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In this chapter a brief overview of the six conferences is provided, considering both the general operation of the conferences as well as highlighting some of the major concerns and themes raised by participants.

Before launching the Forum, only the themes of the first four conferences were decided in advance, i.e. the appropriateness of currently available biotechnologies for the crop, fishery, forestry and livestock sectors of developing countries. By running these sector-specific conferences first, it was possible to compare and contrast the current interest, reactions and experiences of Forum members towards biotechnology in each sector, as well as to identify subjects that particularly interested them for future conferences. The two subsequent conferences, on IPR and the impact of biotechnology on hunger, were well supported (about 260 people per conference), indicating that the strategy was successful.

From the six conferences, it is clear that there is large interest in receiving and sharing information about biotechnology in food and agriculture in developing countries. What is most encouraging is that, despite relying on e-mail (a medium used primarily in the developed world), over 40 percent of messages were from people living in developing countries.

The conferences provided a democratic forum to capture what people had to say, allowing their voices to be heard. Their views and experiences were shared with the other people that registered for the conferences, put up on the Forum website and included in the Summary Documents. In addition, in the current era of electronic communication, their comments can easily be further disseminated, although it is impossible to quantify this or its impact. What is known is that some e-mail messages and Summary Documents were circulated among other e-mail lists and posted on other websites (many with an educational purpose) and that the conferences were discussed by some scientific journals and daily newspapers.

At various times during the six conferences, participants exchanged sharply contrasting views and arguments concerning the appropriateness, importance and implications of biotechnology for food and agriculture in developing countries. The polarization concerning certain aspects of biotechnology (involving GM crops/food in particular, or the importance of biotechnology for hunger in developing countries) was also evident in this Forum. The most important achievement of the Forum is probably that it provided an opportunity for people to exchange information and views about agricultural biotechnology and that it may thus have contributed in some way to a reduction in polarization and to an increased understanding of other viewpoints. As one participant said in the crop sector conference, “as soon as the different interest groups refuse to talk and acknowledge each others concerns we are all in trouble”.

When considering the application of biotechnology to the four different agricultural and food-related sectors, the Forum members showed greatest interest in the crop sector. This is clear from looking at the levels of participation in the first four conferences, as well as the fact that in the other two conferences, on IPR and hunger, the crop sector also received greatest attention. After the crop sector, Forum members seemed to show greatest interest in biotechnologies in the animal sector (especially reproductive technologies and the use of molecular markers) and slightly lower interest in their application to the forestry or fishery sectors.

For each sector, a range of biotechnologies can potentially be used. Most of them (e.g. genetic modification, use of molecular markers) are not sector-specific and can be used for animals, crops, fish and forest trees alike. Genetic modification was the single biotechnology which, by far, attracted the greatest interest and discussion and which dominated the crop, fishery and forestry sector conferences. It was also the biotechnology that featured most prominently in the two non-sectoral conferences. This emphasis seems to be a reflection of the fact that, at many levels of society and in many countries, there is currently tremendous awareness, interest and concern about the topic of GMOs. By comparison, participants did not seem to consider any of the other biotechnologies particularly controversial.

The most likely reason for the focus on genetic modification in the crop sector is that plant biotechnology products (GM crops and seeds) are already available to consumers and farmers. An estimated 44 million hectares were planted in the year 2000 in four countries responsible for 99 percent of the world’s transgenic crops, namely: Argentina, Canada, China and the United States (ISAAA, 2000, In contrast, there is still no commercial-scale planting of GM trees and no GM animals or fish are currently produced for human consumption.

The analysis of participation (Chapter 8) showed that, in general, there were different groups of participants in the different conferences. Here, an attempt is made to highlight, in no particular order, some of the main issues that came up repeatedly in the different conferences.

9.1 Potential of biotechnology

On several occasions throughout the conferences, participants emphasized the enormous potential of biotechnology and that it could be used successfully to address specific issues and problems facing food and agriculture in developing countries. However, there were concerns that biotechnology was currently only catering for farmers in developed countries and that there was therefore a need to re-direct it to also consider the specific requirements and problems of small holders in developing countries.

9.2 The environmental impact of GMOs and biosafety in developing countries

In all sector-specific conferences, concerns were expressed about the potential impact of releasing GMOs into the environment. The topic dominated the fishery sector conference while it received least attention in the animal sector conference. It is clear that the degree and type of concerns currently differ between the sectors. In the crop sector, Bt-crops seem to cause greatest environmental concern and over 11 million hectares of crops containing Bt genes were estimated to be grown in 2000 (ISAAA, 2000). In the forestry sector, no GM trees have been planted commercially but transgene flow to adjacent natural populations was considered a major potential concern, needing careful consideration because of the long generation time of trees and the potential for long distance dispersal of pollen and seed. In the fishery sector, GM fish may escape from aquaculture facilities and mate with wild relatives, if they are present in the ecosystem. In the animal sector, mating with wild relatives is rarely possible.

