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Sent: 27 November 2002 09:58
Subject: 53: Priority setting in agricultural research // aircrafts
I am Chittranjan Bhatia, a plant geneticist and breeder by training and profession. I have worked in agricultural research in several developing countries of Asia and Africa, also in Europe, US, and international organizations, and have helped in developing agricultural biotechnology programs for different organizations. This is to share my views on the questions that the organizers wish to be addressed in this conference. Considering the limitations of space, only the points are mentioned.
Biotechnology is a logical extension of the knowledge, tools and techniques of genetics. We have to solve the problems, and use the best available tools and techniques that one can afford, to reach that objective.
The goal is important, not the technology to achieve that goal. Not using the advanced tools, and techniques of modern biotechnology is equivalent to using firewood for cooking food when coal, gas, electric and microwave devices are available. The choice depends on the availability, convenience, cost and taste of the cooked food that one likes. Those living in high-rise apartments cannot use firewood. Unfortunately, there are others who have no choice other than using fuel wood. There can be many examples in different spheres, transport choices are to walk, use donkey, horse, or camel or other animal drawn carriage, cycle, automobile, steam, diesel or electric traction of railways, sail boat, ships, propeller and jet air crafts. The best available, and affordable, is used in different situations.
Most developing countries need increased productivity, lower production costs, reduction in all inputs tillage, water, pesticides, fuel, machinery or human labor (total energy inputs), with minimal environmental impact of the production system. Different biotechnologies ranging from vermiculture, biofertilizers, biopesticides to genetically engineered crop cultivars can help in reaching the above goals.
In the production systems there are many constraints, they can only be removed one by one. The most limiting constraint (the limiting factor) for the area needs to be identified, and the best available technology that can ameliorate the situation in the shortest time frame, at an affordable cost, should be used. The aim is to reduce the yield loss due to the constraint, and not to promote one technology over the other.
For biotechnology research, and development of new products, the first three necessities are: human resources, infrastructure, and funds required to reach the goal. High-tech biotechnology research is expensive.
There are known methods for priority setting in agricultural research, the same should be used for identifying the areas which would give maximum return in the shortest possible time, with minimum investment. However, here the conflict of interest arise, even in a small community. Farmers having irrigation facilities would like the investment in rice; dry land farmers would prefer groundnut or castor bean. As a scientist, I know I cannot compete with IRRI (the International Rice Research Institute) in rice, and with ICRISAT (The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) in groundnut, and hence would use the resources to improve the productivity of castor. Participatory evaluation of the new cultivars of rice and groundnut from the above CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) institutes can improve rice and groundnut.
Unfortunately, national agricultural research systems (NARS) in most countries have very little expertise, and infrastructure for the high-tech end of biotechnology research. Expertise in these areas is available in certain traditional, non-agricultural universities and research institutions in some countries. However, such institutions do not have any mechanisms to test and deliver the new products to the farmers. This can only be done by the private sector, NGOs and NARS. Competition and ego between individuals, departments and institutions keep them away from active collaborations. Biotechnology needs greater collaborations between persons with different knowledge, skills and understanding of the issues. Look at the number of authors, and laboratories, involved in biotechnology publications in high impact journals.
On the question of import or local development of biotech products, I ask the question: How many countries have developed their own passenger aircrafts? Development of a genetically engineered crop plant with agronomically useful traits with desired expression levels is a fairly high genetic manipulation technology, and takes a minimum of five years. Biosafety and field evaluation another 3-4 years, if everything goes well. The same gene can be introduced through back crossing in about 2-3 years, when 3-4 generations in a year can be grown in controlled environments. As a private breeder, putting my own money, I would import the seeds from the Multi-national corporation (MNC), and go for accelerated back crossing program. Alternatively, if it is the question of competence building for the human resources, or the technology is not available, or far too expensive, public funds should be used for indigenous development.
International biotechnology research and development programs supported by the Government of Netherlands in India, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Colombia have taken the "interactive bottom up approach". Farmer's representatives, and NGOs working with the farmers present their perception of the priorities in joint meetings with the scientists, and program managers. These are discussed across the table to evolve farmer demand-driven research objectives that are achievable with reasonably good chances of success. In India, this program is confined to the problems of two dryland districts of the state of Andhra Pradesh.
