolution with its the reliance on antibiotics and hormones in feeding animals in so-called animal factories (i.e. chicken, pigs) as well as on irrigation and chemical inputs in crop fields has led to serious health and environmental problems (ADB, 2001). Much of Asia, for example, faces problems of severe salinity, pesticide misuse and degradation of natural resources. It is therefore not surprising to see the ever increasing development of opposition against any further biotechnological applications, especially those arising from genetical modification of microbial, plant and animal cells.

The reason for this unfortunate development must be sought in the fact that research and development, personnel and finance are concentrated in rich countries, led by global corporations and following the global market demand dominated by high-income consumers (UNDP Report, 2001). As a result, research has neglected opportunities to develop technologies for poor people in developing countries representing approximately 80% of the world population. According to the UNDP report on Human Development, in 1998 global spending on health research was US$ 70 billion, but just US$ 300 million was dedicated for vaccines for HIV/AIDs and about US$ 100 million to malaria research. Of special concern is the fact that new drugs and vaccines are being developed to export for profit rather than to sell cheaply to local people (Bloom and Duc Track, 2001). Patent, license and royalty have become a tool to create wealth for the developed countries. For example, the drug for HIV-infected pregnant women is too expensive to save the children to be born in developing countries.

Although people are the real wealth of nations, we have not been able to create an environment in which people can develop their full potential and lead productive lives in accordance with their needs and interests.

In order to establish the real need for what type of biotechnology is required for developing countries, one has first to realize that there exist three major climatic zones, namely:

  1. the temperate zones of the developed world;
  2. the tropical zones of developing countries; and
  3. the arid zones of developing countries.

Moreover, there is no escaping the fact that over 90% of biotechnological research and development are occurring in the temperate zones of our world.

Secondly, the most serious problems in the developing countries concern:

  1. Health. It has been estimated by UNDP (UNDP, 2001) that 2.4 billion people are without access to basic sanitation and 11 million children under five are dying annually from preventable causes.
  2. Poverty. Approximately 1.2 billion people live on less than US$ 1 a day and 2.8 billion on less that US$ 2 a day.
  3. Starvation. The developing world has still 826 million undernourished people, living predominantly in the arid zone areas of Africa and Asia. For example, Sub-Saharan Africa has an infant mortality rate of more than 100 and an under-five mortality rate of more than 170 per 1,000 live births.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind, that our present biotechnological knowledge is able to abolish the health and poverty problems, with the reduction or even eradication of starvation in arid zones well on the way using modern genetically modified agriculture. It should therefore be possible to create an environment in which people can develop their full potential and lead productive and creative lives in accordance with their needs and interests. Since most of the biotechnology research and development is concentrated in the temperate climatic zones, a closer cooperation has to occur to facilitate an adaptation of the old and newly developed technologies to the appropriate climatic zone, the particular society and the local environment.

What are the most urgent biotechnological issues in developing countries for the improvement of human development?

In considering all the available technologies together with those under development, the first and basic priority thinking has to be the fact that ‘technologies in general do not transfer from developed to developing countries. Rather they need to be built up in situ using local knowledge and innovative ability after which, if successful, they are being adopted’ (Douthwaite and Ortiz, 2001). Social aspects of psychology, religion and gender are of paramount importance (Warner, 2000).


It is very hard to understand why our International Agencies have failed to eliminate the health problems in developing countries. Biotechnologists and in particular microbial technologists must fail to comprehend why the numerous existing technologies have neither been supported nor implemented. Basic sanitation should be made available as a first priority in human development. It is well known that the handling of human and animal excreta or manure depends on and varies with the social and religious background of a particular society, but the technologies available today caters for all aspects of human society.

The basis for socio-economical integrated biosystems, recently referred to also as ‘ecological sanitation’ (Esrey, 2001) has been with us for the last century in form of:

  1. composting toilets – wet or dry;
  2. composting together with household waste and other biomass;
  3. anaerobic digestion or biogas digesters.