In four conferences, fears were expressed that the risks were greater in developing than in developed countries. Participants were concerned that the application of biosafety regulations would be less strict than in developed countries as risk assessment studies or field trials can be expensive and time-consuming and developing countries have also limited scientific infrastructure and expertise. For similar reasons, some participants felt that, if GMOs were approved for release, monitoring of biosafety aspects could also be less efficient and rigorous. Finally, there were concerns that if GMOs eventually had a negative impact on the environment in developing countries, they had fewer resources to remedy the situation.

9.3 Impact of intellectual property rights

Discussions in the conference suggested that there were major concerns about the impact that IPR (on the products and processes of agricultural biotechnology) are currently having and will have in the future. The large interest expressed led to a separate conference being held on the subject.

Many of the “nuts and bolts” of biotechnology research are protected by IPR, so to develop a single biotechnology product (e.g. a GM plant) might involve nearly 100 protected elements or processes. Private companies in developed countries are the dominant players in this new industry because of the large amount of financial and human resources needed to carry out the research and also because they have built up extensive IPR portfolios enabling them to bring developed products to market.

Participants maintained that IPR had a negative effect on agricultural biotechnology research in developing countries, because they interfered with the traditional system whereby potentially useful technologies could be simply transferred from developed to developing countries. In addition, whereas the so-called “green revolution” was made possible by publicly-funded agricultural research, especially in the CGIAR institutes, there were concerns that public sector institutes were currently hindered from playing a leading role in this new “biotechnology revolution” because of IPR (or, to be more precise, their lack of a comprehensive IPR portfolio to serve their needs).

A frequently cited concern was that, as part of this new revolution, genetic resources of local communities in developing countries were being patented by biotechnology companies in developed countries to provide them with the raw materials needed to develop new products in areas such as human health care, industrial processing or food and agriculture. Much anger was expressed about this issue as it was felt that the IPR system favoured developed countries and MNCs and that developing country communities were not protected; that their contribution to the genetic resources was not acknowledged and that the benefits arising from technical exploitation of the resources were not shared with them.

Although many concerns were raised about these IPR issues, there was also much fruitful discussion on strategies to avoid or alleviate the negative impacts of IPR on food and agriculture in developing countries.

9.4 Domination of agricultural biotechnology by developed countries and by the private sector

Participants pointed out that developing countries currently have low capacity to develop and use biotechnology. In general, the technologies are expensive and may be protected by IPR; governments have limited resources for research and development and there may be a lack of sufficiently qualified people trained to use them.

Agricultural biotechnology is dominated by developed countries and, in particular, by the private sector and a small number of MNCs in developed countries. This reality was highlighted as having a negative impact on developing countries in many conferences (especially the crop sector and the two non-sectoral conferences) and was the background to many heated exchanges concerning the socio-political nature and consequences of biotechnology. There were two major areas of contention.

Firstly, participants were concerned that this situation would make developing countries dependent (or more dependent) on developed countries (or on private companies in developed countries). This is because, as explained in the previous section, IPR play a central role in agricultural biotechnology. Since IPR determine access to the products (e.g. new plant varieties) and to the processes needed to develop the products, this potentially gives the IPR holders (primarily in developed countries) a considerable amount of power (especially given the importance of the final end product, i.e. food).

Secondly, as it is dominated by the private sector, participants pointed out that the application of agricultural biotechnology is determined by the laws of the market and it is therefore directed primarily towards the needs of the clients of these companies i.e. farmers in developed countries. The products developed by the companies do not, in general, include traits (such as drought resistance or salt tolerance) that might be important for small, food-insecure farmers in developing countries as these farmers do not represent an important market for the companies. The implications of this situation for hunger and food security in developing countries are quite substantial and were much discussed in the conference dedicated to this theme. Participants emphasized the importance of ensuring sufficient support for public sector agricultural research initiatives directed to the needs of small farmers.

9.5 Biotechnology as a “magic bullet”

There seemed to be general recognition that biotechnology could be a valuable tool for addressing specific problems facing farmers in developing countries. However, in each of the sector-specific conferences, people also argued that biotechnology should only be used in developing countries when basic management or infrastructural requirements were in place or well established. More specifically, they argued that scarce resources in the crop sector should be used to prioritize basics such as seed supply, extension services or conventional breeding rather than biotechnology; that basic forest management practices should be prioritized over development of GM trees; that biotechnologies should only be employed to genetically improve livestock if animal health and husbandry aspects were also considered and that low-technology solutions should be emphasized in aquaculture in developing countries.

Although there might be a temptation to view new technologies as a “magic bullet” or as a “quick-fix” solution, participants seemed to suggest from experience that this seldom worked out in practice. It was also pointed out that some scientists tend to be dazzled by technological advances and that there was a need to emphasize needs-driven rather than tools-driven solutions for the problems in developing countries.

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