Cover Image
close this bookBiotechnology and the Future of World Agriculture (GRAIN, 1991)
close this folderAppropriate biotechnology?
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentThe IARCs and the privatization of biotechnology
View the documentThird world national efforts to get involved

Third world national efforts to get involved

The high expectations raised by enthusiastic press reports on the biorevolution have also reached policy makers in the Third World. National biotechnology research efforts are proliferating rapidly. In Latin America alone, 94 entities, most of them public, are involved in developing the new biotechnologies, according to a recent survey. (9) About half of them are located in Brazil and Argentina (see Graph 8.1) although this does not necessarily reflect total commitment by a country, as the size of biotechnology projects varies considerably.


Institutions working on biotechnology - Latin America and the Caribbean

Of all Latin American nations, Brazil is generally seen as the country which puts most money into developing biotechnology. The country's 'National Biotechnology Programme' (PRONAB), initiated in 1981, has agriculture, animal husbandry, energy and health as priority fields. In agriculture, objectives include nitrogen fixation, crop resistance to adverse ecological conditions, increased photosynthetic efficiency of forage crops and improvement of biological pest control.'ΓΈ In the field of agricultural biotechnology, perhaps more important is the Brazilian Public Corporation for Agricultural Research (EMBRAPA) of the Ministry of Agriculture and its National Research Centre of Genetic Resources (CENARGEN), which have a substantial part of their research and development dedicated to biotechnology.

One major concern, not only in the case of Brazil, is that a substantial part of Third World biotechnology research is directed towards the major cash crops, which are normally controlled by large estate owners. An example is the biotech research for Brazil's 'miracle' alcohol programme in the energy field. Using sugar-cane as the main raw material to produce alcohol for fuel, the country now derives 28% of its energy from biomass. Tissueculture is used to produce sugar-cane with high yields and tolerance to herbicides, and the fermentation processes to turn the sugar into alcohol are being improved by using enzyme technology. " The darker side of the story is that the alcohol programme, while having saved the country an estimated $1 billion in energy expenses over the past decade, has had a tremendous negative impact on the rural poor. Brazil's land area devoted to sugar-cane has risen from 1.5 million hectares in 1972 to 3.8 million in 1985. Much of this expansion has occurred at the cost of fertile land traditionally dedicated to food production by small farmers. (12)


Table 8.1 The privatization of the IARCs and related institutions


Table 8.1 The privatization of the IARCs and related institutions - continued

Nitrogen fixation is another priority area in Brazil's biotechnology efforts. EMBRAPA is selecting improved Rhizobia strains to increase the nitrogen fixation capacity of legumes. While Rhizobia strains could be applied to a whole range of legumes, a full 99% of all inoculants are used with soybean alone, another cash crop grown mainly for export. This fertilizersaving technology would be perfectly feasible on the country's main staple food: Feijao or black bean. (13)

Brazil is also celebrating considerable success in the production of biopesticides. But, again, the vast majority of the work is directed towards the main cash crops. EMBRAPA commercially produces a viral insecticide to control a major insect pest in the soybean plantations (locally known as largarta de soya). Another virus is being investigated to control an insect pest in sugar-cane plantations. (14) A third major project is the use of a fungus to control spittle-bug infections in sugar-cane, soybean, coffee and pastures. (15)

The heavy focus of agricultural research on cash crops has contributed to an extremely biased growth in production. While between 1967 and 1977 there was a 13% increase in the productivity of export crops, food crops increased by only 1.7%. This approach exacerbates Brazil's iniquitous pattern of land ownership - 10% of landowners control 80<37o of the land, and about one million small farmers are thrown off their plots each year. (16) Because research is not directed to the needs of the vast majority of small farmers, biotechnology is likely to reinforce this skewed pattern of resources allocation in favour of large landholders and export crops, to the detriment of food production and the rural poor.

