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View the documentA biased but interesting view of the scramble for genes
View the documentWomen's participation: mostly a mirage

A biased but interesting view of the scramble for genes

The gene hunters: biotechnology and the scramble for seeds, by Calestous Juma, Zed Books, London, 1990, 288 pp., ISBN 0-86232-639-7 (hardback), 0-86232-640O (paperback). His is an interesting, occasionally provocative book, although the author generally fails to develop his many telling points into concrete conclusions, and his bias is evident throughout Juma is clearly wary of the extent to which multinational corporations have gradually acquired controlling interest in many sectors relevant to biotechnology, and is equally skeptical of their claimed intentions.

The first two chapters give a brief history of the movements of genetic resources in the wider sense, and place plant collecting activities in the context of earlier, imperialistic expansions of agriculture into colonies. Thus the establishment of plantations of tea, cocoa, coffee and rubber is seen as a major element of typical expansionist policies, with serious implications for the newly-independent nations that inherited the results. The world agricultural trade ethos that promotes trade based on cash crops for export has been increasingly criticized, but still pervades thinking at the intergovernmental level.

The third chapter looks at international activities involving genetic resources, plant breeding and the Green Revolution. It questions the way in which industrialized nations have exploited their opportunities, while leaving unacknowledged, or giving only token recognition (but no long-term benefits) to the sources of much of the biological diversity that underlies the multinationals' financial success. Much is made of the various activities aimed at recognizing and protecting the rights of plant breeders - most of whom just happen to work for multinationals, in the North. The lambasting of plant breeders, however, can be taken too far, and is especially prone to discussion out of context. A certain injustice is felt in the references to the Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) and the Plant Varieties Protection Act (PVPA), the first of which is an international convention and the second national legislation (though not differentiated in the text), and to the International Seed Testing Association (ISTA). The latter is a voluntary international organization set up to ensure standards of physiological seed quality and physical seed purity - with no direct relevance to cultivar agronomic quality - and, incidentally, an association of official seed testing stations, not "traders" as given in Juma's text. UPOV and ISTA are organs for ensuring that seed supplied to farmers is of the cultivar stated, clean, intrinsically healthy and with adequate germination potency. Neither is responsible for the policies of international seed trading. Their strict standards, while appropriate to the monocultural agriculture of industrialized countries, are not necessarily applicable to Third World needs.

Out of these various strands, the author develops the idea that gene banks are merely a source of genes for income generation by the plant breeding-cum-seed industry - a source of income deriving from Third World raw material, but whose suppliers are neither recognized nor rewarded. This assertion is backed up by various references to the international exchange of germplasm, many of which are somewhat simplistic, leaving the impression that Juma has only a superficial knowledge of the subject. Many arguments cited fall in the category of "old saws" and like most old saws are toothless and not always to be trusted. The logistical problems of maintaining germplasm collections safely in gene banks are touched on, but no solutions are proposed and little is made of the enormous outstanding task of systematically evaluating the accessions.

The fourth chapter addresses animal biotechnology, although standard low-tech topics, such as embryo transfer, are muddled up with high-tech topics, such as patenting of animals in the United States. Microbes get a look-in via the Microbiological Resources Centres (MIRCENs), which are the gene banks of the microscopic world, but differ in that samples submitted for safekeeping, unlike plant genetic resources, are fully described before deposition in the collections. The author suggests that the MIRCEN network should be subsumed into the newly-fledged International Centres for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEBs), an idea whose controversial implications deserve more than his passing reference.

Juma next considers biotechnology's long-term effects, emphasizing the potential for industrialized countries to develop substitutes for raw materials traditionally imported from developing nations. Many of these raw materials are mainstays of the export economies of Third World countries - cocoa, vanilla, pyrethrum - and there would be longterm consequences for trade if substitutes are developed through biotechnology. However, little mention is made of possible changes in food crop production if subsistence crops begin receiving the attention of bio-technologists.

Ownership of genetic resources is considered in chapter five, with discussion of patenting and plant breeders' rights and their applicability to life forms. Disparities in legislation are noted, together with recent developments in the United States. This is coupled with the GATT trade negotiations, implying a new form of protectionism. Juma moves from there to discuss who should profit from genetic resources collected in the Third World, but bred into cultivars in the North and sold back to the developing world through commercial seed companies. This contentious issue - which always seems to focus on looming "North-South seed wars", rather than on ways of enabling developing countries to exploit their own resources - was again in the international arena at the fourth session of the FAO Commission on Plant Genetic Resources, where aspects of biotechnology and genetic resources were discussed and considerable progress made toward an international Code of Conduct for biotechnology.

Chapter six is devoted to a case study of Kenya's agriculture and germplasm's role in it, and illustrates how historical developments have shaped the direction of present research and development in agriculture.

