Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Biotechnology, with a particular emphasis on agricultural biotechnology, is a relatively recent but immensely important addition to the industrial base of the Great Plains. The Nature Biotechnology Directory identifies 119 biotechnology companies in the U.S. Great Plains, with 68 in Texas and 30 in Colorado (though not all are located in the Plains portion of these states). Of states that are completely in the Plains region, Kansas has 11 such firms, Nebraska 8, South Dakota 1, and North Dakota none. In the Canadian Prairie Provinces, Saskatchewan is the hub of the industry, and a closer look at agricultural biotechnology there serves to elucidate what is being achieved.

Saskatchewan is the largest producer of food and feed grains among the ten provinces of Canada, and its economy is dominated by agriculture. Saskatoon is a recognized world center for agricultural biotechnology. Sustainable agricultural production is the objective of Saskatoon's agbiotech community as it moves ahead with research and development to improve crops of the Great Plains such as wheat, barley, canola, flax, peas, and beans and to find innovative uses for those crops.

Insect-resistant crops yield 8 to 10 percent more per acre than conventional crops, canola growers gain two bushels per acre with herbicide- tolerant varieties, and a new wheat variety yields 13 percent higher than the best conventional variety. All this can be achieved with reduced mechanical inputs, reduced chemical and fertilizer use, and reduced equipment and labor cost while at the same time promoting environmental stewardship by reducing fuel usage and greenhouse gas emissions and reducing tillage. These agronomic advances represent the first of three waves of agbiotech development, with the second and third waves just beginning.

The second wave of crops being developed in Saskatchewan uses biotechnology to provide improved quality traits, often stacked on top of and incorporating the benefits from the agronomic traits of the first wave such as herbicide tolerance. Seeds with healthier edible oil profiles, high-stearate oilseeds that do not require hydrogenation, improved animal feeding qualities, and special nutritional traits such as high-lysine content are examples.

The third wave of agbiotech products goes beyond food uses of crops into the area of industrial and pharmaceutical products. Within a few years, farmers will be growing ultrahigh- value crops that have been engineered to produce biopolymers–plastics from plants, vehicle fuels and lubricants, vaccines for animal and human use, and a whole range of value-added products often collectively referred to as products of molecular farming. Renewable sources of energy and chemical feed stocks from agriculture should become commonplace within the next twenty years.

These second and third wave crops bring with them the decommoditization of crops from the Great Plains as extra value is added to crops that have up until now been sold at generally low world commodity prices. These "designer crops" require segregation during harvest, storage, and transportation in order to preserve their identity and integrity through to the end user, which will in turn change the traditional grain-handling systems of the Great Plains.

Saskatchewan's agricultural biotechnology community is actively involved in all three waves and has grown to a critical mass that now includes some forty biotech companies and institutions that employ approximately 2,000 people. Saskatchewan's agbiotech companies were generating around $150 million in annual sales in the late 1990s. With nearly 40 percent of Canada's agbiotech firms located in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan is the country's top center for agricultural biotechnology. The forty biotechnology enterprises currently (in 2000) operating in Saskatoon are four times the number active in the city in 1994, and new agbiotech companies are being formed at a rate of three or four per year.

More than 100 agbiotech research and development projects are under way at the many research centers in Saskatoon. They include the development of transgenic vaccines for cattle and hogs, the development of probiotic products to enhance gastrointestinal function in animals with the objective of increasing feed utilization, gene mapping in cattle and hogs targeted at increased productivity and improved carcass quality, and improved animal feeds and feed processing. Biotech developments on the crop side include agbiological products such as biofertilizers, biopesticides, and the application of microbial metabolites in both these areas; micropropagation of native trees and grasses for land reclamation; plant growth regulation; genetic engineering for tolerance to crop stress factors such as drought, heat, and cold; herbicide resistance for cereal, vegetable, and pulse crop species; molecular farming to produce therapeutic molecules in oilseeds; development of new crop types such as a new oilseed crop from a member of the mustard family; and the reduction of anti-nutritional compounds in existing crops.

Peter B. McCann Ag-West Biotech Inc.

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