Another country carrying out extensive biotechnology research is Mexico. Several universities include biotechnology in their research programmes, especially focusing on tissue-culture. According to a survey by the Mexican University UAM, much of the agriculture-related biotechnology research is focused on tissue-culture of fruits and flowers for export. (17) Tissue-culture is also used to mass propagate elite varieties of the agave cactus by the Tequila Cuervo company to ensure a continuous supply of the raw material for this popular drink. But the flagship of Mexico's biotechnology efforts is at the National Biotechnology Centre, where highly sophisticated genetic engineering work, using recombinant DNA technology, is being carried out. Under the leadership of Dr Francisco Bolivar, former employee of the US biotech firm Genentech, the centre focuses on four projects: human insulin; human interferon; DNA polymorphism for racial history; and the production of xanthan gum in micro-organisms.

A report prepared for the Rockefeller Foundation questions the relevance of such projects for the majority of the Mexicans. (18) Animal-derived insulin is available and can be produced in Mexico. Interferon is also a questionable target, as the outcome of this work is likely to be too expensive for the majority of a population that cannot afford even basic health care. Research on DNA polymorphism amongst Mexican Indians might be interesting, but what are the practical applications?

What benefits will this program yield to the vast majority of the Mexicans? . . . Problems such as infant diarrhea or other diseases of the poor would seem much better targets for Mexican biotechnology research. (19)

The work on xanthan gum, which is used as a lubricant for oil-drilling, was initially funded by PEMEX, a Mexican petrochemical industry. When the project was ready for scaling up, however, PEMEX dropped it. The greatest interest in the project then came from Japanese and US multinationals: 'hardly the segment of the world economy that needs LDC-subsidized technical assistance.' (20)

Perhaps to a larger extent than in Latin America, several Asian developing countries are making efforts to use biotechnology in agricultural development. Table 8.2 lists the most important ones, together with the main institutions involved and their general objectives. China and India are reportedly amongst the lead countries in agricultural biotechnology, while the Republic of Korea is stronger in industrial biotechnology with important participation from the private sector. China has been especially successful with the development of high-yielding hybrid rice, which is now sown to over one-third of its total rice acreage of 30 million hectares. (21) China also plants 10% of its potato acreage to virus-free, tissue-cultured potatoes resulting in substantial yield increases. Tissue-culture is also used to mass propagate sugar-cane, grapes, Chinese fir, red banana, orange and pineapple. (22) China's hybrid rice technology has been the subject of controversy as it licensed exclusive rights for the technology to two US TNCs (Cargill and Occidental Petroleum). The technology has subsequently been patented in the USA and the companies are unwilling to release the knowhow as commercialization has not yet proved to be feasible. (23) Dr R. Singh from FAO's office in Bangkok, strongly criticizes this licensing practice of China. He thinks it has 'locked [up] one of the most relevant technologies and set of materials highly demanded by other developing countries.' (24)


Table 8.2 Biotechnology programmes in Asia (selected countries)

Thailand is credited, by a draft report drawn up for the World Bank, with having well-formulated policies on biotechnology with a reasonable level of funding. (25) The National Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology was set up by the government in 1983 as the main policy, support and co-ordination centre. There are four affiliated laboratories and the centre also supports over 30 different projects at universities and other research centres in Thailand. (26) Examination of the agricultural projects funded by the Centre (Table 8.3) shows a strong bias towards cash crops and/or large-scale farming. The work on animals focuses on embryo transfer in dairy cattle to increase milk production, and hormone technology on buffaloes to increase fertility. The latter 'will provide a basis for more successful artificial insemination and embryo transfer 8 27 This high-tech research is unlikely to benefit small farmers, as they use local animal races. In crop agriculture, tissue-culture work focuses on oil-palm, rubber, rattan and cut flowers - all cash crops predominantly destined for export. The results of the work on disease-free potato planting materials is 'potentially suitable for large commercial scale production' according to those responsible for the research. (28) Perhaps the only research with promising potential for small farmers and food crops is the work on compost and on big-fertilizers, but that will depend on how the government makes these new technologies available. Such priority choices seem to reflect the government's concern with commodity exports rather than with food production and the position of the small farmers in the country.

