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close this bookBiotechnology for Developing-Country Agriculture: Problems and Opportunities - A 2020 Vision for Food, Agriculture, and the Environment - Focus 2 - October 1999 (IFPRI, 1999, 22 p.)
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View the documentOVERVIEW
View the documentLETTER TO A MINISTER



Gabrielle Persley is an adviser to the World Bank on biotechnology-related issues (e-mail:

With the upsurge of media interest in biotechnology and public concern about the release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the environment and their use in food, many a minister is seeking information from his or her advisers about the issues involved, about the rote and responsibilities of government, and about the contribution government should make to a balanced debate on the problems, opportunities, and challenges arising from modern biotechnology.

The response of a government will be influenced by a country’s size, wealth, location, and culture; by societal views on the use of science and technology; and by the size and the strength of the science, technology, and business sectors in a country. ft will also be influenced by the importance of food and agriculture in the economy, by the extent to which a country exports or imports agricultural commodities; and by the seriousness of its problems in food insecurity, poverty, and population growth.

Although the advice to ministers will vary from country to country, and possibly even from ministry to ministry within a government, many issues are similar for all countries. For the issues that cut across both countries and governments, a hypothetical group of advisers may respond to the minister in the following way:

Dear Minister,

Re: Safe Use of Biotechnology

You have sought our advice about whether our country stands to benefit from the new developments in biotechnology, what the risks are, and how we should respond to concerns expressed by advocacy groups and the public about the use of these new technologies.


Modern biotechnology stems from the new developments in the science of genetics during the past 30 years that have given us a far greater understanding of the genetic basis of all life. These developments enable us to identify, isolate, transfer, and use the specific genes that control individual traits in an organism. In agriculture, this improved ability to modify and control the genetic endowment of crops, trees, animals, fish, and microbes continues the practice of genetic improvement farmers have carried out over the centuries by crossing and selecting better plants and animals. This traditional practice of improvement was formalized as the science of genetics in the early part of this century, after an Austrian monk, Gregor Mendel, postulated a set of rules to explain the inheritance of biological characteristics in all living organisms. The subsequent continuum of discoveries about the genetic foundations of life (a field of knowledge sometimes referred to as biosciences or life sciences) forms the basis of modern biotechnology, which encompasses new gene technologies. The biotechnology industry developed in the 1980s, as a result of powerful new discoveries in biology and the patents and other forms of intellectual property rights given to inventors to protect their discoveries. The granting of intellectual property rights led to an explosion of private investment in the biosciences in the last 20 years.

The value of the global market for biotechnology-based products in 1998 came to approximately US$13 billion. About 80 new products are ready or almost ready for market. The greatest number of modern biotechnology applications appear in health care, where they offer new hope to patients with AIDS, genetically inherited diseases, diabetes, influenza, and some forms of cancer. New biotechnology-based processes are now used routinely in the production of most new medicines, many diagnostic tools, and new medical therapies. In agriculture, new transgenic varieties of some 40 different crops were grown on 28 million hectares worldwide in 1998, mainly in Argentina, Australia, Canada, China, France, Mexico, South Africa, Spain, and the United States. Fifteen percent of this area was in developing countries.

Almost all the biotechnology-based products currently on the market have been developed for sale in industrial countries, as these are the markets that will generate the returns on the substantial R&D investments on which the industry is based. A small number of global life science companies, some venture capitalists, and many small biotechnology companies, mostly in the United States and Europe, are flourishing in biotechnology-based businesses. The commercial biotechnology sector has shown only limited interest in applying modern biotechnology to the problems of food security and poverty in developing countries because, under present arrangements, commercial firms would find it hard to recoup their investments.

