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Sent: 09 December 2002 09:35
Subject: 84: Realistic priorities needed for biotech research in developing countries
[A reminder: The last day for sending messages to this conference is Wednesday 11 December...Moderator].
This is from Dr. K. Rajmohan, Project Coordinator of Biotechnology at the Kerala Agricultural University, India.
I feel that while allocating resources for biotechnology research, the developing countries should possess concrete ideas about the immediate and long term benefits to their resource-poor farmers. It should have a bearing on their wealth of plant genetic resources, as well. Unfortunately, very often such exercises lack seriousness and go out of dimension, in an attempt to mimic the biotechnology research of the developed countries, ignoring the difference in priorities.
Crop biotechnology seems to have the foremost priority in most of the developing countries like India. The priorities among other sectors should be judged on the basis of the benefits to the common farmer, rather than to the society at large, as he continues to be the most important unit for development.
Molecular markers seem to be the most important area of biotechnology for the developing countries, in view of the rich plant genetic resources most of them have. They can also be utilised for disease screening of planting materials. Tissue culture is the next important, as a useful technique for the improvement of the genetic stocks of crops. However, it has several inherent limitations, including the problems in maintaining quality standards and in setting up enough micro-propagation units for meeting the demands for planting materials.
Research on genetic modification should be strengthened only in selected institutions, in collaboration with developed countries. And the agenda for genetic modification should be very much relevant to the farming situations and demands of the country.
Prioritisation of the research objectives should be made at the regional level, rather than the national level. The regional personnnel and farmers should have a say in the research and development programmes in biotechnology. Regional cooperation of biotechnology research institutions is highly essential. Unfortunately such cooperation is often missing and leads to inefficient utilisation of available resources and duplication of research aspects.
International collaboration is very much essential for biotechnology research in developing countries, especially in human resource development and establishment of facilities. However, such collaborative efforts should have definite relevance and benefit to the developing countries. Adoption of already available techniques for the benefit of the developing countries should only be a short term objective. The ultimate aim should be for generating independent results and products. Cooperation between the public and private sector institutions within the country is essential for the efficiency of resource utilisation and capacity building.
Dr. K. Rajmohan,
Kerala Agricultural University,
College of Agriculture,
Trivandrum 695 522,
rajmohan33 (at) yahoo.com
Sent: 09 December 2002 10:27
Subject: 85: More focus needed in forest biotechnology research
This is from Dr. Muralidharan in India.
Most forest trees in the tropics (other than a few, like eucalypts and teak) are relatively recent in their history of domestication. Even the knowledge of their phenology is inadequate. [Phenology is the study of periodic biological phenomena, such as flowering in plants...Moderator]. Genetic improvement in these species is therefore mostly in the early stages. There is a tremendous potential for biotechnology to improve our understanding of the genetics of these long-lived plants and therefore to quicken the pace of genetic improvement.
Speaking of the situation in India, in some areas of research in biotechnology of forest trees, like tissue culture, a certain volume of knowledge has been generated in the past few decades but which, for want of concerted efforts, has not been brought to a level where it can be put to any application. In their preoccupation with the academic aspects alone, several university departments have carried out research on a wide spectrum of tree species, but these are mostly restricted to PhD work or short term projects and the focus is on getting out a few publications and not on solving any real hurdle in tree improvement or propagation. A lot of times, the work done is superfluous in that an alternative technique of micropropagation is being developed when other means already exist. Funds and efforts would have been better utilized had there been a coordinated programme with specified objectives and long-term perspective in selected tree crops and with the involvement of tree geneticists, biotechnologists and other experts.
Because of their long rotations and influence on the environment, biodiversity etc., the consequences of applying biotechnology to tree crops needs to be carefully studied. [A rotation is the planned number of years between the formation or regeneration of a tree crop or stand and its final cutting at a specified stage of maturity...Moderator]. I, for one, will prefer development of tree cropping system where a diversity of tree species is ensured (followed by clonal diversity within the species) and natural means of renewing soil fertility is retained. This, particularly in developing countries, will cater to the diversity of needs of the local people for tree-based biomass besides pulping and timber. It appears as though the objectives of all current tree improvement programmes is to narrow down this diversity to a select, few, fast-growing, high-yielding clones growing with high inputs and in a sterile environment free of pests and weeds (read other insects and plants). We need to change to a more people and eco-friendly forestry which can meet the needs of the people in the region. And the role of biotechnology has to be defined and limited in this scheme. A very difficult proposition indeed.
