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History of the Term Biotechnology: K.

Ereky & his Contribution



M.G. Fri (1,2,3,4), R. Bud (5) and P.U. Kralovnszky (6)

(1) Agricultural Biotechnology Center, Szent-Gyrgyi A. u. 4, Gdll, Hungary, H-2100;

(2) Embrapa Semi-rido, Petrolina-PE, Brazil; (3) Agroinvest Co. Ltd., Budapest,
Hungary; (4) CODEVASDF (Braslia- DF, Brazil) (5) The Science Museum, London SW7
2DD, United Kingdom; (6) Radvny u. 20, Budapest, Hungary, H-1118.
e-mail: or

Keywords: Kroly Ereky; Father of the term biotechnology; History of biotechnology;

Biotechnology in horticulture; Hungary; Brazil; Developing countries


In the final years of the 19th century and the first decades of the next, research at the
interface of biology, industrial technology and philosophy progressed considerably. It
seemed to scientific and industrial entrepreneurs that sciences dealing with the biological
processes of living organisms such as biochemistry, physiology and later molecular
biology, were ready to be exploited technologically. By means of an international
collaboration, we have identified and analyzed forgotten publications of the Hungarian
engineer, Kroly (Karl) Ereky, who coined the term "biotechnology". In these papers we
have found interesting ideas as well as pioneer research projects and patents. They were
based on Erekys biotechnological doctrine which was related directly to the problem of the
agrarian reform, an urgent problem of the period around World War 1 (1914/1920). Many
continue to have a resonance in our time. It was Erekys strong conviction that the
accomplishment of land reform, together with the conscious application of agricultural
biotechnology would benefit the food supply of humanity through reasonable use of natural
resources of our planet. To face this great and continuing challenge to mankind, Ereky
proposed a stable solution more than eighty years ago.

Kroly Ereky, The Founding Father of Biotechnology

During the first few decades after its emergence, the leaders of the "old
biotechnology, were engineers and technicians. They worked mainly in the specialized
industrial plants associated with large scale production (breweries, wineries, tanneries,
leather processing, canneries, sugar factories, and otherwise in the production of starch,
yeast, alcohol, meat, milk and vegetable oil, etc.). From the beginning of the 20th century,
in some centers of Europe and in the USA, specialized agricultural engineers started to
organize the improvement of agricultural techniques. The mechanization of soil tillage,
processes of cultivation, harvesting, transport and preservation, at the same time, use of
chemical fertilizers, animal and plant breeding and many other new revolutionary
technologies helped to replace the traditional agricultural production systems (livestock
raising, cultivation of cereals, horticulture, etc.). Among the most influential pioneers of the
beginning of the biotechnology, we can find the Danish microbiologist, Orla-Jensen, the
Hungarian engineer-economist-politician, Kroly Ereky (Karl Ereky, in German), the
Hungarian philosopher-botanist, Raoul H. Franc, the Russian-Jewish migr biochemist-
politician, Chaim Weizmann, as well as two English biologists, Patrick Geddes and J.B.S.

The contributions of Ereky are of key importance for several reasons. His classic work,
"Biotechnologie" appeared in Berlin in 1919 (Figure 1.), and defined the new discipline
(Bud, 1989; Figure 2.). It was reviewed in prominent German journals by distinguished
scientists who appreciated its significance: a review in Die Naturwissenchaften, a general
scientific periodical review, praised Ereky's attempt to lay the foundation of biotechnology,
the new science. However, the name of Ereky and his contemporaries were ignored by the
posterity, until the publication of the first summary of the general history of biotechnology
(Bud, 1993; Figures 3.-6.).

The investigations of the available historical sources on biotechnology have been

continued. In 1998 and 1999 we discovered more of Erekys publications, patents,
documents in technical libraries, agricultural book collections and in the databases of the
Hungarian Patent Office (HPO, Budapest, Hungary). Among these, there are papers, books
and patents that belong directly to the sphere of biotechnology. The objective of this work
was to accomplish a detailed analysis of the contribution of Ereky and reconstruct an image
of Ereky to enrich the general history of biotechnology.

Erekys coinage of the word "biotechnology" (Figure 7.) in 1917, was no mere grammatical
eccentricity: he would spend a lifetime giving substance to his vision of a new era of
technology based upon biochemistry (Bud, 1993). After the recovering and analysis of his
forgotten pioneer studies Ereky was considered as the "founding father of biotechnology"
(Fri et al, 2001).

