Virginia Tech leads global effort to sort out social, economic impacts of agricultural biotechnology

October 15, 2001

BLACKSBURG, Oct. 15, 2001 -- Agricultural biotechnology holds the promise of hardier, healthier, and more abundant sources of food for people around the world as well as new sources for pharmaceuticals.

Biotechnology is also likely to produce winners and losers as a result of social and economic impacts, says George Norton. The professor of agricultural and applied economics at Virginia Tech says sorting out these social and economic effects may be critical to public acceptance of biotechnology. Without that acceptance, he fears, many potential benefits may be lost.

Norton is heading an effort centered at Virginia Tech and including scientists worldwide that will investigate the social and economic effects of biotechnologies. The project is funded by a $1.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The scientific achievements of biotechnology have been occurring at such an astounding pace that social and economic assessments have lagged behind, Norton says.

"There are major benefits that can be expected from agricultural biotechnology, but we expect to see distributional effects as well," Norton says. "For example, early adopters of the technology may be in a stronger position than those who adopt it later."

The four-year project will investigate the impacts of biotechnology from a social science perspective. The faculty members involved will be able to draw on the expertise of Virginia Tech researchers who have pioneered key biotechnology procedures, especially in the area of generating human pharmaceuticals from plants and animals.

"We can't look into economics or social issues in a vacuum," Norton says. "We'll have to inform ourselves [about the scientific aspects of biotechnology] as we go ahead, but we also want to keep our perspective. We don't want to be an advocate for any side of this."

Other faculty members involved in the project at Virginia Tech include Brad Mills, Dixie Reaves, and Mike Ellerbrock in agricultural and applied economics; Laura Parisi in the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies; and Colette Harris in the Office of International Research and Development. Scientists at Virginia State University, North Carolina State University, the University of Tennessee, and at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines are also participating.

"The complexity of the issues requires a team approach," says Norton. "Our group brings expertise in environmental mediation, the economics of tobacco and rice production, evaluation of agricultural research, gender issues, international political economy, and the study of the politics and economics of technology transfer and diffusion."

Much of agricultural biotechnology that has been marketed to date has been aimed at enhancing productivity. But increasingly, biotechnology is being applied to add to the value of crops, such as by increasing nutritional value, adding certain vitamins, or in coaxing plants to create substances that can be used in making pharmaceuticals.

The study is concentrating on tobacco and rice because those crops are the focus of much biotechnology research. Tobacco is a plant whose genetics are relatively easily manipulated, making it an ideal candidate for producing compounds for use in creating pharmaceuticals that treat human diseases. Rice is a staple food for much of the world's population, especially the poor. Biotechnology might be a boon to consumers around the globe, and it might help maintain the viability of farms producing the crops.

"We say 'might' benefit because no one really has studied in detail who is likely to benefit and who is likely to lose," Norton says.

He says the research is expected to generate information for policy-makers as well as the general public in the United States and abroad.

The public has been bombarded by hype from both proponents and opponents of biotechnology. "More informed public opinion may help smooth the way for adoption of socially-beneficial biotechnologies, and hinder the spread of ones where the risks appear to be unacceptable compared to the potential benefits," Norton says.

The research will begin by collecting information concerning attitudes of producers and consumers through surveys and focus groups. Researchers will then develop a framework to assess economic and social impacts of agricultural biotechnologies. The group will then develop educational materials about the benefits, costs, and concerns associated with biotechnologies for students and the general public. Those educational materials will be distributed in K-12 educational programs, college courses, and to the general public through Web-based materials.
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PR CONTACT: Stewart MacInnis, 1-540-231-5863, macinnis@vt.edu

Virginia Tech

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