Presentations and discussions took place over the course of three days. For convenience, the main ideas and issues are discussed under six broad headings.
The public sector, in particular the NARS, has the largest responsibility for conducting agricultural research and applying the results. This includes producing improved crop varieties for cultivation by a country’s farmers. The capacity to undertake this work varies enormously among countries and even within regions. This was highlighted during the presentations of country data and regional syntheses. While some countries have taken on board some of the more advanced methods of biotechnology, most are struggling to maintain, rehabilitate and initiate meaningful plant breeding programmes. Although the overall trend is towards reduced funding and decreased capacity to produce new, adapted varieties of essential crops, there are certain regions that are able to do a better job than others are. A few countries are very advanced. One of the principal factors underlying the problem of reduced funding faced by the public sector is lack of awareness among policy makers of the impact of plant breeding on national development. Those countries that were not able to benefit from the improved varieties and farming practices that derived from the Green Revolution have not made as much progress as those that were able to benefit. It is generally under-appreciated that the returns to investment in plant breeding are substantial and that without plant breeding it is difficult to effect progress in agrarian societies.
The private sector encompasses a range of enterprises, including plant breeders, processing industries, seed distributors, agrochemical producers and marketers among others. Numerous private sector companies are integral components of the agricultural economy of many countries, where they play essential roles. During recent times, some companies in the private sector, particularly large multinationals have invested heavily in agricultural research, and particularly in biotechnology. The results of much of this research are not publicly available and cannot be used by national programmes to improve the situation of small farmers in developing countries. In the absence of regulatory frameworks in many developing countries, adapted crop varieties that incorporate elements of genetic engineering cannot be deployed. Moreover, private industry has concentrated heavily on a small number of crops of global importance. These are not necessarily the most important crops for small-scale farmers who often have to meet subsistence needs before they can consider cultivating crops to generate income.
The major issue in connection with the roles of the public and private sector is that they largely operate independently. In addition, the private sector is often able to attract the best qualified and most able individuals, to the detriment of the public sector. Public-private joint ventures, based on complementarity rather than competition, were seen by the working group as being vital to supporting agricultural production and plant breeding in developing countries. Co-operatives were considered a good example of how small-scale farmers could benefit from a more business-like approach to crop production and retail, especially in the seed sector. Encouraging small-scale agricultural enterprises was seen as a good way to boost development.
With changing priorities among multilateral, bilateral and national donors, there has been a general move away from funding plant breeding. Not only do many donors have agendas that are not set according to recipient country needs, the agendas also change relatively rapidly in comparison with the long-term commitment that is necessary to realise benefits from plant breeding. A further marked failing is the fragmented way in which donors often operate. A coordinated, longer-term response was considered necessary to be able to achieve results in plant breeding that could benefit farmers and consumers in the developing world. Not only is it imperative that plant breeding programmes are funded over the long term, as plant breeders are not able to work without operational budgets, but capacity building also has to be addressed to make sure that there are trained personnel available to do the work.
Selected results from the questionnaire and consequent discussion indicated that declining plant breeding capacity, in terms of stagnant or reduced budgets and fewer released varieties, was confounded in some instances by increases in staff establishment and qualifications. One factor underlying this was changing age profiles of staff. Young, well-qualified people are attracted to other professions that offer better conditions and career prospects. Moreover, although biotechnology might feature among the more attractive subjects, it is very often isolated from practical plant breeding. What is required currently is a workforce that can use the tools of biotechnology in plant breeding. Without adequate numbers of suitably qualified staff, productive plant breeding will not be possible. Capacity building to achieve these ends was considered a priority area.
The international agricultural research centers of the CGIAR have tremendous potential for contributing to capacity building. Not only do they conduct research on many of the world’s most important crops, but they also represent an opportunity for NARS to send staff for training and retraining in a wide variety of subjects. Furthermore, ample field, laboratory and greenhouse facilities allow practical work to be pursued in cooperation with academic institutions elsewhere, including regional centers of excellence, which might provide training in plant breeding theory. Several CGIAR centres contribute substantially to NARS plant breeding efforts through supplying advanced germplasm, but they do not substitute for strong NARS: they strengthen NARS.
Plant breeders’ rights (PBR) and intellectual property rights (IPR) were discussed as a means of encouraging private-public cooperation through promotion of public sector income generation, while protecting the interests of breeders. They are also able to accommodate participatory plant breeding. Subsistence farmers1, moreover, are exempt from much of the legislation involved in PBR, and are able to save and sow seed of protected varieties without the need for permission of the breeder. It was considered that PBR suited a variety of circumstances, although not all.
Prospects for regional cooperation in plant breeding were discussed. Where crops and cropping systems are common to a region it might be possible to mount a regional approach to plant breeding, and thereby reduce overall costs and limit unnecessary and unproductive duplication and competition. This will only be feasible under circumstances where associated legislation, particularly that regarding transfer of plant material across national borders, is harmonised. An added benefit of this approach might be that the stronger NARS could support weaker ones in a region.
Other forms of novel policy implementation to promote funding were discussed, including levies on products (not necessarily agricultural products) that could be fed back into the system to support research.
Biotechnology is an integral feature of modern plant breeding research and practice. It is not however sufficiently well embedded in practical plant breeding in developing countries. It covers a wide range of methods, from relatively straightforward and cheap tissue culture, through marker assisted selection to genetic engineering. Some, and in a few cases all, of the biotechnologies associated with crop development have become part of plant breeding programmes in developing countries. Inadequate infrastructure, inadequate funding and lack of trained staff represent major obstacles to uptake however. These issues have to be addressed if plant breeding in developing countries is to be kept up-to-date. Capacity building in plant biotechnology will be most beneficial when staff are part of or closely linked with plant breeding programmes.
It was proposed, and generally accepted, that there was a need for more consultations before any decisions could be reached on the way forward for strengthening national plant breeding and biotechnology capacity. It was suggested that a workshop should be organised with country representatives and decision-makers to increase awareness of the benefits of plant breeding and application of appropriate biotechnology to plant breeding. Presenting work on small-scale seed systems and establishing the links with plant breeding could follow this. Engagement with the private sector would be beneficial to establish common ground. Finally, having developed a strategy for strengthening national plant breeding capacities, meetings could be held with donors to discuss future funding. It was thought necessary to keep these steps separate and move relatively slowly rather than attempt to address all issues and include numerous stakeholders at a single meeting.
It was agreed that it would be useful to move forward with the national plant breeding survey, including more countries. There was a perceived need to address some of the issues concerning what has happened to plant breeding staff and what underlies the observed trends in staffing. It is essential to complete analysis of the data already received and publish it. Data up to 2004 have been requested and it was suggested that information on private-public linkages would represent a useful addition to those data already collected. The survey should be reviewed regularly by the participating countries.
The possibilities of setting up a special fund were discussed, with specific reference to linking with the private sector, and particularly for crops that do not currently interest the private sector. The IT was considered a possible mechanism to leverage funds to support small-scale seed enterprises with plant breeding activities. During the course of the discussion, it was suggested that FAO might consider publishing a text describing success stories in development of small-scale agro-industries, seed industries in particular, and the linkages with plant breeding.
1 Their are private and non-commercial activities are excluded from the scope of the breeder’s right under the UPOV Convention.