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close this bookBiotechnology and the Future of World Agriculture (GRAIN, 1991)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentAcknowledgements
View the documentAbout grain
View the documentAbout the author
View the documentAbbreviations
View the documentPrologue
View the documentThe fourth resource
Open this folder and view contentsAgriculture in crisis
Open this folder and view contentsThe tools
Open this folder and view contentsThe actors
Open this folder and view contentsProviding the inputs
Open this folder and view contentsTransforming the output
Open this folder and view contentsControlling the profit
Open this folder and view contentsAppropriate biotechnology?
Open this folder and view contentsThe original biotechnologist
View the documentEpilogue

The fourth resource

'Solving a problem rather than worshipping the tool should be the goal. '
(M. S. Swaminathan, former Director, IRRI) (1)

Ask any agricultural scientist to list our natural resources, and the answer will probably be: 'soil, water and air'. Indeed, without any of these resources, no life would be possible. All three are under threat. The earth is losing fertile soil at a speed that seriously undermines agricultural production in many parts of the globe. There is a problem with water as well, as we all could witness when dramatic images of the African drought filled our TV screens. Apart from being polluted, the earth's atmosphere is losing its protective ozone layer while at the same time being filled up with greenhouse gases that threaten to change our global climate everywhere.

Yet there is a fourth, and equally important, resource which compared to the other three receives only limited attention. Genetic resources are the very foundation of all living beings. Genes are the physical support of hereditary information, coding for key characteristics of anything living, from the tiniest microbes to plants, animals and human beings. Diversity of genetic resources is a basic cornerstone for any effort to sustain or improve the performance of agricultural crops and animals. It is also a crucial prerequisite for natural ecosystems to respond to changing circumstances, now and in the future. Without a diverse mosaic of wild and locally bred plants and animals, together containing an immense wealth of genetic diversity, breeders would not have the raw material for their work. Still, despite the obvious importance of the fourth resource, much of the genetic diversity is now being lost at an unprecedented pace.

This is especially the case in developing countries where the vast majority of the planet's biological diversity is located. While in the upper regions of the Northern hemisphere subsequent ice ages slowed down the proliferation of life forms, the tropics and sub-tropics witnessed sustained evolutionary activity resulting in a rich wealth of species and varieties. It was also in those parts of the world that people first started domesticating the wild plants and animals around them, thus creating an impressive genetic mosaic of landraces and local breeds that best suited their needs. Today's global food supply rests on precisely that biological diversity in the fields, savannas and forests of what are now the developing countries.

Forces behind the erosion of this diversity are many. The bulldozers moving into tropical rainforests in search of timber are one. Large-scale projects to dam rivers and flood extensive areas of rich genetic diversity, and farmers in over-populated areas moving into fragile ecosystems, are just some of the others. Scientists estimate that we are currently losing at least one species a day. In the way we are managing our planet we may lose one million by the end of this century, and halfway through the next century one-quarter of all species might be lost. (2) But the loss of species is only one way of measuring how we are undermining our existence. Each species has numerous different and genetically distinct varieties, adapted to different ecosystems and climates. In agriculture, these are, to a large extent, man-made. For centuries, farmers selected, developed and maintained thousands of different plant and animal varieties, each of them responding to specific needs. When agricultural modernization schemes introduce new and uniform crop varieties into the farmers' fields - thus pushing into extinction numerous local varieties - much of this invaluable diversity is lost, forever. The irony of plant and animal breeding is that in this way it destroys the very building blocks on which the technology depends. In the words of Professor Garrison Wilkes of the University of Massachusetts it is analogous to taking stones from a building's foundation to repair the roof. (3)

The recognition of the danger of the erosion of our food base has prompted reactions, especially in the field of plant genetic resources. The first efforts were mainly focused on collection of seed samples for storage and use in breeding programmes. The world's first major genebank resulted from the extensive collection missions in many parts of the world directed by a Russian scientist, Vavilov. Genebanks are essentially vast refrigerators where seed samples are stored under controlled humidity and temperature conditions. In the 1950s, the USA established its National Seed Storage Laboratory (NSSL) now one of the world's largest genebanks. Other industrialized nations followed suit, and in the 1960s the International Agricultural Research Centres started their research, which included the setting up of several crop-specific genebanks.

It did not take long before questions were raised about the approach of using high-tech genebanks to store and conserve genetic diversity for future generations. Seeds lose viability if they are not grown out regularly. Cold storage itself can affect the genetic material in the seed, and improper management of the genebank endangers much of the alleged diversity in storage. The issue was first vigorously raised by NGOs concerned about the future of the food supply, but later also taken up by scientists from within the system. Dr William L. Brown, Chairman of Pioneer Hi-Bred, the world's largest seed company, thinks that we could be losing more genetic diversity in genebanks than in the field. (4) Donald Duvick, from the same company, is of the opinion that the neglect of conservation of genetic resources in the US is 'inexcusable, not only in regard to our national obligations, but also in regard to our responsibility to the entire world.' (5)

A recent evaluation of the seed collection in the central US genebank in Fort Collins disclosed alarming figures. Of all stored seed samples only 28% have been tested and found healthy. The rest of the collection has not been tested for at least five years, contains too few seeds to risk testing, or is already dead. (6) (See Graph 1.1.) Yet this is the place where the future of agriculture is supposed to be conserved. The US genebank at Fort Collins is not the only one in poor shape. The vast majority of the world's genebanks might fall below generally accepted safety standards, as indicated in a survey by the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR). (7) M. Goodman, of the North Carolina State University, prefers the word 'genemorgues' rather than banks and denounces the false sense of security that is being given: 'The existence of so many "seed morgues" has reassured the public, most administrators and virtually all politicians . . . that the world's germplasm is being carefully managed.' (8)

The fourth resource is not only threatened by erosion, but also by economic control and political power-play. The majority of the world's genebanks are under control of the industrialized nations, while virtually all the genetic diversity originates from the fields and forests of developing countries. This sparked-off a heated debate in several international fore, but especially in the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN (FAO). Prompted by the skewed situation in which developing nations are the main donors of this raw material for plant breeding, while the industrialized countries claim ownership over it through intellectual property rights, the Third World started to demand free access to genetic resources and a more equitable conservation system. The debate resulted in an intergovernmental FAO Commission and an agreement to consider plant genetic resources as the common heritage of humanity, which should be properly conserved and freely exchanged.

