ADVANCES in biotechnology could eventually throw millions of farmers in developing nations out of work as Western and Japanese laboratories begin ``growing'' or altering some of the same crops these farmers now export. But this could also force African and other poor countries to expand production of little-used traditional crops, and to develop new local industries to compensate for the loss of agricultural exports.
That is the dual threat and challenge to developing nations as rapid progress is made in plant biotechnology, some African and Western analysts say. The advantages of such research to the developed nations are twofold: less uncertainty of supply and quality due to changes in weather; less haggling with producers over prices that may be fixed by cartels.
But so far, little notice has been taken of the risks biotechnology pose to developing nations. The advances are likely to hit hardest in Africa, because of its heavy dependency on agricultural exports.
The idea of ``factory farms'' - laboratories producing plants from cells in test tubes instead of seeds - still seems like science fiction to many people in both developed and developing nations. But it is not, Western and some African specialists argue.
``Between five and 10 years from now we'll start seeing biotechnology-based products being widely marketed,'' says Kenya's Calestous Juma, Executive Director of the African Center for Technology Studies (ACTS) in Nairobi.
Alan Goldhammer, director of technical affairs for the Industrial Biotechnology Association in Washington, says the process of reproducing or altering plant cells in laboratories is ``still in the research stage.''
While Dr. Juma and Kenyan geneticist John Marango say the research is likely to lead to laboratory production even of such major third-world crops as coffee, Dr. Goldhammer says this is not likely to happen within the next 25 years, ``if then,'' due to their cell complexity.
However, both Goldhammer and Juma note that biotechnological research on vanilla and sugar is already affecting farming in the developing world.
Several US companies are reported to be on the verge of commercially producing vanilla from tissue culture or cells, eliminating the need for harvesting vanilla beans. While consistency of price and supply may be good news for consumers, it puts in doubt the livelihood of some 70,000 vanilla bean farmers in Madagascar, an island off the east coast of Africa which accounts for about three-fourths of the world's vanilla bean production.
Since 1983, a Japanese firm has been producing from cells a pigment known as shikonin, used in cosmetics. Traditionally, shikonin was grown in Korea and China.
Research is under way in the US, Europe, and Japan on the laboratory production of cocoa - a major African and Brazilian crop. There has been little success so far.
A second biotechnology trend is seen in the promising advances made in developing high-yield cocoa varieties. These, combined with improved cropping practices, could raise yields more than 700 percent, experts say.
This, too, poses a major threat to Africa, according to analysts. Cary Fowler, of the Rural Advancement Fund, a research organization in North Carolina, warns that improved varieties of cocoa would need costly fertilizers and chemical sprays. Cocoa production would then likely shift from the small farmers of Africa to the relatively larger and wealthier ones in countries like Brazil and Malaysia.
A third trend affecting developing countries is product substitution. Until 1984, Sudan was the world's main producer of gum arabic, used in food processing. But a drought and civil war led to a sharp decline in its production. Western laboratories developed substitutes and eliminated much of the dependence on Sudan.
Many US firms, including soft drink manufacturers, have turned from sugar to corn syrup as a sweetener. This sliced down Philippine export earnings from sugar by 40 percent between 1980 and 1984. Further losses of revenue - and farm jobs - may lie ahead as researchers examine thaumatin, a protein that is over a thousand times sweeter than sugar.
At a recent forum organized here by Juma, Kenyan scientists suggested the country take a closer look at developing some of its traditional crops. Resurrecting such staples as the long, white potato could help fill the gap left by any crop whose production shifts from African farms to western laboratories.
But turning farmers toward substitute crops takes time and education, experts here stress. Resistance may result unless farmers are made aware of an impending drop in demand for their crop, says Juma. So, it is important for developing nations to begin close monitoring of trends in biotechnology that may affect their countries, he adds.
But, both Dr. Thomas and Dr. Marango see no substitute crop with the potential to fill the gap left if production of coffee in Kenya was ever shifted to Western laboratories. Coffee and tea account for about 60 percent of Kenya's foreign exchange earnings.
Juma sees another option. ``Instead of opposing this technology and being concerned about its negative consequences, we should use the same techniques in meeting the needs of our [African] population.''
Scientists working in Zimbabwe, says Juma, are reproducing tea cells derived originally from Malawian tea plants. This speeds up propagation and provides plants which are more disease-free, he says.
But Goldhammer points out that the process of plant cell production is very costly. Many poor nations would not be able to afford most of the emerging technology until further breakthroughs sharply reduce its cost.