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close this bookBiotechnology and the Future of World Agriculture (GRAIN, 1991)
close this folderThe actors
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View the documentPublic or private?
View the documentDominance of transnational corporations (TNCs)
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Public or private?

The history of commercial biotechnology is a short one. The history of its transfer from the public to the private domain is likely to be extremely short as well. As with most other new technologies, biotechnology was born in the laboratories of universities and other public research institutions. Before anyone even knew the word, scientists were there, uncovering step by step the secrets of nature and moving steadily ahead in the fields of molecular biology, biochemistry and genetics. Commercial interest grew only when the integration of all these different research areas seemed to offer interesting marketing opportunities. It started on a small scale. University professors built their own small companies on campus, drawing heavily from university research, this was especially the case in the United States. But although small biotechnology companies that started up during the past decade still gain most of the publicity, it is now the giant agrochemical, pharmaceutical and food-processing transnationals that dominate the research and the markets. Susan George perhaps described this process best when writing:

Today's biotechnology came from the work of thousands of people who patiently dug the foundations, built the walls and raised the roofbeams of an enormous edifice. These prodigious labours now accomplished, corporations new and old are jostling one another on the building site to put the final slates on the roof and call the whole place their own?

Some TNCs had already begun to invest in biotechnology at the end of the 1970s, but most of them did not become active in this field until the early 1980s. Despite their brief involvement they already exert substantial control on biotechnology research. According to a report for the World Bank, total R&D in biotechnology worldwide amounted to some $4 billion annuallyin 1985. (8) Businessweek put the figure for 1990 at some $11 billion. (9) The same report calculates that roughly two-thirds of biotech spending comes from the private sector. Industry sources put this figure closer to threequarters. (10) But even these figures tend to underestimate the dominant role of the private sector. Much of the public spending consists of direct governmental grants to the private sector. West Germany's Science and Technology Ministry hands out project grants to industry of up to 40% of total project costs, while the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs provides for grants up to 45% for corporate research programmes 'to help industries direct their national research efforts to new areas of biotechnology."' The UK Government directly co-sponsored the establishment of two biotech companies, Celltech Ltd (1980) and Agricultural Genetics Company (1983). Most other industrialized countries also hand out grants to stimulate corporate-public linked research projects where, again, the corporations profit from the tax payer's money.

Perhaps the boldest 'public speeding' initiatives on biotechnology come from the European Commission, where through a whole series of different programmes public money is channelled into the private sector. Fancy names such as BAP, BRIDGE, ECLAIR and FLAIR all stand for massive funding mechanisms on biotech-related research in which industry is heavily involved. Between 1985 and 1994, the European Commission will have spent some $340 million on these projects alone. (12) The giant EEC 'Eureka' project, initiated in 1985 and aiming to promote the European technological R&D base, had, by the end of 1989, handed out over $6 billion, of which almost half a billion was for biotech research. (13) The project aims to spend over $1.2 billion on biotech research in this decade. Most of the grants are for projects in which industry participates. Those who benefit most are Europe's largest agro-chemical, seed and food-processing companies. The situation in the United States is hardly any different. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), US public funding for biotechnology was some $600 million in 1986. (14) The OECD does not tell us how much of this public spending ends up in private companies, but the American case is likely to be similar to Europe's.