Dr. E.M. Muralidharan
Kerala Forest Research Institute
Peechi 680 653 Thrissur,
Email: emmurali (at) kfri.org
Sent: 09 December 2002 11:00
Subject: 86: A farmers perspective - research
This is from Julie Newman, Network of Concerned Farmers, Australia.
In order to find solutions for agriculture, we need to examine carefully what we are doing wrong now. As a farmer from Western Australia, I find our industry threatened by the proposed forceful introduction of genetically engineered (GE) crops to Australia. I certainly agree with Roberto Verzola (message 83, December 6) - "transgenic researchers: please stop using farmers as excuse for your transgenic research". We are being promised the world with this technology when we are offered very little. We need to be perfectly honest, genetic engineering has not proved itself to be the "wonder-crop" that we are promised and our long term sustainability is seriously threatened by the proposed introduction.
The aim of research should be to enable the user (the farmer) to remain viable in the long term and the end user (the consumer) to be confident of what they are eating. If successful, research will ultimately benefit the financial well-being of researchers and developers.
Scarce funding allocation preference should be directed to non-GE biotechnology that offers the same promises of disease, frost, drought and insect tolerance that we are needing. It is very obvious that consumers are not accepting this technology and GE crops are not being accepted. In order to be profitable, farmers must be able to sell their produce without market restrictions.
It appears pointless for every nation to spend huge resources to develop particular varieties with particular traits that will no doubt be duplicated by other countries. There should be an international registry of research that prevents this duplication and coordinates aims. Perhaps purchasing rights could be arranged at different stages of development?
Priority in research should be given to impacts from seasonal variation. Farmers need consistency in income to remain viable and drought is the worst problem that causes total crop loss. We are currently experiencing our worst drought in history and we have never experienced such dismal yields in our crops. Consistency of supply should be the aim of research and development which will assist in providing a constant income to farmers.
Many of the other problems of farming have a solution that can be remedied by other means, providing farmers are able to afford them. In order to afford better sustainability options, we need income from consistent supply of reasonably priced commodity. It is far more expensive and less effective for governments to subsidise farmers (in order to allow the commodity price to drop - in order to encourage food prices to drop) while increasing taxes (to enable the government to subsidise farmers).
Network of Concerned Farmers
P.O. Box 6
Newdegate, 6355. WA
newseeds (at) treko.net.au
Sent: 09 December 2002 11:17
Subject: 87: Where to put the buck
This is from Jorge Mayer, CAMBIA, Australia.
Where do we put the buck? It sounds as if we had resources to allocate. The reality is that more often than not this is not the case. During my time at CIAT [The Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical, in Colombia, is one of the 16 Future Harvest centres supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research...Moderator], I experienced one of the worst collapses in funding for international agricultural research, not only in the CGIAR System but in the world, I would say. Scientists of all disciplines were trying to solve problems of small farmers in a holistic way, taking advantage of supraregional similarities to prioritize projects. After Rio 1992, the world decided that natural resources were more important and that national programs should be independent enough to manage agricultural research by themselves. We will pay dearly (with a major delay in getting rid of poverty worldwide) for the loss of opportunities caused by this shift in funding.
Natural resources versus agricultural research. There is no question, you can not take one or the other, it's both or bust. The same with organic vs. biotechnology. So, what if we have only one buck, where do we put it? Maybe we should be asking how can we double the buck to achieve what has to be done, otherwise it's like asking, how do we die slower, more painfully?
In many cases technologies do not need to be created de novo, they have only to be applied to specific problems. Information access in the digital era must be maximised. One of the sources with high potential is Geographic Information System (GIS), driven to the "excess". We can add layer over layer of information, encompassing all sorts of geographical (soil, climate, altitude, precipitation, etc), biological (native flora, crops, livestock, etc) and demographic (population, population density, GDP, exports, imports, etc) data. The questions that can be answered combining these data go beyond what farmer communities can do based on their experience.
Many of these data come precisely from the study of natural resources. Inter-continental parallels can be drawn about agroecological zones, long range weather predictions can be made. Adding layers to this information, we can now include available genes, intellectual property (IP) information by countries, predictions on environmental danger of deploying certain gene/crop combinations, etc.
Summing up, we need to make sure that information is highly networked and made accessible to even the small farmers in appropriate ways (nodes). If done correctly, these farmers can also provide feedback to make these all-encompassing databases even more comprehensible. It's up to us to decide how complex in content and how simple in its use we want this database to be.
