The direct applications of biotechnology in agriculture conveniently fall into two distinct categories:
(1) improvements to existing livestock and crops, and (2) development of entirely new uses for plants and animals
which will enable the farmer to address new markets. Examples in the first category (improvements) include the now
commonly used ‘input traits’ such as crops with enhanced resistance to insect attack and improved weed control.
‘Output traits’ such as improved fruit quality, naturally colored cotton etc. are anticipated soon. ‘Molecular
farming’ is the term commonly applied to the second category (new uses for plants and animals). Although it is not
yet routinely practiced commercially, interest and investment in molecular farming with plants and animals is
accelerating rapidly, and commercialization seems imminent.
The introduction of genes into plants like tobacco, corn, soybeans, alfalfa etc. to enable them to produce and
accumulate new substances has been possible for many years. An abundance of scientific literature documents the
successful production in tobacco and other plants of protein pharmaceuticals, vaccines and other
polymers, food ingredients, etc. A variety of technologies have been developed to make these ‘plant factory’ systems
possible, and the leading commercial research is now focused on optimizing the production systems and post-harvest
bioprocessing aspects to the required standards (e.g. FDA specifications for human pharmaceuticals). (For more
information on plant molecular farming, especially with tobacco, visit
The same general concept is also feasible with animal systems. Companies have been formed to commercialize the use
of chicken eggs, goat milk, and insect larvae for this purpose, for example. The production of a variety of
pharmaceutical and other proteins has been demonstrated. As with the plant systems, current commercial research and
development also focuses on optimization of the overall scheme, including product purification and quality assurance.
To appreciate the need for these new applications of plants and animals it is important to understand the essential
requirement for biological systems in order to produce biological products. Protein medicinals like insulin and
antibodies, enzymes for food processing and industrial applications, and certain environmentally ‘friendly’ polymers
are all natural products of living things whose production by synthetic chemistry is often prohibitively expensive if
not impossible. Economical manufacturing of these valuable biological substances must, of necessity, use biological
systems. For a quarter of a century genetically engineered bacteria have been used highly successfully as the
production ‘hosts’ for many medicinal proteins (insulin, growth hormone etc.) and a wide variety of enzymes. More
recently, other microbial systems and cultured animal cells have contributed also. The use of transgenic plants and
animals in addition to these fermentation-type approaches is the next logical continuation in the development of more
environmentally compatible, more effective, biological products.
While the various animal and plant molecular farming strategies might be thought of as competitive with each other,
it seems more likely that certain products will be better suited to particular production systems. For example,
cheap and very-large-scale production will be necessary for biodegradable plastics. For this purpose, extensive
acreages (perhaps amounting to millions of acres) of crop plants such as tobacco, soybean etc. seem appropriate. In
contrast, a medical product needed in extremely high purity to treat a very rare human disease condition might
require ‘contained’ production such as would be provided by transgenic animals or plants maintained indoors in
exceptionally clean environments. In addition to such product-specific requirements, molecular farming systems will
also be influenced by safety and environmental regulations governing the product, the process, and the transgenic
plant or animal concerned. Researchers developing molecular farming strategies recognize that commercial success
depends just as much on these aspects as on overall cost-competitiveness.
Molecular farming has been technically possible with plants for more than ten years, and with animals for at least
half that time. Yet, commercial deployment of these technologies thus far has been slow. There are several reasons
for this, such as the more direct path to market for crop input traits like herbicide tolerance. However, the
prevailing opinion is that this situation is about to change dramatically as a result of remarkable new ‘end-user’
interest. Molecular farming has been promoted to-date largely by the companies which own the technology, and demand
from the companies that would use the resulting products (‘end-users’) has been limited. However, in regard to
protein medicinals for example, biotechnology is making possible a whole new series of products, some of which
(antibodies, for example) will be administered in much higher doses than existing protein drugs. Some analysts
predict that in comparison with the typical kilogram-scale annual production of a purified protein medicinal some of
these anticipated new products could be required in metric tons per year. These kinds of quantities, and the expected
multiplicity of new products, likely exceed the capability of expensive fermentation systems by a considerable margin.
As a result, contract drug manufacturing organizations are taking new interest in plant and animal molecular farming
systems. And once new products begin to appear in the market place from such systems we can expect a further increase
If the emergence of significant new markets for novel products from plant and animal molecular farming seems likely
in the next few years, what might this mean for the farmer? Perhaps the most exciting prospect is that of a totally
new business opportunity. As an example, consider the tobacco farmer looking for alternatives to supplement declining
demand for the traditional tobacco crop. Switching some production acreage to other conventional crops, or to
niche-market ‘value-added’ opportunities (for example, ‘organic’ vegetables etc.) replaces a quota-based production
system with a widely competitive situation. In contrast, molecular farming has the potential to create a new,
dedicated business opportunity for farmers over the market lifetime of each particular product. In practice, much
will depend on the product itself and the production system being used. Some products may require large acreages of
crops grown in the open-field environment, benefiting many growers. Others may require installation of glasshouse
facilities. And animal-based systems may be managed somewhat differently from today’s livestock, poultry etc.
production. The next few years are likely to be the most interesting ones yet for molecular farming, as these
aspects are developed and commercial production begins on a significant scale.