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Chapter 8
Some Practical Problems for Biotechnology Research in Developing Countries

8.1 Present Research Priorities and Change

Biotechnology research from its broadest definition (any biological manipulation) to its narrowest definition (recombinant DNA technology) requires the same mechanisms to optimise progress in livestock production. They involve:—

Major nutritional constraints to livestock production in developing countries may be categorised according to feed availability and quality. In the cropping areas, animals are sustained largely on crop residues and by-products in which deficiencies of nutrients is the major problem. In the rangelands, the feeds available are deficient in nutrients and there is a seasonal shortage of pasture in the dry season when the available feed resources are even more deficient in nutrients than they were during the grazing season. These problems may be overcome to some extent by supplementary feeding strategies which emphasise the balance of nutrition of animals and include methods to increase feed digestibility (see Preston & Leng, 1987).

Although a wide range of biotechnologies can be brought to bear on these two strategies, within the nutritional emphasis of this report it is feed technology that is likely to produce the greatest advances for the small farmer in the developing countries.

Recombinant DNA research in the developing countries is at a preliminary stage of development and is fraught with difficulties and lack of knowledge of, in particular, control of genetic expression. It is largely exploratory, even in the developed countries. In the advanced research institutes, and at the university level, it is most useful in expanding knowledge. On the contrary the large input by business interests, at the potentially practical, and therefore commercially applicable-level is highly secretive and often advanced.

The markets of multi-national companies are likely to be in the more wealthy developed world and are unlikely to have an impact upon the developing countries with its different interests and objectives and the largely unpredictable success rate of an innovation to increase animal production.

Biotechnology research in all developing countries lacks the infrastructure of, and skills in, the integrated sciences. There is a shortage of trained personnel and those that are trained are tending to develop along the lines that they began as trainees, PhD or Masters students. What is more, a significant number of these people are ‘skimmed off’ by institutions in the developed world if they show aptitudes as there is a shortage of trained personnel in these countries. The developing countries must consider the balance of research within a country. The need to partition the available funds and resources into areas that are likely to increase productivity in a reasonably short term and more importantly are likely to be accepted by small farmers.

The politics of research funding in every country where the majority of scientists are concerned only with the development of their own science, will ensure the dedication of government funds to recombinant DNA technology and in general, this will have priority over, what appears to be the more ‘mundane’ animal nutrition research. This seems inevitable even though feeding trials using basal poor quality feeds given to ruminants have indicated that balancing nutrition has the potential to increase animal productivity by 5–10 fold depending on location. On the other hand recombinant DNA technology has a high potential to fail; it is costly and breakthroughs will be at least as difficult to apply as the present research on supplementary feeding.

Developed countries have improved milk production per cow by 60% from 1976–1986, and this has been achieved by altering the feed base and simultaneously breeding of cows to take advantage of the ‘improved’ feed base. At the same time, Asia and Africa have improved their yield per cow by 13% and 7% respectively (Brumby, 1989). This indicates the enormous unused potential and the priorities for application. These are the manipulation of feed base with simultaneous genetic improvement.

Research and application in India has already demonstrated that a change of feed base with the introduction of cows with a high potential for milk production results in the large increases in productivity needed to lift production towards the demand for high quality protein by humans. The research application by NDDB and by others in a number of countries has indicated that high, realisable yields from Friesians or other breeds fed on local feeds (see Table 7.7) This re-emphasises the ‘less sophisticated’ biotechnology research concepts that are available to improve animal production from the available resources and which can be applied now. The need is to fit the technology to local conditions.

8.2 Real World Problems of Capitalising on Modern Biotechnology in Developing Countries

Many authors have suggested that the developing countries, in order to participate in the wealth that might be generated by modern biotechnology, (in this case largely dealing with recombinant DNA technology) must develop their research capacity in this area.

A country obtains the benefits of such developments from the new technology packages which when applied, result in improved animal productivity. However, the developing countries will at the present time have to purchase many developed packages which have not considered the particular constraint to production in their country. This may result in no benefit (or even a negative effect) as the purchase price of the technology will often be higher than the value of the increased productivity (e.g. the lift in milk yield of 25% by daily injections of BSt into buffaloes does not pay for the cost of the injections in India). The other way the country will benefit is by its scientists being the inventor, preserving the world patent rights or by preserving at least the production and distribution rights from any invention for the country.

The major problems here will be the same as for small-return businesses in the industrial world attempting to develop with limited finance. The potential of large companies being able to move in, take over, buy out or simply compete for promising inventions are obvious with a recent example in the takeover of Genotec. Unless the developing country concerned are prepared to act in the same way as a multi national company, then any potentially highly-profitable invention is likely to be lost to the industrialised giants. This can happen even before the research scientists have identified the importance of their research.

The developing countries in general have only ‘embryonic’ staff, trained in the new biotechnology largely by the scientists from the industrialised countries. The research groups in developing countries are centered around a few ‘high quality’ scientists who recognise the need to develop new areas (rather than to compete with the scientists with whom they were trained); they lack funding and they will have major problems if they make a major discovery with the scaling up of a development and in defending their resultant patents. It is imperative that along with the development of modern biotechnology there must be development of expertise in patent application/patent protection, deciding on commercial partnerships, scaling up operations and market research.

Given the business ethos it would be highly improbable that a breakthrough in biotechnology that would be applicable on a world basis would be fully capitalised by the inventor or his/her country.

The greatest problems come after the inventive stage when commercialisation is needed. For example, to produce commercial amounts of a new chemical, scaling up of the laboratory research costs about 10 times the expenditure for the experimental research, the costs of commercialisation can be even 100 times higher than this figure.

The lessons of recent years from the take over of new biotechnology discoveries in developed countries suggest that funding of biotechnology research should:—

Modern biotechnology research that is funded by Aid-Agencies is unlikely to be kept secret, with the present requirements and extent of the need to report back to the agency. The need for secrecy stems from the potential of discoveries to be valuable to commercial enterprise. Without support for patent development, scaling up operations etc. then any invention is likely to end up through a variety of ways as the property of a large company.

8.2.1 Secrecy in Industrialised Countries

The communication of information between scientists has long been recognised as a great facilitator of research. However, the high likely value of inventions (e.g. BSt was calculated to have an annual global market of US$500 million) in modern biotechnology has destroyed considerably the ethos of communication and study in science. At the present time even PhD graduates may be sworn to secrecy and their thesis only published when the data is “old hat” or a patent or process fully protected. This represents a considerable disadvantage for the scientists in developing countries who have restricted access to the literature, no access to industrial personnel and limited funds to travel.

Most of the modern biotechnology is now financed by commercial enterprise who have ‘picked off’ and employed the scientific experts in many fields and have tight security on their developments. For any ‘start up’ researcher to get ahead and stay ahead of such commercial research it will only be possible where the research is only of local interest or is aimed at sections of the community that do not have the capacity to pay and therefore the inventions/strategies are to be made available at no cost.

8.2.2 The Need for Expertise in Developing Countries to Capitalise on Various Developments

The development of a capacity for biotechnology research and teaching and for scientists with a depth of knowledge in the field allows a country to access product development and also to pick-up technologies applicable to local or small markets and discarded for economic reasons by large companies. It also allows that country to capitalise on inventions following patent expiration. The question now is how to retain such expertise in countries with limited ability to develop a research resource in modern biotechnology. The only option appears to be specialised national institutes funded from within a country.

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