While such developments are truly encouraging, the reality of the situation is not. The same resource that the world's nations, meeting in plush FAO conference rooms, denominated 'common heritage of mankind', is also the raw material for a multi-biDion dollar industry. Once, seed was entirely in the domain of the farmer. It was both product and means of production, as part of the harvest was retained for the following year's sowing. Now, seeds and genetic resources have increasingly become a commodity. A peculiar commodity as it is obtained from the South at no cost. Starting with the hybridization of maize, which increased yields but made it useless for on-farm reproduction, the seed as a means of production became increasingly undermined. Now, hybrids are available for several crops, and industry is working hard to extend this in-built protection to them all. When industrialized countries started allowing for intellectual property rights on plant varieties in the 1960s, the 'commodification' of the seed was further accelerated. (9) Now, almost touching the end of the century, we stand at another threshold: genes, the very building blocks of life, are themselves becoming a commodity.

This book is about the technologies that make the commodification of the fourth resource possible. It is also about how they affect agriculture, especially in developing countries. One can hardly open a popular scientific magazine these days without finding exciting articles on the potential blessings of the newly emerging biotechnologies. Some of these articles stress the promise of yield increases through genetic engineering. Others tell us about super-plants that could produce their own fertilizers and pesticides, thus reducing the need for costly and harmful agro-chemicals, or about plants that could be grown on poor soils on which agriculture is difficult if not impossible. Yet others point to the huge possibilities of engineering micro-organisms which could attack their relatives that damage crops. The list of possibilities seems endless and promises great advantages, especially for agriculture in developing countries which so desperately need to produce more food without destroying the resource base.

The excitement over the possibilities of the big-revolution remind us of the mood when the first results of another revolution started to reach the fields of the farmers in the Third World: the so-called 'Green Revolution'. 'Miracle seeds', developed at the International Agricultural Research Centres, raised hopes and offered the promise of reaching one of the most important goals of developing countries: the ability to feed themselves. Now, a few decades and numerous studies later, the proponents and opponents are still debating the consequences. The proponents point to the substantial increases in food production as a result of the Green Revolution, turning countries like India and Indonesia from food importers to food exporters. Opponents stress the socio-economic implications and the environmental costs: the increased gap between agricultural production and food consumption at the local level, the marginalization of small farmers, and the environmental degradation caused by the new farming techniques. While proponents wave statistics on, for example, increased wheat production in India, others show that a quarter of India's population still suffers famine and show that the increased production took place at the cost of crops traditionally used by the poor. They also point to the growing dependence on the chemical industries for the supply of the Revolution's indispensable agro-inputs.

Probably both camps are right. The Green Revolution did increase food production substantially in some developing countries. But it did so at a considerable cost: the position of the poor in those countries and the dependence on expensive inputs from outside. Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from the Green Revolution is that technology as such is not a solution, but a tool. A very special tool with a degree of built-in direction towards a certain type of development. Its success depends only in part on its scientific quality; it also depends on the way it is made and the circumstances in which it is developed and used, the interests of those -who introduce it and the situation of those to whom it is directed.

Although some of the possibilities of the new biotechnologies might be very much exaggerated, the potentials are breathtaking; and billions of dollars are currently being poured into research and development to make them possible. A true 'biotech race' is taking place among the main industrialized blocs. Although the Third World is largely an outsider in this race, it certainly will not be an outsider when it comes to the impact. As with the Green Revolution, the question is not whether biotechnology will reach the poor, but how and with what consequences. Biotechnology not only offers a powerful tool to improve agricultural production, but also can provide the means to increase the degree of monopoly control over agricultural production. While general awareness of the impact of the Green Revolution came a decade after the impact was felt, with the big-revolution there may be still time to raise some of the crucial points now, namely how should the technology be developed, by whom and for whose benefit?

Notes and references

1. M. S. Swaminathan, 'Biotechnology Research and Third World Agriculture', in Science, Vol. 218,3December 1982,p.972.

2. Norman Myers (ed.) The Gaia Atlas of Planet Management, PAN Books, London, 1985,p.154.

3. Quoted in ibid, p. 156.

4. Ibid, p.37. Brown referred specifically to maize germplasm.

5. Quoted in Major M. Goodman, 'What genetic and germplasm stocks are worth conserving?' Paper presented at the AAAS symposium. San Francisco, 16 January, 1989.

6. Findings of a three-month investigation of Associated Press (AP), reported in Agri-News, Vol. 14, No. 14, USA, 6 April 1989. See also Seedling, ICDA Seeds Campaign, Vol.6, No.5, October 1989, pp.2-3.

7. See Fowler et al., 'The Laws of Life', in Development Dialogue, No. 1/2, Uppsala, 1988, pp.281-6.

8. M. Goodman, 1989, op. cit.

9. Jack Kloppenburg, First the Seed, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, USA, 1988 provides a good discussion on the 'commodification' of the seed.