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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 documentLETTER TO A MINISTER



Joel I. Cohen is the program director for Information and New Technologies at the International Service for National Agricultural Research (ISNAR); Cesar Falconi is research officer for ISNAR’s Biotechnology Service; and John Komen is associate research officer for ISNAR’s Biotechnology Service (e-mail:

Biotechnology provides new opportunities for achieving productivity gains in agriculture. The application of modern biotechnology to agricultural research systems in developing countries, however, involves new investments, changes in resource allocation, and new responsibilities for policymakers, research managers, and scientists. The new responsibilities include determining the benefits and risk of biotechnology applications in a particular country, identifying the key productivity constraints, and deciding the extent to which a national research agenda should embrace biotechnology. Government officials, institute directors, and scientists assuming these responsibilities play a crucial role in setting policies and research agendas and developing regulatory capacity for agricultural biotechnology. Their task is difficult because public budgets for agricultural research are severely constrained in most developing countries.

Given these difficulties and responsibilities, the key question national agricultural research systems (NARS) have to face is, How are biotechnology programs best initiated and integrated with ongoing, conventional agricultural research and national priorities? This process of integration cannot succeed without taking into account the characteristics particular to biotechnology, including high development costs; new demands on human, financial, and managerial resources; opportunities for international collaboration; the challenge of negative public perception; biosafety; and intellectual property rights.


Policymakers devising strategic approaches for the use of biotechnology in agriculture need to determine what resources are required within the context of national capabilities. In 1998 the International Service for National Agricultural Research (ISNAR) conducted surveys of biotechnological research in national agricultural research systems in Mexico, Kenya, Indonesia, and Zimbabwe. The study included information on relevant programs or institutions; human, physical, and financial resources; and the types of biotechnology research undertaken. The data covered the period from the mid to late 1980s to the mid to late 1990s for the 34 public and private organizations surveyed.

The survey shows that advanced research techniques are being used only in a few public-sector organizations. Most organizations remain in the early stages of developing the capacity for biotechnology research. The majority of agricultural biotechnology research focuses on crops; only a small amount focuses on livestock. Although expenditures on biotechnology research grew annually in all four countries, the percentage of biotechnology expenditures in total agricultural research expenditures remains small. The number of researchers grew faster than expenditures, resulting in a 7 percent annual decrease in expenditures per researcher (in three countries). The public sector accounts on average for 92 percent of total expenditures on biotechnology in the four countries. Against this background of limited capacity and financial resources for biotechnology research, it becomes even more important to stimulate informed decisionmaking regarding future investments.


Special efforts have to be made to assist individuals who manage research programs or institutions in which agricultural biotechnology is becoming increasingly important. Specialized courses have been developed to enhance the managerial capacity and competency of directors and managers in public research organizations, with an emphasis on building a strategy, setting priorities, managing biosafety and intellectual property, coping with funding issues, ensuring product delivery, and accessing information assist decisionmaking. Some of these issues are discussed below.

Defining a Clear Research Agenda

Governments deciding whether or not to invest in agricultural biotechnology need to determine where the most pressing needs and priorities lie if biotechnology can meet those needs and fit those priorities. The key step is to identify the constraints in agriculture that conventional research has not been able to over-come and the recent scientific discoveries that offer new ways out of the constraints. A number of other issues also require special attention: (1) making sure that national capacity can assess the available information on new developments in biotechnology, the performance of biotechnology products in other countries, and the potential application of new developments to national priorities; (2) ascertaining the cost of research and development (R&D) and the infrastructure required; (3) ensuring that regulations are in place for assessing the risks new products may pose to human health and the environment; (4) managing intellectual property rights; and (5) creating the delivery systems that will get new products to farmers and consumers.

Priorities ultimately need to be set by incorporating perspectives of economists, policymakers, scientists, and end users. ISNAR has applied this multidisciplinary approach to determine priorities for the Chilean National Program on Agricultural and Forestry Biotechnology.

