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Sent: 15 November 2002 09:32
Subject: 4: Room for all technologies?
My name is Larry R. Beach, I am a Ph.D. level scientist living in Des Moines, Iowa, United States. I recently resigned from the seed company, Pioneer Hi-Bred, Intl., Inc., after leading an effort there to enhance the nutritional content of grain. I have been a molecular biologist working with plants for 20 years. I am seeking ways to better apply biotechnology to the needs of developing countries.
I think it is important to put companies into the proper perspective, they exist to make money. The research they do is targeted to make money. The first commercially viable projects that have been accomplished using biotechnology have been the ones most accessible to the science; herbicide resistance and insect resistance. These were targeted to the biggest markets where the most money could be made. I believe these products are safe and have many positive aspects.
Farmers have embraced these products when they are made available to them not because they have been duped by the companies, but because they present a benefit to the farmer. Farmers are not stupid, they test new products side-by-side with tried and true products and select the ones that will give them the best return. They don't plant a soybean that has a trait developed via biotechnology that yields 20% less. They plant varieties with enhanced traits because they can get just as good or better yields while allowing them to save money and soil. They can use low tillage methods and chemicals that are safer and work better. Remember, they have learned that the water they drink is coming from a well that is right next to the field they farm; they don't want it to be contaminated!
I believe there is room for both traditional breeding and biotechnology. It is completely wrong to reduce the level of support for breeding and depend on biotechnology. They must go together. Because companies are focused on making money, their focus is not likely to be on the needs of people that are not able to pay. It is thus up to the public sector to support this need. It would be short sighted to not support biotechnology. The technology is available to begin to address some needs within this sector. The dogma that solutions to some traits requires too many genes to be approachable is just dogma in some cases. There are several examples of traits that genetics had indicated would require many genes to resolve, but using biotechnology, significant changes can be made with one gene. That's when biotechnology should be applied, but maybe not when there is a solution via breeding. I would certainly not claim all traits fit into this simple solution category.
The best case use of biotechnology is to have scientists in developing countries learn to use and apply the technology to local needs. This requires much more than just good scientists using the technology. It requires understanding and proper planning in areas of intellectual property and regulatory so that successful efforts are safe and don't involve the use of someone else's property. I believe most companies that own technology are not interested in trying to make money on that technology if it is used in ways that do not compete with the company. Since many targets for developing countries are not commercial targets for companies, it is likely they will donate technology. This needs to be negotiated early in the development of a project, not after the fact.
The best solution is to apply the most effective technology for the problem. Is there not room for breeding, agroecological approaches and biotechnology?
Larry R. Beach
3939 Maquoketa Drive
Des Moines, IA 50311-2636
beachlarryray (at) netscape.net
Sent: 15 November 2002 10:20
Subject: 5: Biotech is an important tool to achieve sustainability in LDCs
This is from Jorge E. Mayer, Principal Scientist & IP Analyst, Center for the Application of Molecular Biology to International Agriculture (CAMBIA), Canberra, Australia.
Agricultural practices vs Biotechnology
Without doubt an enormous amount of improvement in agricultural production in Least Developed Countries (LDCs) could be obtained through the adoption and implementation of improved agricultural practices. I suggest that most technologies in this field are already available in theory, and that therefore, when talking about investment in research, we should separate implementation of existing technology from investment in new technologies, like biotechnology. Of course, whether we call it implementation or research, in many cases both activities will be competing for the same resources and both are of the highest priority to sustainable development.
The meager output of biotechnological innovation for agricultural smallholders in LDCs is often used to put this technology in a bad light. Private initiatives are well ahead in the commercialization of genetically modified crops (GMCs) in developed countries for the simple reason that they have invested accordingly. You reap what you sow, an old agricultural principle.
Choice of traits and techniques
The number of commercially available GMCs is very small, and there is no doubt that these crops as well as their incorporated traits were selected for commercial reasons. What we are looking for in this forum is for crops and traits that have less of an economic appeal for big companies in developed countries. We are looking in most cases for crops and traits which will be used by small farmers in traditional ways, i.e. crossing them with their own genetic stock, breeding them further, exchanging them freely, etc. In such a scenario the choice of introduced traits is of course critical. As the client base does not support a strong commercial commitment, funding must come from public sources.
