One of the main messages emerging from this year's State of Food and Agriculture report is that biotechnology is capable of benefiting small, resource-poor farmers. The key question is how this scientific potential can be brought to bear on agricultural problems of developing-country producers. Biotechnology holds great promise as a new tool in the scientific toolkit for generating applied agricultural technologies, but it is not a panacea.
Although the evidence suggests that biotechnology is relevant to all areas of agriculture, the research and farm-level applications - with some exceptions primarily in the plant sector - are taking place primarily in developed countries. The challenge at present is to design an innovation system that focuses this potential on the problems of developing countries.
Agricultural production systems in developing countries are complex and diverse. Many producers are small-scale and resource-poor, and for such producers some biotechnology innovations may be inappropriate. For example, animal reproductive technologies such as artificial insemination or embryo transfer that are quite common in North America and Europe require capital infrastructure beyond the reach of the scale and scope of their farms. Transgenic crops, by contrast, may be relatively easy for farmers to adopt because the technology is embodied in the seed - rendering it the most scale-neutral and easily transferable form of agricultural technology. Modern biotechnology must be incorporated into agricultural research and development programmes that begin with breeding and improved management, not as stand-alone technologies.
A second important message of this issue of The State of Food and Agriculture is that some transgenic crops, especially insect-resistant cotton, are yielding significant economic gains to small farmers as well as important social and environmental benefits through the changing use of agricultural chemicals. The evidence to date suggests that small farmers as well as large farmers can benefit from the adoption of transgenic crops targeted towards insect resistance.
Even though transgenic crops have been delivered through the private sector in most cases, the benefits have been widely distributed among industry, farmers and consumers. This suggests that the monopoly position engendered by intellectual property protection does not automatically lead to excessive industry profits. The Bt cotton results in Argentina demonstrate that the balance between the intellectual property rights of technology suppliers and the financial means of farmers has a crucial impact on adoption of the products and hence on the level and distribution of benefits. The case of China clearly illustrates that public-sector involvement in research and development and in the delivery of transgenic cotton can help ensure that poor farmers have access to the new technologies and that their share of the economic benefits is adequate.
Overall, it is the producers and consumers who are reaping the largest share of the economic benefits of transgenic crops, not the companies that develop and market them. Research evidence from Argentina, China, Mexico and South Africa suggests that small farmers have had no more difficulty than larger farmers in adopting the new technologies. In some cases, transgenic crops seem to simplify the management process in ways that favour smaller farmers. Further research needs to focus on policies and incentive structures that ensure that these gains are sustained as larger numbers of farmers adopt the technologies. Time and more carefully designed studies are required to determine what the level and distribution of benefits from transgenic crops will be.
A third message is that the changing locus of agricultural research from the public sector to the private transnational sector has important implications for the kinds of products that are being developed, how those products are commercialized and who receives the benefits. Private-sector research naturally focuses on the crops and traits of commercial interest to farmers in higher-income countries where markets for agricultural inputs are robust and profitable.
Although private-sector agricultural research expenditures seem overwhelmingly large, the reality is that they are focused very narrowly on the development of biotechnology-related plant varieties, and even that only for a very small number of crops. A large part of the private-sector investment is concentrated on just four crops: cotton, maize, canola and soybean. Private-sector investment in the world's two most important food crops, rice and wheat, is insignificant in comparison.
Moreover, all of the private-sector investment is targeted towards the commercial production sector in the developed world, with some spillover benefits flowing to the commercial sector in the developing world. The public sector, with its increasingly meagre budget, is left to take care of the research and technology needs of the subsistence farming sector, as well as being the only source of supply for conventionally bred seed as well as crop and resource management technologies.
Agricultural public goods, such as crops and traits of importance to subsistence farmers in marginal production environments, are of little interest to large transnational companies. The data on transgenic crop research show that the needs of resource-poor smallholders are being neglected, and the data on commercialization are even more dramatic. One of the lessons of the Green Revolution is that agricultural technology can be transferred internationally, especially to countries that have sufficient national agricultural research capacity to adapt the high-yielding cultivars developed by the international public sector for local production environments.
So how will farmers in developing countries be able to capture economic spillover benefits from the transgenic crops developed and commercialized by the private sector? Private-sector investments in genomics and genetic engineering could be potentially useful in addressing the problems faced by poor farmers, particularly those in marginal environments. Knowledge generated through genomics, for example, could have enormous potential in advancing the search for drought-tolerant crops in the tropics.
The question that needs to be asked is whether incentives exist, or can be created, for public-private sector partnerships that allow the public sector to use and adapt technologies developed by the private sector for the problems faced by the poor. How can licensing agreements be designed that will allow private-sector technologies to be licensed to the public sector for use on problems of the poor? Research presented in this report suggests that the public sector may have to purchase the right to use private-sector technology on behalf of the poor.
A fourth message from this report is that biotechnology is not a panacea, but a resource that can be useful when combined with adaptive research capacity. Regulatory regimes matter. Biosafety processes need to be in place. Countries that lack biosafety protocols or the capacity to implement them in a transparent, predictable and trusted way may not have access to the new technologies. Where crops have not been cleared through biosafety risk assessments that take into consideration local agro-ecological conditions, a greater risk of harmful environmental consequences exists. Additionally, unauthorized varieties may not provide farmers with the expected level of pest control, leading to continued need for chemical pesticides and a greater risk of the development of pest resistance.
A final message is that the environmental effects in terms of pesticide reduction can be positive. In the case of Bt cotton, the environmental outcomes have been strongly positive. In virtually all instances, insecticide use on Bt cotton is significantly lower than on conventional varieties. Furthermore, for herbicide-tolerant soybeans, glyphosate has been substituted for more toxic and persistent herbicides, and reduced tillage has accompanied herbicide-tolerant soybeans and cotton in many cases. Negative environmental consequences, although meriting continued monitoring, have not been documented in any setting where transgenic crops have been deployed to date.
So how can the Gene Revolution reach those left behind? First, by overcoming production constraints that are intractable with conventional breeding, biotechnology can speed up conventional breeding programmes and provide farmers with disease-free planting materials. Second, biotechnology can develop crops that resist pests and diseases, replacing toxic chemicals that harm the environment and human health. Third, biotechnology can develop diagnostic tools and vaccines that help control devastating animal diseases. Finally, biotechnology can improve the nutritional quality of staple foods such as rice and cassava and create new products for health and industrial uses.
The problem is that biotechnology cannot overcome the gaps in infrastructure, regulation, markets, seed systems and extension services that hinder the delivery of agricultural technologies to poor farmers in remote areas. Neither can it overcome the institutional failures, market failures and policy failures that hinder all efforts to promote agricultural and rural development in many countries. A great deal needs to be done so that developing-country producers are empowered to make their own decisions regarding these technologies for their own benefit.
Given that technologies that are on the shelf today (generated by conventional research methods) have not yet reached the poorest farmers' fields, there is no guarantee that the new biotechnologies will fare any better. Identifying small farmers' constraints to technology access and use continues to be an issue that the development community must address. Investments in biotechnology research capacity for the public sector will only be worthwhile if the current difficulties in delivering conventional technologies to subsistence farmers can be reversed.
The six main lessons for ensuring that the potential benefits of agricultural biotechnology reach the poor areas are as follows: