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Background document to Conference 8: November 13 - December 11, 2002

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    "What should be the role and focus of biotechnology in the agricultural research agendas of developing countries?"

    1. Introduction

    The second conference to be hosted in the year 2002 by the FAO Electronic Forum on Biotechnology in Food and Agriculture deals directly with a topic that has arisen on various occasions in previous conferences of the Forum - the role and focus that biotechnology should have in the agricultural research agendas in developing countries. By dedicating an entire conference to this theme we hope to encourage a useful and positive dialogue that will provide food for thought and be of assistance to policy makers in developing countries. The outcome of the conference will also be used in the preparation of The State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA) 2003, which is one of FAO's main publications, providing an annual report on current developments affecting world agriculture.

    2. Agricultural Research

    At the "World Food Summit: five years later", which took place on 10-13 June 2002 at FAO Headquarters, Rome, Italy and was attended by delegations from more than 180 countries, Heads of State and Government unanimously adopted the Declaration of the World Food Summit: Five Years Later. Among other things, the Declaration considered (in paragraph 25) agricultural research and biotechnology, stating "We call on the FAO, in conjunction with the CGIAR and other international research institutes, to advance agricultural research and research into new technologies, including biotechnology. The introduction of tried and tested new technologies including biotechnology should be accomplished in a safe manner and adapted to local conditions to help improve agricultural productivity in developing countries. We are committed to study, share and facilitate the responsible use of biotechnology in addressing development needs".

    The importance of agricultural research is clear when consideration is given to the very difficult challenges that farmers in developing countries must face in the coming decades. For example, Pardey and Beintema in a recent report (2001) from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) express this quite clearly: "Little land remains for the expansion of agricultural production (and some of the land, water, and other natural resources needed for agriculture are being degraded and diverted to other uses in other sectors), so crop and livestock yields must continue to increase for the decades ahead. They must then be maintained - at these much higher levels - for the foreseeable future against environmental, biological, and other factors that undermine past gains in production. Continued strong performance in research and innovation is needed to maintain a favorable food balance if, in addition to the 6 billion people we already have, we are to feed 3 billion more over the next half century".

    In the same report, Pardey and Beintema provide an overview of the status and key trends in global agricultural research. They estimate that investments in public agricultural research rose from $11.8 to $21.7 billion (in inflation-adjusted terms) from 1976 to 1995, although in some areas (e.g. Sub-Saharan Africa) growth in spending halted in the most recent years analysed (1991 to 1995). Considering the latest figures (circa 1995), a total of 47% of investments were made in developed countries while 53% went to developing countries, specifically to China (10%), Asia and Pacific, excluding China (21%), Latin America and the Caribbean (9%), the Middle East and North Africa (7%) and Sub-Saharan Africa (6%). The influence of individual countries was quite significant. Four countries (France, Germany, Japan and the United States) accounted for two-thirds of the spending in developed countries while three countries (Brazil, China and India) accounted for 44% of spending in developing countries.

    These public sector investments were, however, quite small when expressed as percentages of the agricultural Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and the percentages were lower in the developing than the developed world. Investments represented just 0.6 and 2.6% of the agricultural GDP in developing and developed countries respectively (i.e. for every $100 of agricultural output, developing countries invested $0.62 in public agricultural research and development). Investment per capita was also considerably lower in the developing world i.e. $2.5 versus $12 in developing and developed countries respectively, or $8.5 versus $594 spent per agricultural worker.

    In addition to publicly funded agricultural research, Pardey and Beintema estimate that funding from the private sector accounted for an additional $11.5 billion in the mid-1990's, representing roughly one-third of the global agriculture research investments. However, unlike public sector resources, these were invested almost exclusively (94%) in developed countries. As a consequence, just over half of all agricultural research carried out in developed countries was funded by the private sector whereas in developing countries, research was almost totally funded by the public sector.

    3. Agricultural Biotechnology Research

    Biotechnology is a collection of tools that can be applied to many areas of food and agriculture. The range of tools is very broad, as can be seen from the Background Documents to the first four conferences of this Forum, dedicated to the crop, forestry, animal and fishery sectors respectively. Some of the technologies may be applied to all these sectors as well as to agro-industry, such as the use of molecular DNA markers, gene manipulation and gene transfer. Others, instead, are more specific, such as vegetative reproduction (crops and forest trees), embryo transfer and freezing (livestock) or triploidisation and sex-reversal (fish).