The Principal Ideas of the Agrarian Reformer Ereky and His Testaments

As a technical engineer, Ereky elaborated his biotechnological theory between 1909

and 1919, in the Hungarian capital, Budapest. The people of Central Europe were living
through one of the deepest political and economical crises of their history. Erekys
professional activities were above all economic, political and technical studies intended to
underpin ambitious practical schemes which addressed the increasing problems of the
public food supply of his country and of the world. Ereky had been perceptive in his broad
conception of the era of biotechnology. He built up his theses with philosophical care to
create a vision which is recognisable (Figure 7.) even in modern conceptions of
biotechnology (Fri et al., 2001;.
In the area of the land reform, his questions were the following:

(1) How could the increasing misery of food shortage be cured ?;

(2) How could the relative technological retardation of agriculture and the
backwardness of rural population living only from agriculture be overcome ?;

(3) How could the great difference between the level of development of the
agricultural production and of the technical industries (electrical industry, machine
tools, industrial processing of foods) be eliminated ?;

(4) How could the irrational, uneconomical practice of the land cultivation be
improved ?;

(5) How could the discoveries of natural sciences be applied to increase the efficiency
modern agricultural production, and what would be the future ?;

(6) How could new and appropriate economical conditions for food production at a
competitive industrial level be established ?

(7) How could the cultural development of rural populations be promoted and how
their life quality improved ?

Ereky believed that the most appropriate cure for the growing problems of nutrition
should be a new, global agricultural-technological doctrine based on the most advanced
results of science. At the heart of many of his ideas was a repeated question: how will
mankind enter the new age of biochemistry? Among his main concerns were economic
and, political activities as well as projects for the development of large-scale agriculture
(Bud, 1993; Fri et al., 2001).

The most important components of his proposed agrarian / biotechnological reform

were the following:

(1) Reorganize the family-based agricultural farming units to larger-size enterprises;

(2) Help the poor peasant, who still applies old procedures, with modern, competitive
techniques and equipment;

(3) Transform the members of this class to modern entrepreneurs, employees,

organized workers, to assure a higher living standard, better health and income;

(4) Provide food for the whole mankind in due abundance through procedures of
biotechnology, i.e., by means of intense, industrial-scale production of meat, fat,
milk, eggs, vegetable proteins and vitamins. Ereky defined in detail the criteria for
biotechnology-based industrialized agriculture producing food of his time;
(5) Establishment of highly specialized, intense animal husbandry, livestock raising
farms based on economical considerations, plant and animal physiology;

(6) Industrial scale production of new biotechnological products, like concentrated

proteins of high nutritional value, vitamins, etc. by means of scientifically
optimized extraction processes from green leaves of cultivated plants (leaf
proteins), required by the modern animal husbandry, as well as for human

The following quotation from his book Biotechnologie still has a significance to societies
in the 21st century:

It is necessary to reorganize food means of natural sciences.

If...the farmer, the physiologist and the biochemist will control the production of
food, and if they open up the treasures of nature, in that case it might promote the
prosperity of mankind at inconceivable dimensions, which the posterity will recall
as the beginning of a new era of abundance. To create this biochemical age a
matter of decision..." (Ereky, 1919).

Plant Physiology, as the Theory of the Agriculture in the XXth Century

Among the first branches of agriculture to fulfil Erekys vision was horticultural
production. It was being promoted at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, as a key area of
applied science in the classics of botany. Thus the botanist, the Austrian Hans Molich,
entitled his popular book "Plant physiology as the theory of horticulture".

Two contemporaries of Ereky, at the eve of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Austrian
Goldscheid and the Hungarian Raoul H. Franc founded the so-called psychobiological
schools, which, by independent means, began to popularize their ideas about biotcnics",
in many parts of Europe. Like Ereky, and Orla-Jensen, Franc was not just a neo-
Lamarkian intellectual thinker. At the turn of the 20th century, he was a professor of the
Agricultural Academy of Magyar-vr, in Hungary. Appropriately, the distinguished
Hungarian-German botanist, the founding father of the plant tissue culture, Gottlieb
Haberlandt had been born and lived nearby until his fifteenth year, and F. Haberlandt, his
father, had also been professor of botany there. Franc took out two patents for biohumus
production of horticultural purpose and he set up a commercial biotechnical farm in
Austria. In one of his famous books he, affirms the following spiritual sentence that is
almost the same as Ereky wrote earlier:

I felt clearly that I was facing one of the largest challenges of the mankind.
Biotechniques will transform our whole civilization" (Franc, 1943, cit. Holl and
Kralovnszky, 2000).

