Green Revolution vs. Gene Revolution
Questions of access and equity must be addressed
According to the new FAO report, The State of Food and Agriculture 2004, the majority of agricultural biotechnology research is being carried out by private companies based primarily in industrialized countries. This is a dramatic departure from the Green Revolution, in which the public sector played a strong role in bringing the power of agricultural research to bear on the problems of hunger and rural poverty in the developing world.
Currently, the world's top ten transnational bioscience corporations' collective annual expenditure on agricultural biotechnology R&D totals nearly US$3 billion. By comparison, the total annual budget of the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research ? CGIAR, the largest international public-sector supplier of agricultural technologies focusing on the needs of developing countries ? is less than US$300 million.
And production and commercialization of new biotechnologies and genetically engineered crops is almost entirely in the hands of the private sector. All of the genetically engineered crops that have been commercialized in the world to date, with the exception of those in China, have been developed by private firms, notes FAO in its report.
According to FAO, this paradigm shift has significant implications for the kind of research that is performed, the types of technologies that are developed, and the way these technologies are used.
"The dominance of the private sector in agricultural biotechnology raises concerns that farmers in developing countries, particularly poor farmers, may not benefit ? either because appropriate innovations are not available or are too expensive," reports the Organization in SOFA 2004.
The molecular divide
FAO studies also show that industrialized nations spend four times more on public-sector biotechnology research than developing countries do, even when all sources of public funding ? national, overseas aid and CGIAR centres ? are counted for the latter.
Even the largest public-sector agricultural research programmes in the developing world ? those of Brazil, China and India ? have modest annual budgets, all of them running less than half a billion dollars each.
Of more than 11 000 field trials performed on 81 different transgenic crops since 1987, only 15 percent have taken place in developing or transition countries. In fact, most of the biotechnology research being conducted by the private-sector in developing countries involves trials of their own transgenic plant varieties, reports FAO in SOFA 2004.
A shifting research agenda
These trends have had important implications for the types of products that are being developed and commercialized, notes FAO.
Private-sector research focuses on the crops and traits of commercial interest to farmers in higher income countries where markets for agricultural inputs are robust and profitable. But agricultural public goods, including crops and traits of importance to subsistence farmers in marginal production environments, are of little interest to large transnational companies, according to SOFA 2004.
"The dominance of the private sector in developing GM varieties suggests that the crops and production constraints of particular importance to the poor may be neglected because the markets for these seeds are probably quite small," notes the report.
The situation has begun to change ? somewhat. Field trials for wheat and rice, the most important food crops in developing countries, have increased in recent years, and a transgenic cassava variety was tested for the first time in 2000. Additionally, biotech staples such as bananas, sweet potatoes, lentils and lupins have all been approved for field testing in a few countries.
However, almost two-thirds of the field trials in industrialized countries and three-quarters of those in developing countries focus on two traits that may not be of paramount importance to poor farmers: herbicide tolerance and insect resistance.
"Although insect resistance is an important trait for developing countries, herbicide tolerance may be less relevant in areas where farm labour is abundant," explains SOFA 2004.
"By contrast, agronomic traits of particular importance to developing countries and marginal production areas, such as potential yields and abiotic stress tolerance (e.g. drought and salinity), are the subject of very few field trials in industrialized countries and even fewer in developing countries."
Intellectual property and public goods: inherently incompatible?
One of the primary factors underlying the private sector's growing investment in agricultural biotechnology research is the fact that over the last 25 years strong international measures protecting intellectual property rights have come into play.
This provided companies with economic incentive to invest in biotech R&D. But while intellectual property protections have greatly stimulated private-sector research in developed countries, they can restrict access to research tools for researchers in developing countries: many of the innovations of the Gene Revolution are held under patents or exclusive licences, meaning that developing countries face increasing costs accessing and using new technologies.
What is urgently needed, argues FAO in SOFA 2004, is a system of technology flows that preserves the incentives driving private-sector innovation while at the same time meeting the needs of poor farmers in the developing world.
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