Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

8. Capacity building for biotechnology in food and agriculture

The case studies examined in Chapter 4 revealed that small farmers in developing countries can benefit from transgenic crops, as they have done in the past from other productivity-enhancing technological innovations. However, these gains are not automatic. Nations need adequate policy and institutional/technical capacity to deliver them and farmers need access to suitable innovations on affordable terms. Unlike the Green Revolution, which was based on an explicit strategy of the international transfer of improved technology as a free public good, almost all transgenic crop varieties and most other agricultural biotechnology innovations are being created and disseminated by the private sector. Chapter 7 addressed some strategies to increase public and private research and partnerships that focus on developing technologies to address the problems of the poor.

However, several barriers stand in the way of biotechnology reaching resource-poor farmers and especially the poor countries that could benefit substantially from these innovations. Safe and informed use of biotechnology requires adequate capacity for policy formulation, agricultural research, financial resources and marketing channels, as well as a framework for intellectual property rights and the capacity to handle the regulatory matters regarding food safety, human and livestock health, and environmental safety. Although biotechnology is evolving rapidly and is poised to play a fundamental role in further agricultural and economic development, there remains a large gap in most developing countries and especially among the least developed in their ability to assess their specific circumstances, meet their commitments and benefit from the opportunities that may arise from biotechnology. There is often a policy vacuum and inadequate capability to comply with the international instruments relating to biotechnology.

The most frequent problems encountered by developing countries and countries in transition are:

National capacities in agricultural biotechnology

Strong and dynamic capacity at the technical, institutional and management levels is the most important requisite for successful and sustainable application of biotechnology in food and agriculture. However, developing countries and countries with economies in transition vary widely in their capacity to manage agricultural biotechnology effectively. In particular, they span a wide spectrum in their capacities for agricultural biotechnology research and regulatory management, including intellectual property rights.

In recent years, there has been a steady development of agricultural biotechnology capacity in several of the larger countries, notably in Brazil, China and India, where human and financial resources allocated to biotechnology R&D are relatively high and experience in the commercialization of biotechnology products is growing. Where governments have made substantial investments in public-sector agricultural biotechnology research in the developing world, several common themes emerge. First, they have gradually built a strong scientific base in agricultural research and biotechnology. Their national research institutes are encouraged to be actively involved in bilateral and international collaborative research programmes in diverse fields of agricultural biotechnology. Second, in their national policies they have specifically identified science and technology, and biotechnology in particular, as an important engine of economic growth both for agriculture and for the health sector. Third, their public agricultural research programmes have had substantial success in promoting rapid agricultural growth. These countries have seen the explosive growth of information technology and its contributions to their economies and hope for similar growth through medical and agricultural biotechnology.

Towards the middle of the spectrum are those developing countries that are now beginning to incorporate biotechnology increasingly in their agricultural research programmes, for instance Egypt and Indonesia. These countries generally have moderately strong conventional agricultural research capacity and are developing strong biotechnology capacity in several areas.

Further towards the other end of the spectrum are those countries that have not advanced far in direct application of the tools and techniques, except for applications of simpler techniques such as micropropagation and tissue culture. Again, these countries have several things in common. Research efforts are less advanced and often several related programmes are scattered over a wide range of products and institutes. The programmes are often heavily dependent on donor funding and run the risk of drying up as soon as the funds are exhausted. Furthermore, the marketing and management of biotechnology products are virtually absent, as is the critical mass required to raise public awareness. In many instances, governments do not accord sufficient priority to agricultural research, and policies to support agricultural research in general and agricultural biotechnology in particular are either lacking or not implemented. Because advancements in agricultural biotechnology are severely constrained in these countries, potential payoffs from biotechnology research and development programmes remain low.

The recently launched FAO-BioDeC14 is a database providing updated baseline information on the state-of-the-art biotechnology products and techniques that are in use or in the pipeline in developing countries and those with economies in transition. Currently, the database includes about 2 000 entries from 70 countries and focuses on research, testing and commercialization of specific crop technologies and products in developing countries. Although the data are limited, they do give an overview of the different stages of adoption and development of these technologies in different countries and regions and offer the possibility of identifying gaps, as well as potential partners for joint programmes in areas of common interest.

In addition to research capacity, countries also vary widely in their capacity to regulate biotechnology. The spectrum ranges from those that have well-developed IPR regimes and food safety and environmental safety regulatory procedures to those that have little or no capacity to manage these issues.

International capacity-building activities in agricultural biotechnology

A number of private, governmental, non-governmental and intergovernmental organizations are involved in one or more ways in capacity-building programmes in biotechnology. The focus areas include policy development assistance, research, technology transfer, biosafety measures and related regulatory oversight, development of associated legislation and creating public awareness. A wide range of activities are carried out for strengthening the policy, institutional and technical level of competence. Agencies involved in such initiatives are the International Service for National Agricultural Research (ISNAR) Biotechnology Service (IBS), the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), the ISAAA, the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), USAID and many more. Although there is some overlap between the services offered by these organizations, each fulfils a certain function different to the others or places more emphasis on certain areas. There is no global information on the entire range of activities being carried out in agricultural biotechnology; however, the Biosafety Capacity Building database of the Biosafety Clearing-House15 provides a good overview of the various project activities being carried out in this area around the world.

FAO role and assistance to member countries

FAO provides global fora to facilitate dialogue, and is a repository of statistical information. FAO can play a pivotal role in assisting Member Governments with science-based guidance on this subject as well as in standard-setting. Some of the key activities focused on biotechnology are as follows.

BOX 27
FAO and capacity building in agricultural biotechnology in Bangladesh

In 2002, FAO and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) conducted an assessment of the status of biotechnology application in Bangladesh. Based on this assessment, the Government of Bangladesh formulated a National Programme for Biotechnology (NPB), which aims to utilize biotechnology as an important complementary route to fight food insecurity and poverty, two pressing problems of the nation. The NPB will promote awareness at all levels; establish and implement appropriate policies, strategies and partnerships; strengthen investment, institutional and market support; and undertake focused and integrated biotechnological research and development. The key components of the NPB are:

  • National Policy for Biotechnology, its implementation and governance. Address the technological and enabling aspects of biotechnology application. A National Taskforce for Sustainable Biotechnological Development (NTSBD), under the chairmanship of the Principal Secretary of the Office of the Prime Minister, will ensure that the policy is being effectively implemented. The NTSBD will provide transparent and efficient governance and build the required confidence in all stakeholders.
  • Enabling regulatory measures. Legislative and regulatory frameworks for IPR, TRIPS, biosafety, and access to and nagotiations on new technologies and products, consistent with the national needs and farmers' aspirations and rights, will be established and strengthened. Effective containment facilities, risk analysis, other biosafety-related capacities and human resources to manage regulatory aspects have high priority. The introduction, evaluation and commercialization of “Golden BR 29” (an elite Bangladeshi rice variety transformed at IRRI for high beta-carotene content) will be showcased to strengthen the national capacity in instituting and handling regulatory measures.
  • Institutional strengthening. Biotechnological R&D institutions in the country will be strengthened by equipping them with state-of-the-art infrastructure, centralized facilities, suitably trained human resources, information and communication facilities and by fostering public-private partnerships. The capacity of NTSBD will be augmented for priority-setting, system-based decision-making, handling of issues in a disaggregated manner, cementing research-extension-farmer-market links and for generating and allocating resources.
  • Biotechnology programmes. The NPB, following effective monitoring and evaluation, will focus on ecotechnologies towards an evergreen revolution, especially addressing the problems of small farmers. The following areas have been prioritized: production and distribution of in-vitro-cultured propagules, molecular characterization of genetic resources, diagnostics and recombinant vaccine production, biocontrol of pests and diseases, production and commercialization of quality (fish) fingerlings, development of transgenics for resistance to biotic and abiotic stresses, nutritional and other quality attributes, and molecular marker-assisted selection.
  • Three developments to help Bangladesh realize its goal. (a) For the first time, Bangladesh has created a budget line for biotechnology in its national budget; (b) in order to ensure high efficiency and interdepartmental cooperation and to avoid wasteful duplication of effort, the NTSBD is being chaired by the Principal Secretary of the Office of the Prime Minister; and (c) UNDP and other donors and international organizations have shown considerable interest in funding the new initiative.

Challenges in capacity building for agricultural biotechnology

Despite the range of capacity-building activities being carried out, much more needs to be done. The challenges faced are on a scale unlike those of other technological revolutions, including the Green Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. For instance, any application of biotechnology requires a framework for safety including that of the environment and of human and animal health. There is a demand for equitable distribution of the benefits from the genetic resources utilized for biotechnology. In addition, it is important to develop consensus within society on the use of biotechnology-based products through full and transparent participation of all stakeholders in decision-making. Some of the major challenges in adoption of biotechnology include:

These factors, either directly or indirectly, affect capacity building, retention of personnel, and the balance between public- and private-sector capabilities. Although not exclusive to biotechnology, the initial costs of developing these technologies may increase the difficulties. Developing countries need to avoid the trap of dependence and unsustainability in their biotechnology programmes. Government policies should establish mechanisms to encourage both public- and private-sector investment and participation in agricultural biotechnology. Public- and private-sector research should be consciously complementary and not competitive. The policy framework should not only promote the safe use of biotechnology but also ensure that policies are not a deterrent to investment by the private sector and to collaboration with external partners. In many developing countries such progressive institutional and organizational reforms are hampered by the absence of appropriate policies or their appropriate implementation.

Next steps

Recognizing the constraints, there is a conscious need to take a sustained, holistic, multistakeholder, participatory approach to realize the potential benefits of agricultural biotechnology. In developing countries, there is a greater need to ensure not just capacity creation but also its retention and enhancement. Capacity-building activities have to be carried out at all levels: to raise the awareness of policy- and decision-makers, to initiate necessary legal and regulatory frameworks, to enhance technical and regulatory capacity, and to revamp institutions if necessary. More importantly, there is a need for continuous assessment and deployment of competent human resources and institutional capacity so that, as biotechnology advances, the tools for its safe use are constantly evaluated, upgraded and applied. It appears to be a daunting task, but through a firm commitment and partnerships it can be achieved.

14 Available at
15 Available at
16 Available at

Previous PageTop Of PageNext Page