Some important traits are multigenic. Novel molecular marker techniques look very promising in dealing with quantitative trait loci (QTLs) in such a way as to assist complex breeding programs with a significant reduction in breeding times. That will also allow the development of many more varieties to satisfy regional requirements for edapho-climatic adaptations of crops [edaphic means resulting from or influenced by the soil...Moderator]. This will be only possible in combination with strong breeding programs. Other developments look very promising in introducing phenotypic variability into crops, not found in germplasm collections, and which could be critical in creating new adaptations or traits like apomixis (to fix hybrid vigor).
Intellectual Property (IP)
Patents might be an issue in the case of crop production for export to countries where these patents are in force, but when the goal is to improve the livelihood of small farmers, these patents might not pose an impediment at all. We must also be alert to the expiry dates of patents, which tells us when the international markets will open to those crops without IP restrictions. We must plan ahead and not pretend that patents are closing doors for ever. Information about patents for which licenses at acceptable rates can be obtained should be disseminated widely. Lobbying should take place with owners of key patents (see for example the clearinghouse model).
GMCs are as containable as their non-modified counterparts, and as long as the introduced genes only contribute to field performance or nutritive content, problems associated with dispersion are also comparable.
When we're looking at crops adapted to marginal agricultural land (e.g. acid soils, cronic drought) we cannot expect yields above top crops on prime land, in many cases any yield at all will be plenty.
Increases in population and also in livestock make agriculture one of the focal points in biotechnology research. To pursue this, regional collaborations around focal points based on strong national agricultural research systems (NARS) and international agricultural research centres (IARCs) should be fostered. This will also automatically involve major donors and advanced research institutions.
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: 15 November 2002 10:29
Subject: 6: Re: Very little public funds should be devoted to biotechnology
I am E.M. Muralidharan and I work at the Kerala Forest Research Institute,Kerala State, India. Much of my work involves micropropagation of forest species and use of molecular markers for genetic variation studies. I hope there will be some discussion on forest biotechnology too in the conference.
I would like to address first the issue of biotechnology research carried out by the National Agricultural Research System (NARS) vis-à-vis privately funded research in developing countries. While countries like China and India may have acquired the capability in terms of scientific expertise to carry out cutting-edge research in the agriculture biotechnology, hardly any benefits have been realized which are specific to poor-farmer requirements. As Prof. Altieri (message 1, November 14) has pointed out, biotechnology today the world over is directed by perceptions and needs of the corporate world. The private companies will obviously have a vested interest in developing technology and products that maximize their profit. This might suit the interests of many farmers in developed nations, but apparently does not benefit third world farmers and in fact often goes against their interests.
I don't agree with Professor Altieri when he says that no NARS funds should be allotted to biotech research at all. Public funding should continue in biotechnology in very specific areas where proven technologies have something to offer and alternatives in conventional technology is not available. It is true that, individually, the NARS in developing countries are no match to any of the large corporate firms, but collectively they would have many advantages one of which is that the energies can be devoted to specific poor-farmer oriented technologies (even where genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are involved). One way out of this problem therefore, is to have a consortium of research organizations representing the developing nations to pool the resources and to have a focused objective in some priority areas. It has not really happened before, in spite of several international agencies in the arena. This venture can involve private companies and research organizations from the developed nations too if it is worth their while.
And Prof. Altieri is right again about biotechnology not being a magical solution to all the problems of agriculture without incurring additional burden of inputs that the small farmer cannot bear. The assurances of the pro-GM lobby about the safety of GMOs are not very convincing even to many in the scientific community and opposition is not always out of ignorance. However, even the most steadfast opponents of GMOs might be convinced about the benefits of a nutritional improvement in a staple food crop using genetic transformation and with little negative impact on wild germplasm. Let that be the beginning for the `poor-farmer biotechnology'.
Dr. E.M. Muralidharan
Kerala Forest Research Institute
Peechi 680 653 Thrissur,
Kerala State, India
Email: emmurali (at) kfri.org