Jorge E. Mayer, PhD
Principal Scientist & IP Analyst
GPO Box 3200
Canberra ACT 2601, Australia
Phone +61 2 6246 4516
Fax +61 2 6246 4501
Email j.mayer (at) cambia.org
'Center for the Application of Molecular Biology to International Agriculture'
An autonomous, not-for-profit organization affiliated to Charles Sturt University
Sent: 09 December 2002 11:28
Subject: 88: Fish based integration systems
I am Udeni Edirisinghe, a lecturer in fisheries from University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka.
I have already indicated (message 43, November 25) that biotechnology has not moved in the way we in the developing countries look for. Our environments are getting polluted due to importation of different technologies from developed countries and, as with the green revolution, we learn the lesson once it is too late.
In Sri Lanka we are now threatened with tilapia and wild guppy, which have invaded most of our natural water bodies. If methods to remove them from these unwanted resources could be worked out, I believe it would be very useful. Funds for such research is lacking and such research would benefit many countries since these are problems most of us face today.
Development of different integrated systems, as done in China, which should suit the specific ecosystems are invaluable. Why can such research not be taken under biotechnology? Rice-fish integrated systems, which have been developed in Sri Lanka cannot be taken to field levels due to lack of funds once again. Such systems encourage integration and are always environmentally sound.
Thus there are many areas where there are no arguments and which all can agree to work on. If this conference can at least identify areas where there is common agreement, that would be an invaluable exercise.
Dr. Udeni Edirisinghe
Dept. of Animal Science
University of Peradeniya
udenie (at) pdn.ac.lk
Sent: 09 December 2002 13:19
Subject: 89: Re: Realistic priorities needed for biotech research in developing countries
This is P. Chengal Reddy, Hon. Chairman, Federation of Farmers Associations, A.P. (FFAAP) representing a farmers organizations in Andhra Pradesh, India.
I congratulate Dr. K. Rajmohan (message 84, December 9) for his suggestion that research institutions in developing nations should have collaboration with international institutions and also private research institutions including Multi-national corporations (MNCs) in order to develop area specific transgenics suitable for us. India has crops, such as oil seeds, minor millets etc., in the drought-prone areas, which are of great importance to the small and marginal farmers. Adding water stress tolerant gene to these crops in semi-arid areas will be immensely beneficial. We have to accept the fact that providing financial resources for Bt/transgenic research is very very difficult. Further, scientists have no freedom to take on-the-spot decisions in conducting research. The bureaucratic systems in our countries are too complex for scientists to do research as they seems fit.
FAO may initiate dialogue with the local groups and international organizations and private sectors. It will be useful in the long run.
P Chengal Reddy
Federation of Farmers Associations, A.P.
Flat No.209, Vijaya Towers
HYDERABAD - 500 028
Tel: 91 40 331 9643 / 337 8046
Fax: 91 40 331 9643
E-mail: indian_farmers_federation (at) yahoo.com
[Note, Dr. Rajmohan in message 84 did not refer specifically to collaboration regarding transgenic research. In his message, he discussed different crop biotechnologies available (use of molecular markers, tissue culture, genetic modification), how prioritisation of research objectives should be made and, in the final paragraph, wrote "International collaboration is very much essential for biotechnology research in developing countries, especially in human resource development and establishment of facilities. However, such collaborative efforts should have definite relevance and benefit to the developing countries. Adoption of already available techniques for the benefit of the developing countries should only be a short term objective. The ultimate aim should be for generating independent results and products. Cooperation between the public and private sector institutions within the country is essential for the efficiency of resource utilisation and capacity building"...Moderator].
Sent: 09 December 2002 14:34
Subject: 90: Synthesis of e-conference
This is from Michel Ferry. May I propose a short synthetic analysis of this e-conference?
It was based on the assertion that "biotechnology clearly offers tremendous promise for addressing key problems in food and agriculture". This opinion figures in the Background Document to the conference. The Moderator has from time to time called our attention to debate not on this opinion but on proposals for the biotechnology research agenda. Fulvia Fiorenzi (message 79, December 4) has called again our attention to debate on this issue, that will be addressed in the SOFA 2003 report "Agricultural biotechnology, meeting the needs of the poor".