Biotechnology as the Practice in the Agriculture of the XXIst Century

After more than six decades of research, by the early 1960ies, several areas of the
modern horticulture became leaders in the application of plant biotechnology
(micropropagation of ornamental plants, vegetables, medicinal and aromatic plants, grape,
fruit species, etc).

Adapting Molichs statement, it seems to be true that nowadays the "biotechnology is one
of the practices of horticulture. The main areas of the horticultural biotechnology are in
vitro cell and tissue culture (micropropagation, embryo culture, anther and microspore
culture, etc.), and molecular genetics, e.g., genetic transformation, and the use of molecular
markers. Apart from commercial micropropagation, the real size of this small biological
industry is not known exactly; however, most of the procedures are firmly integrated into
the production and development processes. The cultivated area of the first genetically
modified vegetable species, the industrial tomato reached 60,000 ha, worldwide, in 1998.
Before the large scale commercial application of transgenic offspring of horticultural crops,
they should be the subject of several rigorous phases of investigation (tomato, potato,
Brassicas, eggplant, bell pepper, lettuce, melon, pea, bean, carrot, pumpkin, apple, apricot,
plum, peach, strawberry, papaya, banana, etc.).

In the context of the current intense worldwide debate the words of Ereky, who
commented the future of R & D in 1917 still have relevance:

"With reference to the improvement of the production, therefore, lets say about
sugar, wheat or aluminium, in all cases the way of development is that the natural
sciences define the conditions of more efficient (the surplus) production and, soon
after, they elaborate the methods of the cheaper production." (Ereky, 1917)

During the last two decades, molecular biology has left the confines of the basic
research laboratory and has been applied to the genetic improvement of plants used in
commercial production in most of the industrialized countries. In several areas of Europe,
the USA and in some developing countries where horticulture is already well developed,
horticultural biotechnology has already entered, or elsewhere might enter, an application
phase. There relatively high investments will give a return to growers if the quality and/or
the amount of products obtained through the new biotech methods enable higher profit
and/or provide better positions for their goods on the market among the competitors In
these regions, an intense development of new type of partnership-based information
exchange can be observed among the public R & D centers, universities and the private
sector. The horticultural biotech industry is also showing a strong tendency to increase its
regional concentration. Many companies and universitieis have set up, either together with
others, or alone, biotech research units. This can be observed in most of the traditional
horticultural production centers, e.g., in Holland, around Aalsmeer, Wageningen, in
Belgium, around Gent, in Israel, around Rehovot, in France, around Anger, Montfavet, in
Italy, around Bologna, Cesena, in the USA in some places in California, among others.

The same tendencies can be observed, if to a smaller degree, in some ex-communist

countries, e.g., in Poland, around Skierniewice, in Hungary, around Budapest, and in the
Czech Republic, around Olomouc. In those countries, where the market based economy is
not solid, or it is in some phase of transition, the process is governed, directly or indirectly
by local traditions of R&D activity and state politics.

At the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries, the competitiveness of R & D activities and
the practical use of biological technology of horticultural crops vary considerably among
developing countries. There are developing countries in the ten to fifteen biggest economies
of the word, where this level reaches that of developed countries and, in some areas, by
some quantitative indexes, even exceeds them. In China, as one of the pioneers of the
horticulture of the human civilization, for instance, many protocols were already integrated
at high level into practice, since about the mid 1980s (DH varieties of bell pepper,
transgenic vegetables, etc.). In India, where the first protocol of anther culture was born
almost forty years ago, the commercial micropropagation became a considerable factor of
the international trade, due to favourable economical and local political coincidence, from
the beginning of the 90ies. On the other side of the planet, in most of the countries of Latin
America and the Caribbean, the horticultural biotechnology is beginning to strengthen, and
certainly will attain a quite considerable level in the first decade of the 21st century.

