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close this bookBiotechnology and the Future of World Agriculture (GRAIN, 1991)
close this folderAppropriate biotechnology?
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View the documentThe IARCs and the privatization of biotechnology
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The IARCs and the privatization of biotechnology

The International Agricultural Research Centers (IARCs), which spearheaded the Green Revolution, have for a long time been seen as the champions of the free exchange of information and technology. Predominantly publicly funded, the IARCs, such as IRRI in the Philippines, CIMMYT in Mexico and CIP in Peru, see their role primarily as providing research results and services to national research programmes in developing countries. Indeed, whatever one thinks of the Green Revolution and the engines behind it, one of the main functions of the IARC system has been to make breeding material available to research institutions in the Third World, which then are supposed further to develop the material and adapt it to local growing conditions.

Most of the IARCs now recognize the immense potential of the new biotechnologies for their work. Many members of the IARC family already use tissue-culture techniques to provide disease-free planting materials and to supplement their germplasm conservation work. CIP in Peru, for example is storing 5,000 accessions of potato and 2,500 samples of sweet potato in clonal form, using tissue culture. Likewise, CIAT's in vitro genebank already holds 3,500 clones of cassava. Tissue-culture work is also being carried out at the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Nigeria for several African crops. Additionally, so-called 'wide Cross Programmes', which consist of trying to cross crops with distant relatives using biotechnology, are being carried out at IRRI in the Philippines for rice, at CIMMYT in Mexico for wheat and corn, and at ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) in India for groundnut. Also, ILRAD, the International Laboratory for Research on Animal Diseases in Kenya, is using biotechnology to produce livestock vaccines, while IRRI is doing the same to develop tools for the detection of virus diseases in rice.

But moving into biotechnology is not like setting up a Green Revolution. The IARCs were the inventors and developers of the Green Revolution technology, and operated in the past decades without strong competition from other institutions or the private sector. This is changing rapidly with the emerging new biotechnologies. The privatization and subsequent concentration of biological knowledge in the hands of a few transnational corporations in the North, make the transfer and appropriation of biotechnology for the benefit of developing countries an extremely complex and difficult task. Technically and economically, the Green Revolution was the domain of the IARCs. The new 'high yielding' crop varieties and the techniques to produce them were largely developed at the Centers themselves. For this, the Centers are heavily dependent on the free flow of scientific information and germplasm, and this is precisely what is under direct threat from the highly private character of the new biotechnologies. The Centers are left with the choice of either developing the basic research themselves, or simply striking deals with the companies or institutions in the North. The traditional link with public institutions in North America and Europe is already progressively undermined as those institutions themselves face the effects of privatization of biotech research, and are often already bound to secrecy due to contracts with industry. The building-up of in-house basic biotech research, on the other hand, would mean a substantial shift to more basic research, which could be funded only by transferring funds from more applied research.

A complicating factor is that many public research institutions in industrialized countries are being increasingly excluded from applied research, which is seen as the field where private companies should operate. This is already having profound consequences for the smaller plant-breeders in the US and Europe, who traditionally have depended strongly on the breeders' lines supplied to them by public agricultural research institutions. It will also have implications for the IARCs and biotechnology programmes in developing countries, as they may no longer count on the free availability of high quality expertise from public circles in the North.

Apart from difficulties of access to information and technology, IARCs will also face increasing competition from TNCs for the provision of the end product of the new technology. This factor was largely non-existent during the Green Revolution. With the restructuring of the agro-industry in the North, TNCs are looking for potential high-profit markets in the South.

Many of them already have a solid infrastructure for marketing their pesticides or drugs, and are now using these channels for the distribution of seeds as well. TNCs are especially interested in crops with potentially large markets, such as maize, wheat and rice. TNC involvement in wheat and rice has up to now been relatively limited, because hybrids are not yet commercially available. But extensive research is being conducted to produce commercial hybrids for both wheat and rice. China, for example, is already widely planting hybrid rice and it will not take long before TNCs have perfected the technology. When this breakthrough is made, IARCs and national institutions in developing countries will increasingly find TNCs on their trail when bringing new varieties to the farmer. (4)

These changes in the shape of international agricultural research - restricted access to the new technologies, increased competition on the market, and the characteristics of the new technologies themselves - all mean that IARCs face important policy decisions. Will they focus more on basic biotechnology research or continue with their more applied approach? If, as is likely, the TNCs concentrate on the major crops with global markets, will the IARCs focus more on the 'poor man' crops? Or will they continue to work predominantly on the Green Revolution crops, while perhaps focus*ng on market niches the TNCs are not interested in? There are many questions, but few answers.

One direction, clearly taking form now, is towards increased IARC-TNC links, similar to the TNC-University contracts in many industrialized countries. Examples of this approach have been given by Richard Sawyer, Director-General of the Peru-based International Potato Centre (CIP). In his opening speech at a conference on the subject he pointed out:

With the rapid growth of fast-food industry into the developing world, major food processors need local potato varieties that will grow well and provide the accepted standard of processed quality in warm tropical areas . . . Through a collaborative arrangement with some major food processors, we are helping to develop potential varieties that will grow well in the warm tropics and meet rigid quality standards of the fastfood industry. (5)

In other words: the priority is to tailor for the needs of MacDonald's, not for the agronomic and nutritional requirements of farmers.

Sawyer continued with another example of IARC-industry collaboration at his Institute. CIP has identified biological control mechanisms for root-knot nematodes which threaten potato production. Traditionally, the IARCs would disseminate such research results to national research centres in developing countries for further adaptation and improvement. However, according to the Director-General of CIP:

We are not in the business of producing, packaging, and marketing such products. We are in the business of making sure that such products are made available by the private sector . . . Thus, we have a collaborative arrangement with a multinational who is exploring the potential of marketing some of these products . . .6

This implies a major shift in policy of IARCs. National research programmes no longer seem to be the main concern, as private industry moves in as a new client for their activities.

Many more examples of such IARC-industry ties are springing up like mushrooms; a selection of these is given in Table 8.1 (see pp. 124-5). Perhaps the most striking example is with CIMMYT in Mexico. This Centre is the crop-oriented IARC with perhaps the closest relationships to the US seed and biotech industry. For a long time it has worked with Pioneer HiBred - the largest seed company in the world - to grow out maize germplasm. Now CIMMYT is embarking on a major collaborative biotech research effort focusing on maize, with major seed companies such as KWS, Limagrain, AMI and Van der Haave. Most of the collaboration with the industry is based on informal agreements, but the open-ended nature of these makes them subject to abuse. (7) Perhaps no one can explain better to what type of future such deals will lead than Donald Duvick, until recently Director of Research with Pioneer Hi-Bred. He stresses that 'any involvement [of the IARCs] with international seed companies will need clear understanding about ownership of resulting commercially valuable products and processes.' (8) No deal is for free!

In the midst of a discussion on how to correct the shortcomings of the Green Revolution, the tendency to sell-out agricultural research for developing countries is hardly encouraging. If the lessons of the Green Revolution are really to be taken seriously, a fundamental reorientation of the research at the IARCs towards the interests of the majority of Third World farmers is imperative. Tying the research to TNCs, as now seems to be happening, points in quite the opposite direction.