Considering this starting point, it is evident that this e-conference has taken place in the context of a basic misunderstanding: the main debate has been on whether or not biotechnology, and particularly GMOs, should be or not be a research priority for the developing countries. Most of the biotechnologists (but not all of them - look at Denis Murphy's message 48, November 26) consider logically that it is a priority, but a lot of other persons consider that it is not at all a priority, or have serious doubts about this opinion. This debate has been initiated in the previous FAO Biotechnology Forum e-conferences but it has not been concluded. In these conditions, to try to define a biotechnology research agenda seems to me premature.
For my part, I think that the pro-GMOs people have not yet demonstrated the validity of their view because their arguments are too general. Perhaps, in some peculiar cases and with some specific precautions, to use certain GMOs could be a priority for the poor (Fulvia Fiorenzi asks if we agree that poor farmers should be the target group? The answer is evidently yes but I doubt whether the existing and projected research programmes are really always focused on the poor's needs. Don't forget that the poor have become officially the target group of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) only few years ago). But usually the biotechnologist's arguments are not based on specific cases and a multidisciplinary global approach. When sometimes they defend specific cases (see the "Golden Rice" case), they often confound hypothesis with proven results; give attracting and imprudent extrapolations to their preliminary results; do not mention any inconveniences or risks and, more than all, claim that their research will present applied benefits in the very short term.
By the way, short term or long term vision constitutes probably one of the main point of divergence in this debate: to reduce the number of poor by half by the year 2015, new varieties (GMOs or not) are not necessary as the FAO Director General himself has said many times. But what about 2050?
But in countries (Sub-Saharan countries, particularly) where the number of hungry people and poverty increases, can (morally, politically and in a realistic way) the research resources be devoted to other priorities than contributing to offer very short term solutions to this humanitarian disaster? Does a research system that consumes high financial resources have its place in such a context ? At least, in such a context how could it a research programme be feasible that should not be established and approved with the full participation of the poor? Who could tell the poor that they will have to wait 10 years or more to, perhaps, get a solution to their problem?
Research Station on date palm and arid land farming systems.
E-mail: m.ferry (at) wanadoo.es
[Thanks to Michel Ferry for this contribution. One point which has indeed been an occasional source of misunderstanding in the conference is the distinction between biotechnology and GMOs. Some people have discussed biotechnology (and the potential role/focus of biotechnology in the agricultural research agenda), but really meant GMOs. In this conference, and in all conferences of this Forum, we have emphasised that the term biotechnology covers a wide range of tools, of which genetic modification is just one. In the Background Document to this conference, we therefore wrote "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)"...Moderator].
Sent: 09 December 2002 16:38
Subject: 91: Re: Synthesis of e-conference
This is Prof J Ralph Blanchfield.
I am surprised by Michel Ferry's (message 90, December 9) purporting to propose "a short synthetic analysis of this e-conference" and in giving his own interpretation of what was the intended subject of the conference. In fact, let us remind ourselves what was the true intended subject - to quote from the opening announcement - "We wish to announce that Conference 8 of the FAO Electronic Forum on Biotechnology in Food and Agriculture begins on Wednesday 13 November and runs for four weeks, finishing on Wednesday 11th December 2002. The title of the conference is "What should be the role and focus of biotechnology in the agricultural research agendas of developing countries?"."
Yes, biotechnology is wider than, but includes, transgenic GM. I am neither "root-and-branch" for transgenic GM, nor root-and-branch against it, Indeed a scientist should not be root-and-branch anything, except for the methodology of science. Provided that the issues of safety, environment, ethics and information are properly addressed, transgenic GM is a tool which has potential to achieve what cannot be achieved by other means, and should be one of the whole armoury of tools used to address food problems throughout the world, especially in developing countries.
There have been many valuable and thought-provoking contributions to this discussion which I have appreciated, even when I have not agreed with them. But I regret that, as is so often the case in discussions where biotechnology is involved, there were some contributions that appeared to be based on what Lord May, President of the UK Royal Society, recently referred to as "dogma, instinct or political ideology".
Nevertheless, overall this has been a most valuable conference, and I congratulate and thank FAO for organising it.
Prof J Ralph Blanchfield, MBE
Food Science, Food Technology and Food Law Consultant
Chair, External Affairs, Institute of Food Science and Technology
Immediate Past Chair, IFT Committee for Global Interests
Adjunct Professor, Michigan State University
IFST Web address www.ifst.org
Personal Web address www.jralphb.co.uk