How biotech will impact third world

Rodolfo Quintero is something of a Fuller Brush salesman for Mexican biotechnology. Six years ago, toting a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a deep-seated faith in the promise of the emerging science, he set out knocking on corporate and government doors to convince his countrymen of its importance to developing countries like Mexico. What he got was a lot of puzzled looks.

Today, however, that may be changing. Several Mexican universities now offer biotechnology programs. Thrice weekly it is the subject of a TV series in Mexico City. And the government is to launch a national biotechnology program.

''Mexico has decided that it is a priority area,'' says the portly, peppy head of the biotechnology department at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. ''But there is already a knowledge gap (with the developed world) - and it is growing every day.''

Dr. Quintero's pitch - that bioengineering should be pursued in the labs of developing countries as well as those in the industrialized world - is being increasingly echoed throughout the third world these days. The reason is a growing awareness of the profound impact the still-nascent field will have on the food, energy, health, and industrial development of these countries.

Third-world nations have traditionally piggybacked on the key technology developments - like nuclear engineering - of their industrial brethren. But this time experts believe they could jump in early enough to make their own contribution - and thus help control the social and economic impact of the new science.

This theme was evident at a recent forum on biotechnology and the third world in New York. The meeting was sponsored by the Council on International and Public Affairs and the International Center for Law in Development, two public policy research groups.

One message was clear: The ''biorevolution'' will have a far greater impact on the third world than did an earlier movement, the green revolution. It will also probably promote more changes in low-income than in developed countries - for several reasons. Advances in genetic engineering will yield improvements in areas of agriculture the green revolution didn't touch. These will include hardier, quicker-growing crops of all kinds - as well as such improvements in livestock production as disease-resistant animals. The green revolution was limited to new strains of wheat, rice, and maize.

Farmers will also be moved into new areas. Salt-tolerant plants may make briny coastal areas arable, while other advances may turn deserts green. Other developments near: better production of ethanol from sugar cane, faster-growing trees, and new pesticides and vaccines. ''The biorevolution has the potential to affect agriculture in all areas,'' says Frederick Buttel of Cornell.

But such sweeping changes will also exact a toll. Development of new superseeds could aggravate the tug of war between rich and poor nations over control of germ-plasm resources. Already, high-yielding plants that grew out of the green revolution have displaced seed varieties in some countries - resulting , experts say, in a loss of valuable genetic plant information. Another danger: It may heighten the technical dependence of third-world countries on the West. Other questions loom:

* Will the use of new breeds of livestock turn valuable cropland into grazing grounds?

* Will corporate research be dominated by commercial interests at the expense of developing countries?

* Will technical information be available to them?

* Might the third world become a testing ground for humanly engineered bacteria banned elsewhere?

Biotechnology programs are under way in India, Brazil, Argentina, and the Philippines. But experts say probably fewer than a dozen bioengineering firms exist in the third world. The limitations: lack of money and technical expertise , and cultural resistance to the idea that they can tackle complex technologies.

Still, Dr. Quintero, for one, believes low-income nations can make a mark. But to do this, he thinks countries will have to focus their research. Mexico, for instance, will stress the production of single cell protein for livestock feed - an area tailored to its needs.

''We have a saying in Mexico,'' says the bewhiskered scientist. ''Chances that go by your hands never return. I feel we have a chance in our hands now.''

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