Lastly, I feel that the utility of the genetically engineered crops should be judged by their field performance, keeping out the issues of globalization, private versus public ownership of the technology, MNCs, intellectual property rights and, above all, the religious beliefs that "humans have no right to tinker with the creation of God". If the products benefit the poor, small farmers, these issues can be sorted out. Several alternatives are possible to make the products available to the developing countries while providing reasonable profits to the shareholders of the MNCs for their investment.
C. R. Bhatia Ph.D.
Plot 29-30, Sector 9-A,
Vashi, New Bombay 400 703
Phone: 022 2765 5178 / 2765 8504
nbhatia (at) vsnl.com
Sent: 27 November 2002 10:22
Subject: 54: Are we pursuing the wrong research objectives?
The need for biotechnology research, often established based on projections of future demands, almost always do not take into consideration solutions that can be found in other fields of technology. To give an example, wood-based biomass requirements of the future (requiring longer crop cycles) are also dependant on whether the same uses continue or whether alternatives to current materials and processes are found by the researchers who are working on it currently. This include new biodegradable polymers, better recycling technology and so on. A convergence of research outputs from different areas of technology can result in totally different objectives for agricultural research in the not-too-distant future and, if that were so, then it doesn't make sense to invest so much of the funds in the wrong place. Particularly for the developing countries the money could go into meeting short term goals.
Experts from different areas of human endeavour don't seem to be getting together to exchange ideas. Or am I wrong?
Dr. E.M. Muralidharan
Kerala Forest Research Institute
Peechi 680 653 Thrissur,
Kerala State, India
Email: emmurali (at) kfri.org
Sent: 27 November 2002 10:31
Subject: 55: Save the funds for conventional agricultural research
Still arguing the case for having publically funded biotechnology research for developing countries, I have the following issues to comment on. One fallout of having GM crops (or, for that matter, high yielding varieties of any crop) in a developing country will be the erosion of the existing diversity of crops in favour of a few that fetch foreign exchange but do nothing to improve the food security and sustainability of agriculture in the region. Private biotech companies will narrow down the variety of crops they work on but public funding can ensure that strategically important ones (for poor developing countries) also find a place in research priorities.
The consortium of publically-funded research organizations, that I had previously advocated (message 6, November 15), involving developing countries (and focusing on biotechnology of crops that are important to the economy and food security of these nations), can tackle issues in biotechnology of specific species of interest to the constituent countries and that at a fraction of the cost they will have to incur if they were to set up the neccessary infrastructure individually.
Scarce public funds then made available, can go for agricultural research to support research on improving and implementing modern, but relatively conventional, agricultural practices that have a better chance of reaching the poor farmers and have less uncertainties than GMO's. Most of research in biotechnology today appears to be on blinkers - presuming that biotechnology is a solution to everything. Would it make more sense, for example, to invest in improvement of post-harvest protection, storage and in developing means of equitably distributing food grains, so that increasing yields beyond a certain limit is no longer a requirement?
Dr. E.M. Muralidharan
Kerala Forest Research Institute
Peechi 680 653 Thrissur,
Kerala State, India
Email: emmurali (at) kfri.org
Sent: 27 November 2002 14:30
Subject: 56: Biotechnology ofen more justified by faith in technological progress than by rigorous analysis
I have found remarkable the commentary of Denis Murphy (message 48, November 26). It comes from someone working in a biotechnology unit and does not say that the salvation of the developing countries is, at least in the short term, in the GMOs. He says something that biotechnologist propagandists usually do not like to recognize: dramatic yield improvement can be obtained through other ways than biotechnology. The modesty and the prudency of Murphy's point of view is so rare from biotechnologists that it has to be underlined. I am convinced that the debate on biotechnology is often impossible because many scientists involved in this field develop an arrogant (a director of Monsanto himself recognizes it two years ago) and sectarian position...probably because hard scientific competition and huge economic interests caracterize this sector. The power of this technology gives also to its users the frequent and na´ve illusion that miraculous solutions for problems exist that however, to be correctly adressed, need evidently a global approach and not the very short sectorial one followed by many biotechnologists.