Neither of these systems requires any handling of excreta or manure, as these can be channeled through pipelines to a cesspit, compost or anaerobic digester. Whereas composting and anaerobic digestion takes care of all pathogens, the cesspit requires the addition of lime or ash to help desiccate the manure and raise the pH, which effectively kills off all pathogens within several months (Esrey, 2001). This pathogen-free manure can directly be returned to the soil or, in order to be safe, be added to compost heaps before improving the fertility of soils.

Composting reaches a thermophilic range of 50-80 C and anaerobic digestion reduces the redoxpotential to such an extent that pathogens are killed.

In the case of cesspits, compost and anaerobic digestion, the residue can be safely used for soil improvement, replacing chemical fertilization. Whether this organic fertilization is used on fields of flower or food crops is dependent on the local society (Kasule, 1998) and their religious belief. Technologies are also available to treat and recycle the water (greywater) (Guenther, 2001) effectively for reuse.

The best ecological as well as economic sanitation system is undoubtedly the use of anaerobic or biogas digesters. In this case, the families will be able to use the biogas formed for cooking and electricity. These systems are becoming very popular in Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia and China. Biodigesters are also the best socio-economic systems with establishment costs becoming very cheap as has been demonstrated in Vietnam (An et al. 1997), Bangladesh (Shakti, 2000) and Cambodia using polyethylene tubing as construction material. Sizes of these digesters in use at present range from 6 – 20 m3, whereas digesters up to 2000 m3 require concrete or steel construction.

It is very distressing to realize that many international organizations, i.e. FAO, do not condemn the use of raw manure for soil improvement, and do not emphasize the absolute need for treatment before use as was shown in one of the latest electronic conferences on ‘Area wide integration of crops and livestock production’ (FAO, 2001).

If these old and improved biotechnological techniques are fully supported and properly funded in a way the introduction of GMO crops are funded by UNDP, UNEP, UNIDO, FAO, WHO, etc., health in developing countries could be quickly raised to the level of developed countries.

In addition to these disease prevention technologies, International Agencies must also be forced or force corporations to make biotechnological products available to the 2 billion people (one third of the world population), who still have no access to low-cost essential medicines such as penicillin, a technological process developed in the late 1940s (UNDP, 2001). Such access would eliminate outbreaks of measles, cholera, meningitis and hemorrhagic fever (WHO, 2001).


The term poverty is very often misinterpreted with starvation. Whereas poverty is flourishing in most developing countries, this is certainly not the case with lack of food causing starvation. However, poverty may cause starvation, as the people are not able to buy the available food. Poverty is mainly caused through strong increases in urbanization, as low income rural farmers stream into the cities to find work and a better income. This depletes very efficient and productive rural agriculture, and reduces the possible maximal agricultural food or crop production. Whereas the green revolution technologies resulted in increased food production in favorable and irrigated environments, they had little impact on the millions of smallholders living in rainfed and marginal areas, where poverty is concentrated in Asia (ADB, 2001). The reasons for this trend are manyfold, but can mainly be traced to changes in farm management (single crop production) as well as farm mechanization (big farms) resulting in a severe reduction of small farm holders, and a severe reduction of funding and investment into agriculture. In order to alleviate poverty and make certain that we are able to continue with feeding an ever increasing population, we need a socio-economic biotechnology revolution (Doelle and Prasertsan, 2002) realizing that we have to learn from the mistakes of the green revolution and secure a proper income to the farmer. One major problem of the green revolution was that the farmers were made to believe in the production for markets, forgetting their own consumption. It is evident that farmers in some developing countries grow crops solely under contract for supplying processing factories, while they have to buy the food for their own consumption. Traditional food was demoted, whereas canned and bottled food was promoted. Local (traditional) wisdom and knowledge in food preservation and medicine were treated as an ‘uncivilized way of life’ and is disappearing, so the younger generation is not practicing it anymore.

Such a new biotechnology revolution has to take into consideration:

  1. that farming in developing countries is profoundly different from developed countries with crops like cassava, rice, soybean, sago, etc;
  2. that farms are small and should stay small with minimal mechanization but more intensive and integrated farming;
  3. that single crop production must make way to a multi-product farming, including livestocks on the farm;
  4. that we use existing biotechnological techniques to develop biotechnological industries using locally grown biomass such as sago palm and cassava;
  5. combine the biomass waste, excessive amounts of agro-industrial wastes with human and animal waste treatments for novel product and renewable energy production.

Such a sustainable socio-economic biotechnology revolution can best be established in form of so-called ‘biorefineries’, whereby all the biomass is used to improve the living standard of the people (Doelle, 2002). Such biorefineries require a host of different biotechnological and physical techniques ranging from anaerobic digestion of wastes to surplus biomass conversion to renewable energy, food, feed and commodity product formation. All biotechnological and physical techniques are readily available and can immediately be implemented.

The additional incorporation of aspects of modern biotechnological techniques (DaSilva, 2001) will come as soon as society has learned the advantages of the existing technologies. Some biotechnological issues such as pest-resistant plants and organic fertilization will involve some GMO plants. However, one should always be aware and not forget that local breeding experience may be a better way to go initially than GMO introduction.

It is very surprising, for example, that agricultural biotechnology development sofar has totally ignored plants such as cassava and the sago palm as a starch resource, as they are hardly known in developed countries. Cassava can yield up to 65 t/ha with a 65% starch content in marginal soils and the sagopalm can easily produce 25 t of starch/ha in swampy areas unsuitable for any other crop (Doelle, 1998). Since the average intake of food for human is, in general, about 250 kg of grain per year, one hectare of sago plantation can feed 100 people and a 1000 ha sago plantation can subsequently save 100,000 humans from hunger, a clear example of the potential of sago as a major starch crop of the world (Ishizaki, 1997). Both crops are ideal for obtaining a variety of bioproducts ranging from biofuel, bioplastics, biodetergents, biolubricants to bio-pharmaceuticals (Bujang and Ahmad, 2000; Bujang et al. 2001).

The establishment of biorefineries will diversify rural farming, keep people employed in the rural areas and will also increase the income of the individual farmer, helping in the alleviation of poverty.


The elimination of starvation in the arid zones of the world is the biggest challenge to agricultural biotechnology. Much more effort should be put into the breeding or genetic modification of crops for drought resistance (Dodds et al. 2001). Improvement of soil condition using treated human and animal manure should go hand-in-glove with the introduction of drought resistant or at least drought tolerant crop varieties. The most beneficial aspect of GMO crops in these areas would immediately improve livestock and food production. However, one has to be aware that different regions have different types of crop demands. Genetic modification for drought resistance should occur with local plants and crops used by the local societies. We should stop introducing GMO plants from temperate zones in developed countries and respect the local food demand and varieties. Such a project would cause much less opposition than genetically modified foreign crops.

The elimination of starvation in arid zones could become an ideal place for combining ‘old’ biotechnological concepts of soil fertility improvement with ‘new or modern’ biotechnological concepts of increasing crop and livestock production. Soil fertility improvement should also go hand in hand with a reduction or elimination of rain and other forest clearings, which in turn would stop the expansion of the arid zone areas. Such a combined concept would create more small holding farms with a proper income, helping to stop the development of further poverty.


The biotechnology issues for developing countries in future requires a change from the presently commercially driven to a more human development, combining ‘old’ and ‘modern’ biotechnological techniques for the improvements in the health and living conditions of 80% of our world population. It is very encouraging to observe the establishment of new organizations such as the Program for Research and Documentation for a Sustainable Society (ProSus), Ecological Sanitation (Ecosan) and many others together with the information distributors Livestock Research and Rural Development (LRRD), Centre for the Analysis and Dissemination of Demonstrated Energy Technologies (CADDET), Ecosan Newsletters as well as discussion groups such as Integrated Biosystems (IBS) emphasizing the need for such a development (Doelle and Foo, 2000). It is a great opportunity for the International Organizations (UNDP, UNEP, UNIDO, FAO, WHO, etc.) to take up the challenge and realizing that the so-called ‘modern biotechnology’ alone cannot solve the problems. As long as the present biotechnology development is driven only by commercial enterprise, human development in developing countries will lag increasingly behind and cannot progress as it would with the application of a total biotechnology concept, such as a socio-economic sustainable bio-integrated system. Sustainable development and human development should not and can not go separate directions.


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