The book concludes by looking at the "way ahead" for Africa, and examining policy options. The current rapid changes in attitudes occurring there have created a state of nearchaos, with considerable re-thinking being done on many economic fronts. If the potential biotechnology offers for improving agriculture at grassroots level is not to be lost, then these countries must recognize the need to take due account of its importance in formulating their long-range plans. Despite its imperfections, Juma's book may help them do so.

Thorgeir Lawrence

Women's participation: mostly a mirage

Les femmes et le developpement rural by Isabelle Droy, Editions Karthala, Paris, 1990, 182 pp.

Ten years after the inauguration of the United Nations' Decade for Women, Isabelle Droy of the Institut francais de recherche scientifique pour le developpement en cooperation (ORSTOM) asks, is women's participation in development a mirage or reality? Unfortunately, in too many countries and too many development projects, the answer is still: mostly a mirage.

Trying to understand the reasons for so many failures, Ms Droy compares a number of projects, implemented in very different social contexts, which she encountered in three trips to sub-Saharan Africa (Benin, Zaire and Senegal). A major problem, she discovered, is that organizational and structural weaknesses in rural intervention policies too often give rise to a stifling "agrarian bureaucracy". Unsuccessful programs also tend to "forget" women, even when they include various "social measures" designed to benefit them, because these are soon abandoned in favor of production imperatives. Major - and unlikely - changes in both project structure and planner-peasant relationships would be necessary for such projects to succeed, Droy believes. Women, mentioned so often in the speeches, are ignored in the statistics.

One of the basic questions the author kept in mind during her investigations was: "What do (people like) the wife of a Peul herdsman and the Bamileke peasant from Cameroon have in common?" In both societies, she found, there was a precise way of dividing activities and tasks among men and women that was based not on physical factors, but on cultural ones, reflecting that society's specific customs. If it's true that the system set up by tradition, which may vary from one society to another, decrees that men do the land clearing and tilling, that women sow and hoe, that both do the harvesting together, and that women do the carrying, it is also true - and universal across tribal lines - that the work done by women, whatever it may be, is generally despised by men, while taboos and restraints exclude women from male activities. In Zaire, in the Kivu, for instance, a man carrying a load (considered a woman's task) is subject to ridicule. In the Mandingue area of Senegal, men will not work in rice fields, because rice cultivation is traditionally considered a woman's activity.

Despite the divisions and constraints, women's contributions in agriculture are often greater than men's, more varied, and aimed above all at earning the indispensable cash income needed to meet immediate family needs. Activities range from direct sale of farm products to individual consumers, to supplying urban markets in areas where women have both the capital and means of transport. Urban market supply is especially common in West Africa, where women's corporations control the greater part of such transactions.

Reciprocity unbalanced

Development itself is partly responsible for the historic upheavals that have unbalanced the reciprocity and collaboration between men and women, Droy maintains. In sub-Saharan Africa, due to increasing trade and the fact that men are more occupied in commercial activities, the tasks connected with growing food crops are more and more frequently - and burdensomely - left to women. Technical and economic change has also favored this imbalance, even when an advance might have seemed likely to benefit women. The introduction of the power-driven pump, for example, often means that the former traditional women's manual task of watering crops is simply taken over by men. The increasing use of draft animals in farming is also a male preserve. Their use makes it possible to extend areas under cultivation, but increases the burden of the manual tasks left to women, such as food processing. Projects that ignore women in "technical packages" that require the reorganization of agricultural space, or hydro-agricultural development, accentuate women's isolation and exclude them from land to which they had access in traditional systems. This often leads to the failure of the operation.

"Silenced in the programs", neglected by training and agricultural extension institutes, subordinated to their husband's authority (in some societies men prevent their wives from learning new farming methods from "male strangers"), marginalized in procedures for access to credit and allocation of land, women have been forced, in many cases, to go to extremes to compensate their losses. In one project in Burkina Faso, to replace lost kitchen gardens and individually owned fields, they had to clear new bush land beyond the project boundaries. In Benin, the shrinkage of agricultural and artisanal resources as a result of a palm oil exploitation project deprived women of their personal land without substituting any alternative money-making activities. To survive, the women have had to resort to stealing palm kernels, from which they can extract oil for sale. New farming models introduced in projects are almost exclusively aimed at the male segment of the population, and markets in new villages are incapable of absorbing the products of women's non-farm work.

Women's loss of economic autonomy, often in combination with local sanitation problems and a general lack of infrastructure, has sometimes caused them, on their own initiative, to uproot their families and move elsewhere. By leaving, however, they lost the security of a traditional environment in which they at least had a true social role.

Women could be the key to success of projects which make it possible for them to perform jobs not traditionally secured by men. By supporting such activities rather than ignoring them, Droy insists, development planners would play a vastly more effective role in rehabilitating Africa's peasantry.

Fay Banoun