At the present time, according to the databank of the regional REDBIO/FAO biotech
network, 539 plant biotech laboratories in 23 countries are registered with approximately
1,800 scientists (Izquierdo and Riva, 2000). In this area, the application of
micropropagation is more and more an indispensable factor and has already showed its
advantage in the case of some economically important crops like banana, pineapple, garlic,
table grapes and ornamental plants, etc. (Ecuador, Cuba, Chile, Colombia, Argentina,
Brazil). Although micropropagation has had a very significant impact in some areas of
these countries, the level of procedures is still less competitive and, the quality of the final
product is sometimes weak (lack of the indexing, low efficiency of plant protection, high
level of somaclonal variations, etc.). In many countries of Asia, South America and Africa,
the level of the commercial production of horticultural plants is low; and, it is difficult to
introduce modern technologies into the local market. In these regions, the organization of
well managed internationally added special packages of actions, together with government
decisions seem to be indispensable. If in these countries we could support the emergence of
stronger horticultural regions, centers, horticultural biotechnology could win a place during
the second decade of the 21st century.

The Possible Role of the Biotechnology in the New Green Revolutions

The concept of "Doubly Green Revolution" of Conway (2000) can be considered as

one of the global models of food provisioning of the poor and marginalised populations.
Biotechnology-based modern horticulture might have a very high impact in this context.
The increase of the yield of horticultural species through more sustainable forms could be a
crucial factor in all of the developing countries. The future of more resistant fruits and
vegetables to diseases and pests, in combination with higher nutritional value, will have a
larger impact in those areas, where the provisioning of iron, vitamin A and protein is still
deficient in the diet, due to various reasons. This trend is more likely in those countries,
where the human nutrition chain is poorly balanced (i.e. excessive consumption of grain
cereals, as rice and corn). (Figure 8.)
The new "golden rice" obtained through genetic transformation (Ye et al, 2000) is a
good example, that is capable to produce iron and beta-carotene in the seeds, and might be
a very promising way for future development. It has to be pointed out here that the
appropriate consumption of vegetable and fruits rich in these substances in "original form"
(Brassicas, eggplant, bell pepper, papaya, etc.) represents another alternative. We have
encountered impressive initiatives in some countries of Asia and South America, e.g. in
China, Thailand and Brazil, where the government has encouraged this progress, through
strong administrative supports. However, in these regions, besides the genetic engineering,
as well as the molecular mapping, the "traditional" tissue culture methods,
micropropagation, embryo culture, anther culture, interspecific hybridization, are still less
explored in the process of genetic improvement of local varieties.

On the other hand, the yield of the traditional varieties tends to be low. At the present
time, one of the most typical problems in the tropical developing countries is the weak level
of natural resistance/tolerance of the commercially available fruits and vegetable varieties
to biotic and abiotic damages. Therefore, without appropriate application of the integrated
pest management, these countries cannot supply their population with sufficient quantity of
horticultural products. In Brazil, for instance, the industrial tomato grower uses about 40 kg
of active ingredient per hectare of agrochemical compounds for plant protection per
growing cycle for the control of pests, diseases and weeds. This amount exceeds by a
factors of a hundred the level used on corn (Table 1). It is known, that in some tropical,
subtropical and semi-arid regions the production of table grapes is showing very
convincing quantitative and qualitative increase (India, Northeast of Brazil, Chile, South
Africa). In these places, the integrated production based on perfect disease and pest
management is one of the most crucial factors regarding the quality of the final products.
Therefore, without biotechnology, among many other appropriate biological and chemical
procedures, it is difficult to imagine how economies will survive against international
competition (A. Lakatos, 2000; J. V. Possingham, 1998, personal communications). Taking
into consideration these typical ecological circumstances given at the majority of tropical
and subtropical developing countries, we think that the new biotechnological methods
might be important. They could guarantee higher yield in stable level, improve the quality,
reduce the cost, and increase the aggregated value of the product, without damaging the

One of the newest alternatives could be the so called "Transplastomic technology"