The Philippines made a considerable effort to get involved in biotechnology when it set up the National Institute of Biotechnology and Applied Microbiology (BIOTEC) within the agricultural university UPLB (Los Banos) in 1979 with splendid facilities. Since then, the Institute has suffered from unreliable and diminishing financial support from the government. (29) BIOTEC has a large number of projects, but few senior staff to lead them. Of the nearly 200 staff working in or affiliated to the Institute in 1984, there were only five or six PhDs employed full time. (30) Nevertheless, it maintained a programme oriented toward the rural sector. Its focus is on four interdisciplinary research programmes: big-fuels; nitrogen fixation; food fermentation processes; and tissue-culture. These seem to be areas with concrete applications for small farmers, but Saturnini Halos, from the University of the Philippines, found that their usefulness for small farmers was limited by several factors. (31) The production of fuel from biomass, for example, has been largely directed to large farmers, as initial capital requirements are too high for peasants. Also, a big-pesticide killing small worm pests in several crops was developed by the University, but the production and distribution has been handed over to one company. This resulted in a monopoly situation where the price is still too high to be accessible to small fanners. In general, the study concludes, 'No conscious effort is locally made in directing technology development to different types of farmers.' 32 This normally means that the technology ends up in the hands of only one type of farmer: the one who can pay for it.

A major problem with the development of Third World biotechnology programmes is the lack of financial resources and scientific infrastructure. One institution trying to do something about this is the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB). Launched at the beginning of the 1980s by the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), this Centre aims to be a 'centre of excellence' for biotechnology research directed at developing countries. ICGEB's concept is unique and challenging, but its formation has been thwarted by intense political controversy and debate. Initial resistance came especially from the USA and Japan who feared that the Centre might challenge their worldwide dominating position in biotech research. The political squabbling resulted in a situation in which the Centre's location was split between Italy and India, and the whole operation is still suffering from serious under-funding. Another problem is that the main proponents in the Third World agricultural biotechnology scheme, CGIAR and FAO, have been largely absent from the gestation of the Centre. Many observers now question the viability of this operation to contribute substantially to the biotechnology research efforts of developing countries. (33)


Table 8.3 Biotechnology in Thailand (projects refuted to agriculture)

Perhaps the most serious problem with ICGEB is that it seems to fall in the same trap as many national biotechnology programmes. There is a high degree of uncertainty about its specific goals. With its broad and all-encompassing mandate it runs the risk of doing a little bit of everything without really making a substantial contribution to anything. More seriously, some of its research priorities are extremely questionable with respect to their usefulness for Third World countries. Of the five agricultural research priorities of ICGEB at New Delhi, one relates to the production of herbicide tolerant crops. (34) Apart from the fact that herbicide tolerance is already extensively researched by TNCs in the North, it is doubtful that this will have much relevance for the majority of Third World farmers who cannot afford to use herbicides, not to mention its potentially harmful impact on health and the environment. Another research priority relates to the longterm goal to transfer genes of Amaranthus coding for high protein content to crops such as rice and wheat. (35) Amaranthus is an important crop for many subsistence farmers in the Third World. While work on increased protein content of rice and wheat is important, one might ask why ICGEB does not also focus on improving the Amaranthus crop itself and thus promote its use in farming systems. Such research might prove to be more beneficial in the short run to the many small farmers who grow the crop already.

The central point for the success of Third World biotechnology programmes is that research priorities must be very carefully defined in tune with the specific needs of the majority of the population. It does not help for developing countries simply to join the high-tech biotechnology race that is taking place now among the industrialized countries. Focusing instead on low-tech, low-cost techniques with clear application possibilities for the majority of the farmers might seem an obvious choice, but the opposite is often happening. One researcher, after visiting several biotechnology centres in Latin America, put it this way:

Technically simple projects such as these are not well supported. It is scientists with extensive credentials, following the US model, who impress politicians and continue to extract considerable funding, while accomplishing little that is applicable to the needs of the vast majority of the citizens. (36)

This is in fact one of the crucial points in counteracting biotechnology as it is now being developed in the interest of the industrialized nations. The commitment to support biotechnology programmes in the Third World must not be a tool merely to enhance national prestige without consequential fall-out, but should translate genuine will to attenuate poverty and hunger. For this, precise objectives that are coherent with overall agricultural development policies must be defined. This means that the programmes can succeed only if there is a clear understanding of the problems faced by the rural and urban poor, as well as a realistic assessment of the possibilities offered by biotechnology to help solve them. In many cases this also means that the programmes should be accompanied by socio-economic reforms to strengthen the position of the poor. In any case, priorities should be set in consultation with grass-roots organizations and other NGOs, who often have a clear understanding of the situation and a considerable knowledge of the local resources. Only then can one start talking about 'appropriate biotechnology'.

