The biotechnology tool of marker-assisted selection (MAS) has
raised high expectations for increasing genetic progress through
breeding. Some experts have even argued that the application of
MAS could “revolutionize” the way varieties and breeding
stock are developed.
In a new comprehensive assessment (Marker-Assisted Selection,
Rome 2007), FAO emphasizes that MAS has enormous potential but
notes that the technology has not yet delivered its expected benefits
to farmers in developing countries. Shivaji Pandey, Chairperson
of the FAO Working Group on Biotechnology, gives his view on MAS.
What is marker-assisted selection (MAS)?
MAS is a biotechnology tool that could greatly accelerate conventional
breeding of crops, livestock, farmed fish and trees. Scientists
are using MAS to genetically improve certain characteristics or
traits (productivity, disease resistance, quality etc.) that are
important for farmers. MAS makes it possible to select traits with
greater accuracy and to develop a new variety quicker than in the
What is the difference between MAS and genetically modified organisms
MAS and genetic modification are different biotechnologies. MAS
allows desirable genes to be "marked" or tagged so they
can be selected within the breeding population, while GMOs are
the result of the transfer of a desirable gene or genes from one
species to another.
New plant varieties or improved animal breeds resulting from MAS
do not require a specific legislative framework. The complicated
approval process required for GMOs does not apply for MAS - its
costs of release are therefore lower.
In addition, the technology is not controversial so there is no
problem with public acceptance. Indeed, one of the drawbacks of
the intense debate that has taken place in recent years over the
benefits and risks of GMOs is that it has overshadowed the potential
role that other, non-GMO, biotechnologies, such as MAS, may play
for food and agriculture.
What is the potential of MAS?
Since MAS first became a practical reality about 20 years ago,
it has now gone past the research and development stage and is
being applied in the field. For example, it is currently being
used in dairy cattle breeding programmes in France and Germany,
and rice varieties with improved bacterial blight resistance have
being developed using MAS approaches and released in India and
However, initial enthusiasm and optimism have been tempered by
the realization that it is more difficult and takes longer than
originally thought before genetic improvement of traits using MAS
can be realized. The considerable resources invested in this technology
have been mainly concentrated in the industrialized world, and
MAS has not yet delivered its expected benefits to farmers in developing
What are the costs associated with MAS?
MAS requires quite a sophisticated infrastructure and considerable
investments: including specialized equipment, electricity, laboratory
design and management, data handling and statistics, and Internet
connectivity. Efficient and effective application of MAS also requires
well-qualified staff and good funding. It should therefore be used
where there is a clear advantage over traditional selection techniques.
What are the constraints countries are facing applying MAS?
Apart from the investments required, a serious constraint that
most countries face in applying MAS is the lack of a national policy
on science and technology and on biotechnology. This is essential
to provide guidance on the strategic planning, monitoring and evaluation
of biotechnologies, including MAS, for food and agriculture. In
addition, MAS should only be applied when well-structured breeding
programmes are already in place, which is often not the case in
many developing countries.
How could the application of MAS contribute to hunger and poverty
Most of the around 820 million hungry people in developing countries
live in rural areas where people’s livelihoods depend on
agriculture. This means that investing in agriculture, and more
broadly in rural development, must be at the heart of any strategy
for hunger and poverty reduction. While the measures needed certainly
go well beyond the issue of producing more food and agricultural
products, achieving greater yields and higher value products from
the same plot of land or enterprise, through, for example, appropriate
application of technologies such as MAS, must be a key ingredient
for the great majority of developing countries.
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