Of course when this point of view is adopted by international institution decision makers, the case is more serious. The UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) report that Drew Kershen (message 41, November 25 dares to present as a reference, constitutes a dramatic example of an approach based much more on the faith in the technology progress and power than on comprehensive and rigorous analysis. In this report, the justification of the biotechnology is based on assertions like these concerning the low crop yield in Africa: "irrigation is one means to increase crop yield", but it does not work in Africa; applying fertilizer is no longer the solution because "existing crop varieties are unable to absorb more fertilizers" and, to conclude, "if environmental sustainability is to be ensured, the increase in yields will have to be achieved through means other than fertilizer use, area expansion, irrigation and traditional plant breeding". !!!!!!!! [The quotations are from pages 84-86 in Chapter 3 of the report...Moderator].
In Denis Murphy's message, nevertheless, I have found one point that, I think, is very questionable. The two examples that he gives to illustrate his point of view, concern products where the export aspect is important or essential. The humanitarian catastroph that is presently occuring in Zambia, a country that Murphy has chosen as one of his examples, must make us think.
To produce for the international market is advocated by many institutions as the royal way of development. This idea belongs now to the unique thought, like liberalism and free market. It constitutes of course the base of the UNECA report previously quoted. But when we realize that these slogans are promoted by countries that belong to the wealthier ones and do not respect the rules that they advocate, we must be very cautious. It looks very much like a deception.
All these considerations may perhaps seem far from the subject of this conference. But I think that they are very much linked to it. It is not possible to debate the role of biotechnology in the agricultural research agenda without debating what should be the role of the agricultural research.
Research Station on date palm and arid land farming systems.
E-mail: m.ferry (at) wanadoo.es
[Note, as reminded in message 37, the theme of this particular conference is the role and focus of biotechnology in the agricultural research agendas of developing countries. There are many subjects that are linked to this theme, but in the limited time available for this conference we urge participants to focus directly on the theme. Further comments on the merits of the UNECA report will not be posted...Moderator].
Sent: 27 November 2002 14:35
Subject: 57: Re: Pooling together regional resources in agricultural biotech research
My name is Alejandro Martinez. I am a Mexican national currently finishing my PhD here in Australia. My research topic is concerned with modelling sustainable grasslands in Mexico. My background is as an animal production technician, farm manager and lecturer at the University of Mexico.
This is in response to Nagib Nassar (message 49, November 26), in which he mentioned that some participants are politizing what should not be politized, and that developing countries should only try to adopt what developed countries produce. I respectfully disagree with Mr. Nassar's opinion which, in my view, illustrates one of the most compelling reasons for failure and non-adoption of technology at the field-level: the reductionist, kind-of-tunnel-vision of what otherwise is essentially a complex, multi-dimensional phenomena.
It is clear that the issue of producing and extending e.g. biotechnology use is, among others, a political one, as much as it is social, economic, and technological. The ideal situation for biotechnology application would then result from a systemic, holistic approach to describe the dynamic behaviour of a given complex, multi-objective agricultural system, using what has been described as a social relativism approach. The idea is to facilitate social evolution and to promote farmer's adaptive skills, whatever that means for the farmer's specific circumstances. Then, a set of problems (including goals and constraints) would be identified, with a set of possible solutions to such complex, multi-objective problems. From there, a description of the system's needs, feedback loops, conflicting goals and likely future scenarios resulting from the application of the proposed solutions (including biotechnology) will help to assess the possible effects of the suggested solutions.
As I hope I had described, the issue of the pros and cons of biotechnology application at the farm level should consider first the farmer's vision, goals, needs and capabilities, tailoring the set of solutions (more than one solution resulting from a multi-objective problem) offered to the farmer's specific set of constraints and goals. And that won't be achieved by simply importing technology developed for a different population target with different sets of goals and constraints. Importing technology could be as good a solution as producing it locally, but I here suggest that most of the problems farmers in developing countries face are essentially of a political, social and economic nature.
Alejandro N. Martinez-Garcia, BVSc MAgSc
Advanced Computational Modelling Centre
The University of Queensland.