Notes and references

1. Quoted in Purna Chhetri, 'Bishnu's and Kheti's sustainable farm in Nepal', in ILEIA Newsletter,Vol.4,No. 1,Leusden,March 1988,p.17.

2. P. S. Carlson, 'One Company's Attempt to Commercialize an Agricultural Biotechnology Technology', in Strengthening Collaboration in Biotechnology, Conference Proceedings, USAID, Washington, April 1989, p.414.

3. G. Persley, Agricultural Biotechnology: Opportunities for lnternational Development. Draft Synthesis Report, World Bank (with ISNAR, AIDAB and ACIAR), May 1989, p.68.

4. See Henk Hobbelink, 'Agricultural Biotechnology and the Third World'. Paper presented to the Conference 'Development Related Research: The Role of the Netherlands'. University of Groningen,29-31 March, 1989.

5. Richard Sawyer, 'The CGIAR Centres, Building Bridges of Collaboration through Biotechnology',inStrengthening Collaboration in Biotechnology, 1989, op. cit., p.17.

6.Ibid.,p. 18.
7. F. Buttel, M. Kenney, 'Institutional Constraints to Biotechnological Innovation in International Agricultural Research and Development'. Report prepared for the Rockefeller Foundation. (Draft), New York, September 1987.

8. Donald Duvick, 'Research Collaboration and Technology Transfer', in Strengthening Collaboration in Biotechnology, 1989, op. cit., p.27.

9. H. Chaverra, 'The Current Status of Plant Biotechnologies in LDCs: Latin America and the Caribbean'. Paper presented to the CTA/FAO Symposium 'Plant Biotechnologies for LDCs', Luxembourg,26-30June 1989.

10. 'The Brazilian National Biotechnology Programme', in Bio/Technology, May 1984, p.421.

11. Ibid., p.426.

12. J. de Souza Silva, 'Biotechnology in Brazil and Prospects for South-South Cooperation', in Biotechnology Revolution and the Third World, RIS, New Delhi, 1988, pp.420-42.

13. Pablo Bifani, New Biotechnologies for Rural Development, ILO Working Papers No. 195, ILO, Geneva, 1989, p.29.

14. Diatrea saccharalis.

15. P. Bifani, 1989, op. cit., pp.46-8.

16. J. de Souza Silva, op. cit., 1988.

17. G. Arroyo, S. Arias,'Lineamientos Estrategicos pare un Desarrollo Endigeno: La contribucion de la biotecnologia', in ECA, July 1987.

18. F. Butel, M. Kenney, 1987, op. cit., p.93.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.

21. H. Pearce,'Chinese Super-rice in the Balance', in Panoscope, No.16, January 1990, p.4.

22. R. Singh, 'Current Status and Future Prospects of Plant Biotechnology in LDCs of Asia'. Paper presented to a CTA/FAO Symposium 'Plant Biotechnolgoies for LDCs', Luxembourg, 26-30 June 1989,p.20.

23. H. Pearce, 1990, op. cit.

24. R. Singh, 1989, op. cit., p.57.

25. G. Persley, op. cit., p.84.

26. Y. Yuthavong et al.,'National Programs in Biotechnology for Thailand and other S.E. Asian Countries', in Strengthening Collaboration in Biotechnology, 1989, op. cit., p.40.

27. Ibid., p.45.

28. Ibid.

29. S. C. Halos, Biotechnology Trends: A Threat to Philippine Agriculture?, lLO Working Papers No.193, ILO, January 1989.

30. F. Buttel, M. Kenney, 1987, op. cit., p.99.

31. S. Halos, 1989, op. cit., pp.10-16.

32. Ibid., p.15

33. F. Butel, M. Kenney, 1987, op. cit., pp.77-83.

34. K. Venkataraman, 'The role of UNIDO', in Biotechnology Revolution and the Third World, 1988, op. cit., p.375.

35. Ibid., pp.375-6.

36. Martin Kenney, 'Reflections on a Visit to Latin American Biotechnology Research Institutes' in GeneWatch, Vol. 2, No. 3, September/October, 1985.