Genes, Technology and Policy/Ownership Of and Access to Biotechnology

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Do developing countries stand to benefit from the use of modern biotechnology?

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Yes, but developing countries should remember that the institutional and economic environment within which modern biotechnology R&D is being conducted differs significantly from that of Green Revolution technologies. The latter was essentially the prerogative of public research institutions and philanthropic foundations. In contrast, the application of modern biotechnology to agriculture is a competitive, commercial endeavor in which powerful private sector interests compete. [72] Multinational companies in the seed, agricultural chemical, pharmaceutical and food-processing industries play a major role in biotechnology research. Also, as a result of mergers and acquisitions in the past years, the development of new biotechnology applications in agriculture has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few companies. The dominant companies that currently operate within the global markets are Monsanto, Syngenta and Pioneer Hi-Bred.

The Food and Agriculture Organization has pointed out that current transgenic crop releases are still “very narrow” in terms of crops and traits, and thus have yet to address the special needs of developing countries. While some 200 crops are currently under field testing in developing countries and other crop-trait combinations are being investigated, focusing mostly on virus resistance, crop quality, and in some cases, tolerance to abiotic stresses, many crops (e.g., vegetables) and traits (e.g., drought- and aluminum-resistance) important to developing countries are still almost entirely neglected. [73]

Relatively little biotechnology research is being undertaken on the problems of small farmers in rainfed and marginal lands. Neither is there much interest in crops like wheat, sorghum, millet, banana, lentils, cassava, groundnut, and sweet potato. These are considered orphan crops because of the private sector’s reluctance to work on them. [74] They have limited appeal because they are grown mainly for personal consumption by poor farmers. Hence, public sector research will have to fill in the void by exploiting the research potential of biotechnology to solve the high-priority problems of the developing world. [75]

What can be done in the global arena to enable developing countries to take advantage of the potential benefits of modern biotechnology?

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There is a need to push for a global governance regime for biotechnology that will help to bring a large number of developing countries into the global trading system. The elements of such a governance system should include improvements in market access, development of technological capabilities, access to technology, national regulation of biotechnology, and the management of risks and benefits associated with its use. [76]

Although scientific advances in biotechnology appear to be concentrated in a small number of developed countries, the following factors will allow for the wider participation of developing countries in the new bioeconomy: [77]

1. The growing recognition that the current patterns of globalization are untenable if they do not increasingly include developing country products. Developing countries depend on industries that are based on natural resources and can therefore benefit from the use of modern biotechnology.

2. Many of the techniques used in biotechnology research are becoming readily available because of scientific familiarity, and are therefore relatively easy to acquire through sustained capacity development and enterprise development efforts.

3. Much of the initial R&D expenditures have already been borne by the industrialized countries. What is needed is effective international technology partnerships to enable developing countries to benefit from biotechnology R&D.

However, much will depend on the level of domestic technological capacity in developing countries and the kind of global biotechnology governance system that emerges from the current policy debates. A global governance system that provides opportunities for market access will help to foster the commercialization of new technologies, especially those that threaten to alter the patterns and loci of productions. Resistance to new technologies is likely to be reduced by perceptions of access to the new technologies, as well as to their markets. [78]

Does the current GMO controversy help in clarifying the issues surrounding the use of modern biotechnology?

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Unfortunately, the debate over GMOs has focused on risks to human health and the environment. While these concerns are important, the debate does not adequately reflect the interests of developing countries. This is because the issues are framed in the context of industrialized country concerns.

For instance, the debate ignores the fact that since the rural poor in developing countries are mostly in farming, any technology that helps lighten the load of agricultural workers can free up time to pursue higher-earning occupations. An oft-cited example of the revolutionary potential of modern biotechnology is the harvest in 2001 by Kenyan farmers of the first trial crop of sweet potatoes for resistance to an aphid-borne disease that previously killed up to 80% of their crops. [79]

In addition, one of the main policy goals of developing countries is to enhance food security, a problem that may not be present in many developed countries. While biotechnology cannot solve all of the problems associated with agricultural production, there is no denying the fact that it has the potential to address specific problems such as increasing crop productivity, diversifying crops, enhancing the nutritional value of food, reducing environmental impacts of agricultural productions, and promoting market competitiveness.

Developing countries are hampered in their ability to benefit from advances in modern biotechnology because of the lack of scientific and technological capacity and the low level of enterprise development in most of these countries. While the responsibility for formulating policies and strategies for the wider use of biotechnology lies within the domestic leadership, international cooperation and partnerships are essential in promoting sustainable agriculture in the developing world. [80]

Can modern biotechnology solve the problems of developing countries in agriculture?

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Biotechnology is simply one of the instruments that developing countries can use in finding solutions to problems in agriculture. While biotechnology has many potential benefits, it is not—and cannot be—a solution for all of the problems confronting the agricultural sector. After all, technology is only one of many factors for agricultural growth. Hence, while encouraging biotechnology research and development, developing countries should continue to invest in water and soil management, farm-to-market infrastructure, and credit access programs, among others. [81]

However, no developing country can ignore the promise of safe and responsible use of biotechnology, whether in the medical or agricultural spheres.