    Some of the biotechnologies, in particular, offer tremendous potential to address real problems facing farmers in developing countries. For example, the area of genomics, allowing the identification and characterisation of individual genes influencing traits such as disease or stress resistance, growth rate or yield, promises to be of great value. The genetic material (genomes) of several hundred species, including mammals, plants, fish, bacteria and viruses, has already been sequenced or sequencing is in progress and the information generated from genomics studies in other fields, such as human medicine or basic science, may also be useful for the application of genomics to food and agriculture.

    There are no clear figures in the literature on the relative resources being invested by the various stakeholders in agricultural biotechnology research. The information that is available focuses primarily on the crop sector where it is clear that the vast majority (maybe 65-80%) of agricultural biotechnology research is carried out by the private sector in developed countries. For example, Byerlee and Fischer in a discussion paper from the World Bank (2000) compile some rough figures which give a general idea of the relative investments being made by the different players. The figures indicate that, annually, the private sector probably invests more than $1.5 billion, mostly in developed countries; the public research organisations and universities in developed countries invest up to $1.0 billion; the public sector national agricultural research systems (NARS) in developing countries invest $100-150 million from their own resources (excluding donor funding); the 16 international agricultural research centres (IARCs) of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) together invest roughly $25 million (about 8% of their total budget) and, finally, donors, such as the Rockefeller Foundation or non-profit technology transfer organisations, invest $ 40-50 million in developing countries. The biggest single source of investment is therefore the private sector and the majority (about 90%) of biotechnology research is carried out in developed countries.

    Although the investments made in the developing world are relatively small in this area, there are also major differences between the individual developing countries. In the same report, Byerlee and Fischer classify the NARS into three main groups based on their capacity in plant breeding and biotechnology research. The first group ("very strong") includes the NARS in Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa, which have strong capacity in molecular biology, including the capacity to develop new tools for their own specific needs. The second group ("medium to strong") has considerable capacity in applied plant breeding research, as well as capacity to apply molecular tools (markers and transformation protocols), but they depend on tools developed elsewhere. The third group ("fragile or weak") has weak capacity in plant breeding and virtually no capacity in molecular biology. They estimate that the NARS invest on average 5-10% of their research expenditures on biotechnology, which comes primarily from the NARS in the first group and a few in the second group. From the first group, recent trends in China are worth a specific mention. Here, the government (which funds almost all plant biotechnology research) has increasingly prioritised biotechnology in recent years, to the extent that the resources allocated to plant biotechnology in the crop research budget have risen to 9% in 1999 and where it is estimated that China accounts for more than half of the developing world's expenditures on plant biotechnology (Huang, Rozelle, Pray and Wang, Science, 25 January 2002, 295, 674-677).

    The large differences between developing countries with respect to biotechnology capacity and financial/human investments (and to the focus of their biotechnology research) is also clear from the data in FAO-BioDec, a database developed by FAO containing information on the development, adoption and application of crop biotechnologies in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Near East. Information is organised in two sections - the first covering production of genetically modified (GM) crops and the second covering other technologies, grouped into four classes: plant propagation (e.g. anther culture, micropropagation, embryo rescue, protoplast fusion and culture), microbial (e.g. development of biopesticides or biofertilizers), molecular markers and, finally, diagnostics (e.g. enzyme linked immunosorbent assays (ELISA)). The database is currently at the pre-release stage and will be made publicly available on the FAO Biotechnology website towards the end of 2002.

    Results from a preliminary, and far from comprehensive, analysis show, for example, that the majority of countries in Latin America and Asia are either carrying out research on or field testing GM crops, while few countries in the other regions have reached that stage. The analysis indicates that countries like Argentina, Brazil, China, Cuba, Egypt, India, Mexico and South Africa have well-developed biotechnology programmes, with a wide range of initiatives. In addition, countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, The Philippines and Thailand in Asia; Cameroon, Morocco, Kenya, Nigeria, Tunisia and Zimbabwe in Africa; and Chile, Colombia and Venezuela in Latin America have medium-sized biotechnology programmes, making use of a wide range of technologies, including molecular markers and diagnostics, although the number of initiatives underway is not substantial.

