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Biology Articles » Biotechnology » Biotechnology and Food Systems in Developing Countries » What Stands in the Way of This Potential?

What Stands in the Way of This Potential?
- Biotechnology and Food Systems in Developing Countries

V. What Stands in the Way of This Potential? 

There are three categories of issues that are slowing the application of biotechnology to agricultural productivity in developing countries: scientific, economic and political.

The scientific issues are very complicated because there are so many avenues by which modern genetic technology can be used to improve the productivity of agricultural systems, many of which do not involve splicing genes into staple foods. An interested layman has to be impressed with the revolutionary speed of research advances. It seems as if almost anything is possible; thus, the key question is "what do we want?" The answers will come from the type of workshop held August 4–5, 2003, in Bogor, Indonesia, to assess the role of agricultural biotechnology for the country’s future research efforts. This workshop gathered a spectrum of agricultural scientists, policy makers and nongovernment organizations (NGOs) to set priorities for commodity-based research.11 Because of their importance to the Indonesian food system, rice, maize and sweet potatoes came at the top of the list.

The economic issues revolve around the key question "what will be profitable?" The answers will depend on the following: 1) consumer acceptance of GM products, including but not limited to foods (for example, there has been less consumer resistance to GM cotton than to foods, and economic production of biofuels is likely to meet little resistance as well); 2) regulatory costs of developing and utilizing GM technology; 3) supply and demand conditions in world commodity markets, which will themselves be influenced by developments in the GM field; and 4) the potential to develop "niche markets" for commodities that some farmers will be able to exploit (e.g., Peruvian asparagus grown in the North American winter season from tissue cultures started in Boston). Ultimately, agricultural biotechnology will succeed only if it is profitable for seed companies to produce it and farmers to use it.12

The political issues, without question, are the most difficult, and the mechanisms for resolving them remain highly imperfect. From the perspective of developing countries, there are five areas of concern and policy action, all with acute political dimensions:13

1. Intellectual Property Rights.

A key issue concerns the rights of farmers to retain and use patented seeds without paying royalties. The desire of patent holders to find a natural mechanism to make regular payments "necessary" led to development of the "terminator gene" which, understandably, caused great controversy and was never put into commercial use. Intellectual property rights were not a problem with hybrid seed technology because second generation seeds do not breed true.

There are two dimensions to this problem. The first is the ease with which individual farmers can keep productive seed for planting in following years without paying again, even if their payment for the seed in y 1 includes a contract to pay in future years. Enforcing contracts may not be difficult in the United States or Europe, but it is likely to be an enormous challenge in the developing world. Second, there is a concern among NGOs and policy makers that GM seeds could force traditional seeds, and domestic seed companies, out of the system, leaving a country’s food supply in the hands of a few large, often foreign, companies.

In response to these concerns, attention has focused on the patent process and who owns the basic genetic "rights" to staple foods. In a recent "Policy Forum" in Science, senior leaders of U.S. public universities proposed a new model for collaboration to keep patented discoveries in agricultural biotechnology as "public goods."14 This initiative does not, however, address the issue of methodological patents that are already in the hands of private companies. These patents require royalty payments during the research phase and considerable transaction costs in negotiating "freedom to operate" arrangements before commercialization of GM seeds begins.

2. Biosafety.

Biosafety concerns are primarily about release of exotic genetic material into "native" ecosystems, with unknown effect on long-run sustainability and biodiversity. A British government assessment in 2003 of the safety of GM crops was generally positive, but "concluded that the most important issue is the potentially detrimental effect on farmland biodiversity, soil ecology, allergenicity, and gene flow to non-GM plants."15 Further farm trials in the United Kingdom are underway to resolve this uncertainty.

3. Trade in GM Products.

The concern about trade in GM products arises because of the threat of boycotts of agricultural exports from countries using GM technology, even when the exported product is not a GM crop. Although enforcing such threats would presumably be illegal under the WTO, the threats alone cause most developing countries to be very careful about approving the import or growing of GM commodities. This concern is focused especially on threats from Europe, and the UK study noted above was a first step in addressing the Europe-wide moratorium on approving new GM products that has been in existence since 1998. At the August meeting in Bogor to assess crop biotechnology priorities in Indonesia, the likelihood that any of the GM commodities Indonesia might produce would be exported raised a cautionary flag, whether Europe was the destination or not. Once food products enter international trade, it is difficult to be certain what the final consumer market will be, especially for basic oils, starches and spices used widely in food processing. Indonesia, for example, is a major producer and exporter of many of these basic commodities.

4. Food Safety and Consumer Choice.

Much of the political opposition to GM foods in Europe arises from widespread consumer doubts over their safety because of the perception that GM foods are "unnatural" or unhealthy. The UK report found no evidence to support these doubts, but there has also been relatively little benefit to consumers from existing GM foods on grocery shelves. This could change if preserving the identity of non-GM foods proves to be extremely costly, so that substantial price discounts can be offered on foods containing GM ingredients. As an example, evidence of consumer willingness to pay for organic foods suggests that a 30% differential becomes too much for all but the most dedicated. Organic foods have spread rapidly when cost differentials with traditionally grown foods have been modest, but that is possible only as long as the organic sector remains a niche player in overall supplies. Foods produced using biotechnology offer continued downward trends in costs and prices, which are likely to be increasingly attractive to consumers, if they have the choice.

5. Public Research Investments.

Even poor countries need to invest public resources in the scientific capacity to evaluate the appropriate fit of GM crops to local environments and consumer attitudes, as the Indonesian Biotechnology Assessment Workshop indicated. What domestic research capacity is required in biotechnology, even if only for regulatory and safety purposes? Because the current scientific approach to these issues is conducted on a crop-by-crop, even trait-by-trait basis, countries intending to plant GM crops in their local fields will require substantial capacity to review the issues on a timely basis. Even if consumption of imported GM foods is all that is contemplated, the regulatory and food safety authorities will have to be cognizant of approaches in other countries, and competent to judge the adequacy of approvals made by other nations’ regulatory authorities. All of this argues that substantial local scientific expertise will be required in biotechnology.

After discussing these five policy issues, Paarlberg studied four cases: Brazil, China, India and Kenya. He discovered that only China seemed to be pursuing an "independent" approach to GM technology with respect to the country’s own needs. The others were heavily influenced in their approaches by external pressures, especially from European countries and vocal NGOs, mostly with links to and funding from parent NGOs in developed countries. Even China has put a moratorium on the commercial release of further GM agricultural commodities in 2003 as concerns mounted over their effect on trade access to European markets.

The rather sad case of Bt-Maize from the United States, to be used as food aid in southern Africa to cope with the severe drought in 2002, but rejected by several countries as "unsafe," illustrates just how radically split the political communities are over GM food. The "Precautionary Principle" is often invoked in these arguments, especially in defense of the European moratorium and European efforts to impose it on developing countries that trade with Europe. But this principle is more a mechanism for defending an entirely different kind of agricultural policy in Europe than a scientifically valid way of evaluating a new technology for costs and benefits.16 In its most extreme form, the precautionary principle argues that even large benefits cannot offset the possibility of costs to human health or the environment, no matter how small that possibility is deemed to be by the scientific community. Invoking the precautionary principle as a decision tool for public policy inevitably leads to stalemate in technology adoption. When the technology lowers the costs of food production or improves its nutritional quality, it is the poor who suffer.


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