St. Lucia Campus.
e-mail: amartine (at) maths.uq.edu.au
Sent: 27 November 2002 15:02
Subject: 58: Re: Priority setting in agricultural research // aircrafts
I am Prof J Ralph Blanchfield, a professional food scientist for 56 years, a Past President, and currently Chair of External Affairs, of the Institute of Food Science and Technology (IFST), the professional body of food scientists and technologists. Neither I nor IFST has any connection with the biotech industry nor with any anti-biotech organization. My, and IFST's, stance is that Genetic modification (GM) has the potential to offer very significant improvements in the quantity, quality and acceptability of the world's food supply. Food scientists and technologists can support the responsible introduction of GM techniques provided that issues of product safety, environmental concerns, information and ethics are satisfactorily addressed. IFST considers that they are being, and need even more intensively to continue to be, so addressed, so that the benefits that this technology can confer may become available, not least to help feed the world's escalating population in the coming decades.
I would like to applaud Dr Bhatia's (message 53, November 27) masterly and objective response to the questions that the organizers wish to be addressed in this conference.
I also agree with much that Dr Muralidharan (messages 54 and 55, November 27) has written, but disagree on two points.
I think it is a mistake to pose short-term vs. longer-term, as he appears to
do. A balance is needed between the two. The present intolerable situation
of malnutrition, hunger, starvation, death for so many people cries out for
short-term remedies. But we also have a responsibility to future
generations. Of course, as Dr Muralidharan correctly points out (message
54), we cannot wholly foretell the future by extrapolation from the present,
but I think we can clearly foresee that in a few decades time the world will
be facing the need for much more land and water to feed a greatly escalated
population (growth mainly in the developing countries). Without destroying
the environment, this will require development of
* Crops with improved agricultural performance (yields) and reduced usage of agricultural chemicals
* Ability to grow crops in previously inhospitable environments (e.g. via increased ability of plants to grow in conditions of drought, salinity, extremes of temperature, consequences of global warming, etc.)
* Improved food quality (i.e. flavour, texture, shelf-life, nutritive value, etc.)
* Improved processing characteristics leading to reduced waste and lower food costs to the consumer.
This leads to my second point of disagreement, where he writes (message 55) "Most of research in biotechnology today appears to be on blinkers - presuming that biotechnology is a solution to everything". I know of no reputable scientist who makes that presumption. He is actually quoting a "straw man" widely used by activists of vested interest opposing GM biotechnology (yes, there are vested interests at both ends of the spectrum). Of course, hunger in many parts of the world cannot be solved by science alone, but cannot be solved without the use of science. As part of the use of science, biotechnology will be one of the indispensable tools -- not the biotechnology of today, but the biotechnology of the future that can, however, only be "built on the shoulders" of the present biotechnology. If I may join in the practice of homely examples, a screwdriver is the indispensible tool to drive in a screw, hitting it with a hammer does not work, though a hammer has other indispensable uses. Remember too that the present-day advanced automobile technology had to be "built on the shoulders" of Henry Ford's Tin Lizzie.
Prof J Ralph Blanchfield, MBE
Food Science, Food Technology and Food Law Consultant
Chair, External Affairs, Institute of Food Science and Technology
Adjunct Professor, Michigan State University
IFST Web address www.ifst.org
Personal Web address www.jralphb.co.uk
jralphb (at) easynet.co.uk
Sent: 27 November 2002 15:06
Subject: 59: Fund conventional research
Bob Howe, Independent Organic Inspector, Northeast USA.
The point that many of the participants are missing is significant. They are naive about governments, university research and world cooperation on any scale that involves more than two entities. Further, they seem to imply that the multinational corporations are going to "do the right thing" for poor and developing regions. We need only to look at history and the present state of world affairs. Add to that enlightenment the knowledge that the greater portion of funding for biotech research comes from the corporations - funding for university research and other so called private and public research. These corporations are not doing this so they can "do the right thing". The governments have their own agendas and you can look at the most powerful and least powerful of these governments and you will find that they are not effectively involved in regulation of biotech, other than to bend to the will of the corporations (the US is a blatant example). And, how can one expect that the diverse cultures of this planet, and its ongoing political and religious conflicts, could or would convene a real cooperation to the end that would benefit the poor and developing regions. Funding needs to be applied to conventional development. The only funding that needs to go to biotech in food production is to work toward reversing harm that has already occurred, and preventing further harm.
28 Brodhead Road
West Shokan, NY 12494
earthorganic (at) aol.com