(Maliga, 1999). Through such environment saving techniques of molecular genetics in the
future we could imagine the application of GMO horticultural plants near the areas of their
genetic origin, without any harmful side effects, as, for example, to enhance the genetic
pollution of the nature. However, we think that the traditions of these countries also have to
be considered. In poor countries of the developing world, where the flavors of
"international style" dont dominate, in other words, where the consumers eat their own
traditional palates of the site, we have to protect this valuable tradition with the largest
possible efficiency through inter-institutional cooperation. For example, more productive,
better varieties through integration of the associations of local growers, etc. have to be
developed. This practice could assure the best form of preservation of the genetic resources
of the given horticultural species (China, India, Mexico, South America, Africa, etc.). To
reach this objective, it would be necessary to introduce better national and international
common measures (Borlaug, 1997). In such areas and under the sponsorship of
international and national institutions, we think the organization of "Unit of Applied
Biotechnology Missions"(UABM) might be a viable alternative. In those nuclei, a group of
trained, "adopted" foreign scientists, together with local partners, could accomplish
temporary services of 4 to 5 years (elaboration of projects, leading R&D works, conduct
education, organize a training course, etc.). We already met some successes of this type in
Africa and in Latin America. One of them is the agricultural scientific exchange program
established between the Brazilian and Hungarian Gouvernments that has already lasted
almost twenty years. This partnership has incorporated the biotechnology of horticultural
plants since 1990.

A UABM program was implanted in the heart of the semiarid region of Northeast
Brazil through the integration of foreign horticultural biotech scientists. Since 1993, they
have been participating in the R & D efforts of the local tropical fruit and vegetable species
(micropropagation of tropical fruits, like bananas, virus-free table & wine grapes, nursery,
cell and tissue culture and genetic transformation of vegetable crops, i.e. eggplant,
industrial tomato, bell peppers, production of double haploids by anther culture, embryo
rescue, etc.). In this region, the total horticulture surface comprises one hundred thousand
km2. Among its nine big irrigation plateaus, the size of the agribusiness around the cities of
Petrolina and Juazeiro already reached 2 billion US$ in 1998 and in this year the table
grape export to Europe was 1.2 million boxes. In the past, the Brazilian Northeast was only
known as a place of poverty and hunger. Today, the irrigated orchards bring wealth,
prosperity and employment for the former poor and excluded rural population and are
attracting more and more foreign and national capital investments. Among other factors of
this success, biotechnology could be a powerful means to guarantee the continuity of this
prosperity. The consultants of UABM have indispensable tasks exactly at this phase.
According to the former experiences obtained in this semiarid tropical climate, the use of
virus-free nursery material for table grape growing is one of the factors of key importance.
There are many farms where that superior material was planted. Here, in combination with
appropriate plant treatments, the productivity (cv. Italy) can reach about 80 to 90 tons a
year (in two harvests per year), 70% of it are exported to European markets. Those farmers,
who planted traditional, not indexed and not virus-free propagation materials, never
produce above 50 tons a year (in two yields/year), and the quality is also inferior. It is well
known that Thai, Colombian, Indian ornamentals, orchids, cut flowers are transported to
the international market by air. This is already a reality for the Brazilian seedless table
grape growers of the So Francisco river valley. On the basis of these positive examples,
we are strongly convinced that it could improve the quality of life of the excluded people of
the developing world through correct measures. Therefore, in the success of a true type
"Doubly Green Revolution", the biotechnology of horticultural plants will have an essential
impact (Figures 9.-10.).

Developing Country, Rich in Biodiversity - Rich Country, Poor in Biodiversity:


It is known that the larger biodiversity, as well as the most vulnerable ecosystems of the
planet, concentrate in the territories of the tropical and subtropical developing countries. In
some places, the current tendencies are irreversible deforestation, the illegal international
trade of wild plant and animal species, uncontrolled extraction of natural products, etc, that
are very worrying not only for the governments, environmentalists, green movement
activists, but for all of us. Another, however, more "silent" form of the exploration of the
wealth of the tropical forests is the "bio-piracy", that means the commercialization of by-
products obtained from the basis of substances developed by the nature during thousands of
years. The application of "molecular ecology", that might be a powerful biotechnological
tool in the preservation of the biosphere, also could have a very promising future in the
hand of the developing countries. It has been calculated that almost one fourth of the
medicines and other natural pharmaceutical products have their origin in those forests.
Among others, the tropical rain forests are the main sources of these substances. The size of
the world market of the biotech pharmaceutical products is around 500 billion dollars.

