Viewpoint From a multinational agrichemical company

One of plant biotechnology's many claimed benefits is reducing the use of crop protection chemicals. So, why is Rhône-Poulenc* (RP) involved in an area of science that could threaten its core agrichemical business? Given that RP's global sales of crop protection products total more man AUD $4 billion a year, taking biotech on board seems suicidal Here, RP's Technical Director, Bruce Howie, says that nothing could be further from reality from the company's point of view.

Rhône-Poulenc has been actively involved in plant biotechnology since the early 1980s. This is due to the firmly held belief that agriculture is being revolutionised by biotech's new plant varieties which offer unprecedented benefits for consumers, food processors, farmers and the environment. In other words, RP's involvement in plant biotechnology and gene technology underlines its long-term commitment to agriculture.

Herbicide tolerance strength

RP still has a relatively low biotech profile commercially, but it has built a strong portfolio of technologies. Positioned among the world's leading plant biotech researchers, the company has developed particular strengths in herbicide-tolerance technology. For example, in a joint project with Calgene Inc. and Stoneville Pedigreed Seeds, RP introduced the first commercial herbicide-tolerant cotton into the US in the mid-1990s (a gene technology).

Despite the strident public concerns in Europe (and their increasing intensity here), RP remains firmly committed to the development of gene technology. To that end, there's been a marked increase in the company's global biotech research effort in the last five years.

Shotguns vs aimed shots

The good news is that gene technology significantly reduces the need for agrichemicals, and this benefit alone merits its inclusion in RP's business development strategy. At first sight it seems suicidal for a business to deliberately reduce the use of its products, but the current situation was akin to RP's reaction to the relatively low-tech agrichemicals being applied frequently and in very large doses a decade or so ago.

Those chemicals were a 'shotgun' approach compared with today's 'aimed shots' using technologically advanced products. RP has led this evolution to low-dose, infrequently applied, and 'smart' chemical products that

target specific pests and diseases in a much more sustainable and environmentally sensitive way.

Strategically, gene technology is a natural and logical extension of RP's technology platform of new generation chemistry, Integrated Pest Management (IPM)-based solutions and diagnostics. Backed by the company's rigorously disciplined approach to product stewardship and safety, growers are now using a much lower volume of active ingredients to protect their crops in the right way, and at the right time. This situation doesn't answer all of the community's legitimate concerns about the long-term effects of chemicals, but it's an incremental step in the right direction, and a vast improvement on past practices.

Future

RP remains committed to the development of breeding tools and genetically modified plants to achieve new pest-control technologies, improved production performance, and enhanced quality and nutrition for the consumer. However, making the most of these opportunities involves much more than the scientific challenges at the frontier of plant biotechnology's development.

Contrary to RP's belief that gene technology's advantages far outweigh its negative aspects, consumer groups around the world are expressing concerns about the long-term consequences of these technologies, especially in foods.

In RP's opinion, it is foolhardy and counterproductive for biotechnologists to ignore or dismiss such concerns. Instead, we need to satisfy the following issues:

  • public opinion is our reality. We need to listen attentively, and address its concerns in a rational and reasonable way
  • it's important to share information with the media, consumer groups and the public so as to develop confidence in the outcomes of the technology
  • we should be advocates for consumer choice, choice based on sound and reliable information
  • we have no greater priority than product stewardship and human safety in our activities.

Contact: Mr Bruce Howie 02 9842 4420 email: bhowie@rprural.com.au

*Rhône-Poulenc and AgrEvo are merging their respective life-science activities to form Aventis