    Because agricultural biotechnology research is primarily being carried out in developed countries and by the private sector in these countries, the research and the biotechnology products being developed or released are directed primarily to the needs of farmers in the developed (and not developing) countries and of richer (and not poor) farmers that can afford the products. For example, in a recent (2002)Technology Policy Brief from the Institute for New Technologies of the United Nations University, Anthony Arundel presents an analysis of over 11,000 GM crop field trials carried out in the United States and the European Union which confirms that most of the field trials are conducted by private firms and that only a small number involve tropical crops and traits for stress resistance.

    Abiotic stress (e.g. drought, frost, heat or salt) is a major limitation to agricultural production in parts of the developing world. A vast area of soils contains an excess of heavy metals in Brazil and Africa. Steadily increasing acreage of agricultural land in Asia and elsewhere is becoming sterile because of salinity from poorly managed irrigation practices. In many environments, crop performance is severely limited by drought. Research investments in these areas could have major impacts on food security and hunger. However, preliminary analysis of the data in FAO-BioDec indicates that no GM crops resistant to abiotic stress have been released so far in developing countries and that only six GM varieties are currently under field testing - in Bolivia (frost tolerant potato), China (cold tolerant tomato), Egypt (salt tolerant wheat), India (moisture tolerant Brassica) and Thailand (salt tolerant rice and drought tolerant rice). By comparison, for herbicide resistance, there are already 3 GM crop varieties commercially available and 50 under field testing in developing countries. The database shows that 28 research initiatives are underway for abiotic stress resistance in developing countries. Most of the research is being carried out in five Asian countries. Very little research is being done on drought resistance. Work on aluminium-resistant varieties is underway for wheat in Mexico and sugar beet in China. Little research is being done on cold tolerance, although Bolivia and China have progressed to field trials in potato and tomato respectively. The amount of research and testing devoted to abiotic stress resistance is insufficient compared to the real needs of developing countries.

    4. This Conference

    Biotechnology clearly offers tremendous promise for addressing key problems in food and agriculture. However, resources for agricultural research are very limited in developing countries and, as a consequence, their policy makers are faced with a series of very difficult choices. How much importance should they give to biotechnology research, how should they allocate the biotechnology research resources with respect to the different agricultural sectors or to the different kinds of biotechnologies available. How should they prioritise the different kinds of problems (and specifically those affecting poor farmers) that might be addressed by the research? How should developing countries carry out this research - by focusing on their NARS or in collaboration with other countries in their region or with the private sector or the universities in the developed world? These are the kinds of issues that should be raised and discussed throughout the conference. More specifically, the items that we would like to see discussed are:

    - Of the limited resources (human and financial) dedicated to agricultural research in developing countries, how much should be devoted to biotechnology?

    - Of the resources devoted to agricultural biotechnology research in developing countries, what priorities should be given to the different agricultural sectors (crop, fishery, forest, agro-industry or livestock)? How should these priorities be set?

    - Of the resources devoted to agricultural biotechnology research in developing countries, which biotechnologies should be prioritised (e.g. use of molecular markers, tissue culture, genetic modification etc.)?

    - Which objectives (e.g. increased production, better animal health etc.) should biotechnology research be prioritising within each of these sectors?

    - At which level (regional, sub-regional or national) should the objectives of research in agricultural biotechnology be prioritised?

    - Should some (or all) of the biotechnology research in developing countries preferably be carried out within the NARS or through collaborative regional efforts?

    - For agricultural biotechnology research in developing countries, how important should collaboration with the IARCs be?

    - For agricultural biotechnology research in developing countries, how important should collaboration with the private sector or universities in developed countries be?

    - Should developing countries focus on developing the biotechnology products themselves or should they focus on adapting biotechnologies that have been developed elsewhere?

    - Individual developing countries differ greatly in their capacities to do biotechnology research and in the resources they have available for such activities. How important are these differences for the role and focus of biotechnology in the agricultural research agenda?

    - The needs of small farmers are generally being ignored in the so-called "biotechnology revolution". How can the biotechnology research agenda in developing countries be focused towards their needs? What concrete actions can be taken?

    NB: When submitting messages (which should not exceed 600 words), participants are requested to ensure that their messages address some of the above elements. Before sending a message, members of the Forum are requested to have a look at the Rules of the Forum and the Guidelines for Participation in the E-mail Conferences. These were provided when joining the Forum, and they can also be found on the Forum website

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