The PROBEM project (Brazilian Program of Molecular Ecology) of the Brazilian

Government is accomplishing the implantation of a biotechnological center in the heart of
the largest biological reserve of the planet, in the Amazonian basin, at Manaus (Cardoso,
1998). According to this plan, there a new project called "Bioamaznia" will take place on
12 000 m2 area, where 24 top laboratories for specialized research teams led by
internationally recognized scientists will be established. Under broad spectrum of national
and international partnership, the Brazilian ABC - Amazonian Biotechnology Center will
have the primary goal to explore the natural wealth of this area without devastating forests,
not to disturb the living systems. They will look for and they will just extract bioactive
molecules, useful for the medicine, like lifestyle drugs, for agriculture, like bio-pesticides,
and for many other purposes (body care products, fragrances, and cosmetics). It is also
expected that the industrialization of this national wealth of nature will give considerable
support to the economy, but also enable the preservation of the environment.

We think that such ambitious projects of great size based on molecular biology might be
a good model for other tropical areas, to explore their natural wealth in a correct, ecological
and biotechnological way.


Kroly Ereky drew upon a sophisticated philosophy of technology. Erekys concept

has permeated the world, but he himself was left to die in obscurity (Figures 9.-10.). Ereky
however did not just innovate, he had also developed and promoted a coherent philosophy
linking these pioneering possibilities, expressed by the word biotechnology. His
philosophy was influential and his belief that biotechnology "increases the efficiency of
organic substance production of agriculture on the level of an industrial manufacture, and
gives potent assistance to the struggle for life of mankind" might seem overblown rather
than bizarre (Fri et al, 2001).

When we look for the appropriate alternatives in the subject of the feeding of the next
generations, there is still a spiritual message of Ereky from 1916 for us that deserves
"Respected Gentlemen ! I want to stress that take me seriously...The change of the
food production system will frustrate ideologies, theories of political orientation,
social classes, economical institutions, therefore, I know that in partial questions
everybody will not agree with my program, but, if my opponents want to improve
humanity's fortune in the same way of unbreakable trust as I, we will find
concordance easily in the details..."


This project was granted by AGROINVEST Ltd., (Budapest, Hungary); CODEVASF

(Braslia-DF, Brazil); Embrapa Semi-rido (Semi-Arid Agricultural Research Centre,
Patrolina-PE, Brazil); Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture and Provisioning (Braslia-DF,
Brazil) and Hungarian Ministry of Agriculture and Regional Development (Budapest,


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Bud, R. (1993): The uses of life. A history of biotechnology. Cambridge University Press.
Cardoso, F.H. (1998): Avana Brasil. Mais 4 ano de Desenvolvimento para Todos.
Proposta de Governo Fernando Henrique Presidente. Brazil. 332p.;
Conway, G. (2000): The Doubly Green Revolution: Food for All in the Twenty-First
Century. Comstock Pub. Assoc. 360p;
Ereky, K. (1919): Biotechnologie der Fleisch-, Fett- und Milcherzeugung im
landwirtschaftlichen Grosbetriebe. Verlag Paul Parey, Berlin. 84p;
Holl, J. and Kralovnszky, U.P. (2000): Biotechnology in Hungary. In: Fiechter, A. (ed.),
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America and the Caribbean. Review article. EJB Electronic Journal of Biotechnology,
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solving the Ereky enigma. Scientific American (submitted for publication);
Ye, X.D., Al-Babili, S., Klti, A., Zhang, J., Beyer, P. and Potrykus, I. (2000): Engineering
the complete provitamin A (beta-carotene) biosynthetic pathway into (carotenoid-free)
rice endosperm. Science (submitted for publication).
Table 1:




Kg/ha Index (Corn = 1)
Horticultural Table grapes 59-682 147-170
plants Tomato 39,5 98,7
Potato 21,8 54,5
Orange 12,2 30,5
Industrial plants Cotton 2,4 6,0
Sugar-cane 1,6 4,0
Soybean 0,9 2,2
Corn 0,4 1,0
1: Campanhola et al., 1998. In: Racionalizacion del uso de pesticidas en el Cono Sur, Subprograma recursos
naturales y sostenibilidad agricola, IICA PROCISUR, Montevideo, Uruguay, p.43-49. (modified);
2: A. Lakatos, 2000, personal communication)