Managing Proprietary Technology and Intellectual Property

Some form of intellectual property rights protects most biotechnology processes and products, many of which are owned by private-sector companies. Public, national, and international agricultural research organizations working in and with developing countries also develop and use protected materials. The legal and management implications of using proprietary biotechnologies and disseminating products resulting from them are complex.

ISNAR has conducted surveys to determine the extent to which proprietary research inputs are used at seven international agricultural research centers and in national agricultural research organizations in five Latin American countries. The surveys show that proprietary technologies and materials that are protected through intellectual property rights have made important contributions to the research programs of the institutes involved. The increasing use of proprietary materials also means greater reliance on licenses, material transfer agreements, and other legal agreements. Both national and international public research institutes therefore require suitable institutional and legal frameworks for managing intellectual property. With such legal expertise, research organizations can protect inventions when necessary and use them to negotiate access to and use of proprietary technologies owned by others.

Ensuring Environmental Responsibility

Effective biosafety systems foster the safe use of biotechnology. The four major elements of effective biosafety systems are (1) written guidelines that clearly define the structure of the system, the roles and responsibilities of those involved, and the review process; (2) the regulatory authorities themselves, who should comprise an in-country cadre of well-trained individuals, confident about their decisionmaking ability and about the support of their institutions; (3) an information system that enables the biosafety evaluation process to be based on up-to-date and relevant scientific information and the concerns of the community; and (4) feedback mechanisms for incorporating new information and revising the regulatory system as needed. This four-pronged approach stresses the dynamic, flexible nature of biosafety systems and the need to build capacity and competence among those responsible for their management.

Assessing Funding Implications

Research in agricultural biotechnology has to be conducted over the long term and without interruption. Uncertain funding, therefore, can severely disrupt the research process. Reasons reported for funding constraints include (1) implementation of fiscal austerity policies, (2) lack of ‘understanding of biotechnology among decisionmakers, (3) insufficient research impact, (4) dependence on funds from a single source, particularly government or donors, and (5) lack of political and financial support from agribusiness and from farmers and their organizations.

Political support can be built for public-sector funding by documenting and publicizing research impacts, developing strong and articulate client organizations that have political influence, building closer relations between biotechnology leaders and policymakers, and broadening the funding base to include environment and commerce departments. Strategic alliances between public- and private-sector entities can also expand the financial resources for agricultural biotechnology research. The development or promotion of institutional mechanisms such as competition for funds, joint ventures, collaborative research, research levies, and contract research can facilitate public-private sector interaction.

Ensuring Product Delivery

Decisions about the generation of products and their delivery to users must be considered at an early stage of a research program. These decisions need particular attention in R&D programs involving biotechnology, because product diffusion is affected by factors such as the costs of large-scale production, biosafety evaluation and risk assessment, and public acceptance of the final product. Collaboration or joint ventures between the private sector and public institutes or universities is essential for successful product delivery. In some cases, specialized national or international organizations have facilitated technology transfers from the public to the private sector that have led to the diffusion of new products. A number of products can also be expected from several joint international initiatives now at the R&D stage. The relationship between the public and private sectors in product development and delivery should be strengthened, specifically in the areas of product price regulation and registration; on farm demonstrations, pilot production facilities, and science parks for start-up companies; and procurement and distribution of planting material.


The application of biotechnology to food and agriculture requires that potential benefits and risks to society be made clear., Developing countries urgently need to acquire further managerial, analytical, and technical strengths in order to build a strong national capacity for understanding and analyzing these issues. Public institutions play an essential role in formulating the agenda and priorities for the use of biotechnology. They should also ensure environmental safety, contribute to public aware ness, and collaborate with the private sector on product development and diffusion. Consequently, the need for the public and private sectors to share information does not diminish; rather, its urgency increases. The relation of new products to current farming practices and the agroecosystems that sustain them is an important area for further research.

It is through such work that national investments in research and human resource development will contribute meaningfully to the agricultural needs of developing countries over the coming decades.

For further information see J. I. Cohen, ed., Managing Agricultural Biotechnology: Addressing Research Program Needs and Policy Implications (Wallingford, U.K.: CABI, in press [1999]); and ISNAR’s biotechnology website: