Fall 1989 // Volume 27 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA7

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Biotechnology: Implications for Extension


Thomas J. Hoban
Extension Sociology Scientist
Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work
North Carolina State University-Raleigh

Biotechnology will have profound implications for agriculture, rural communities, and organizations, including Extension. Once available, biotechnologies should be adopted more rapidly than previous agricultural innovations for several reasons: farmers are more interested in new technologies, better channels of communication and technology transfer now exist, and improved information is being developed and disseminated before release of these technologies.1

Challenge of Biotechnology for Agriculture

Some forms of biotechnology could accelerate the trend toward fewer and larger farm operations.2 Certain groups of farmers receive a windfall from early adoption of innovations. Once introduced, most others are compelled to adopt the innovations to remain competitive. Farmers slow to adopt because they're not connected to local communication networks may be left further behind. As larger, more commercially successful farmers adopt new biotechnologies earlier, smaller-scale farmers will be at a further competitive disadvantage. Farmers will require better management skills to successfully integrate technological advances from a variety of fields.

Strategies for Innovative Extension Programs

A recent report by the National Research Council urges Extension to focus greater effort on transfer of biotechnology that's adaptable and profitable to American agriculture.3 Specialists and agents will need inservice education on biotechnology's applications and impacts. Extension must help integrate biotechnology into total farming systems.4

Extension can provide farmers with accurate, unbiased information on biotechnology. Agents can provide specialists and researchers with information on farmers' needs, as well as feedback on the effectiveness of new technologies. Extension can help ensure that researchers develop the most environmentally, socially, and economically sound technologies.

Extension may be asked to play an expanded role in conducting adaptive field research.5 New technologies often must be modified to fit diverse socioeconomic, climatic, and ecological conditions. Extension can help turn basic scientific advances into useful technologies for farmers by working closely with university scientists and industry. This will become increasingly important as land-grant universities (LGUs) focus more on basic research.

Evaluating the potential impacts of biotechnology will require interdisciplinary teamwork and closer cooperation between agricultural and social scientists. Collaboration with the private sector should also increase as industry and consultants assume greater roles in biotechnology development and transfer.

Public policy education is also needed, especially given the uncertain impacts of biotechnology. Extension can help educate the nonfarm public about biotechnology, which is concerned about possible effects on human health or environmental quality.6 People also worry about the ethical and socioeconomic impacts of biotechnology. Extension should be able to objectively present benefits and risks of biotechnologies, enabling people to make more informed decisions.

Public policies (especially regulation) will affect biotechnology. Extension can help policy makers better understand potential applications and impacts of biotechnology, as well as how regulations affect the development and use of new technologies.

Biotechnology will also affect Extension and the LGUs. Greater emphasis must be placed on new products from biotechnology. This will mean reorientation of our efforts, possibly at the expense of traditional areas. To gain needed resources for this new orientation, many LGUs will develop closer ties with industry, which raises concerns of LGU autonomy and free information flow.7

Large biotechnology companies may bypass LGUs, by releasing new products without prior notification of Extension. Consequently, we may be less able to provide our clientele with information on the latest innovations. Even now, some farmers no longer rely on the county agent's advice, but work directly with specialists, researchers, or commercial companies. For Extension to remain competitive in the "information marketplace," we must be ready to meet these and other challenges.

Conclusion: Maximizing Benefits

By being proactive and taking a leadership role in assessing and transferring biotechnology, Extension can maintain the confidence of our clientele and remain on the cutting edge of technology. As our clientele look to us for advice, we need to have answers to their increasingly sophisticated questions.

Just as Extension's educational efforts in biotechnology can influence the future of farming, biotechnology will also influence the future of Extension. Biotechnology has already generated controversy over ethical issues and environmental release of genetically altered organisms. Like all new technologies, biotechnologies will have both positive (intended) and negative (unintended) consequences. The challenge is to maximize the benefits, while minimizing negative impacts.


1. Darrell L. Hueth and Robert E. Just, "Policy Impacts of Agriculture Biotechnology," American Journal of Agricultural Economics, LXIX (May 1987), 426-31.

2. Office of Technology Assessment, Technology, Public Policy and the Changing Structure of American Agriculture (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1986).

3. Committee on a National Strategy for Biotechnology in Agriculture, National Research Council, Agricultural Biotechnology: Strategies for National Competitiveness (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1987).

4. Francis Wolek, "Extension and Biotechnology" (Paper presented at the conference on Agricultural Biotechnology and the Public, Raleigh, North Carolina, February 1988).

5. Phyllis B. Moses and Charles E. Hess, "Getting Biotech into the Field," Issues in Science and Technology, IV (Fall 1987), 35-41.

6. Susan Offutt and Fred Kuchler, "Biotechnology: Is Safety All That Matters?" Choices (Fourth Quarter 1987), pp. 12-15.

7. Frederick H. Buttel, "Biotechnology, Agriculture, and Rural America: Socioeconomics and Ehtical Issues" (Paper presented at Iowa State University Ag Bioethics Symposium, Ames, November 1987).