It is therefore the responsibility of governments to ensure that developing countries benefit from the judicious and safe use of modern biotechnology. We need to assess the potential benefits and risks of the new technologies and position ourselves to use the new discoveries from home and abroad to reduce food insecurity and poverty. We must mobilize the expertise and resources of both the public and private sectors nationally and internationally to address the specific problems that damage human health, constrain agricultural productivity, and threaten the environment. This strategy of using modern biotechnology as a component of our overall policy to foster sustainable economic development and improve the livelihoods and well-being of the poor will require good governance and political skills and leadership of a high order. It will also require some new policies and actions by government. These are outlined below:

Proposed Policies and Actions

1. Develop coherent and consistent policies. Take a government-wide approach to policy development in biotechnology so that we are consistent in our principles and practices. This will enable us to maximize the advantages from applications of modern biotechnology and minimize any risks to human health, the environment, and the economy. Risks may stem either from the technology itself, thereby creating a food safety issue, or from outside of it, thereby aggravating the gap between rich and poor or reducing biodiversity because of the way the technology is applied. At the international level, consistency will help us develop coherent negotiating positions and meet international obligations to the international treaties we have signed such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and that of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

2. Establish desired priorities and outcomes: Define clearly the desired outcomes from public investments in R&D, including those in biotechnology; identify the priorities to be addressed; and ensure that these priorities are consistent with the government’s efforts to improve the livelihoods of our people. In determining priorities and assessing the relative risks and benefits of using various technologies, we should consult with all stakeholders, including the urban and rural poor, who are often overlooked while others decide what is best for them.

3. Ensure the safe use of biotechnology: Build an efficient and transparent regulatory system for biotechnology-based products that meets international standards and enjoys a high degree of public confidence. Ensure that it has the necessary public funding and skilled personnel to do its job. Its responsibilities are twofold: (a) to assess any risks associated with the release of new products developed either in-country or abroad, and (b) to provide accurate information to the public about the risks and benefits of modern biotechnology. Suitable product labeling (for example, with information about potential allergens) will enable consumers to make informed choices.

4. Manage intellectual property: Enact legislation as necessary to establish an intellectual property regime consistent with our legal obligations under the WTO. This will ensure that our farmers and entrepreneurs benefit from local inventions and will encourage the introduction, evaluation, and use of overseas inventions as appropriate.

5. Encourage private-sector investment: Elicit greater investment by local and overseas investors in biotechnology-based industries through a fair tax regime and other financial incentives.

6. Increase support for public sector R&D: Increase public financial support for agricultural R&D, including the use of modern biotechnology, at the national, regional, and international levels. Additional support will help develop public goods that the poor have access to and can afford. Despite agricultural R&D’s demonstrated high rates of return, most developing countries and development agencies underinvest in it.

7. Support education and public awareness: Improve education in science and technology at all levels, so that the country will have a highly skilled workforce and informed public debate about the relative merits of various technologies, including biotechnology.

8. Establish and maintain infrastructure: Support the development and maintenance of the infrastructure necessary both to encourage investment in biotechnology-based industries and to ensure that products are delivered to those who need them. The infrastructure required includes roads and systems for telecommunications, power, water, and international air and sea transport.

9. Monitor overseas technology developments and encourage international collaboration: Analyze developments in technology in this rapidly moving field on a regular basis. We should assess the potential of currently available technologies and keep abreast of new developments overseas so that we can mobilize the best available technology to solve our specific problems. If we mobilize new scientific developments creatively, in consultation with the various sectors of our society, and with the help of international collaboration as appropriate, we can improve the livelihoods of those who suffer from food insecurity and poverty in this country.


In the next millennium regions, countries, companies, consumers, farmers, investors, and entrepreneurs of all kinds will find a way to benefit from the powerful new developments in modern biotechnology and to manage the risks inherent in or associated with them. We must be among these innovators and users, otherwise immense opportunities will pass us by.


For further information see Gabrielle J. Persley, Beyond Mendel’s Garden: Biotechnology in the Service of World Agriculture (Wallingford, U.K.: CABI, 1990); Ernst and Young, European Life Sciences 99, sixth annual report (London: Ernst and Young International, 1999); and Gabrielle J. Persley, “Global Concerns and Issues in Biotechnology,” HortScience 32 (1997): 977-979.