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View the documentA biased but interesting view of the scramble for genes
View the documentWomen's participation: mostly a mirage

A biased but interesting view of the scramble for genes

The gene hunters: biotechnology and the scramble for seeds, by Calestous Juma, Zed Books, London, 1990, 288 pp., ISBN 0-86232-639-7 (hardback), 0-86232-640O (paperback). His is an interesting, occasionally provocative book, although the author generally fails to develop his many telling points into concrete conclusions, and his bias is evident throughout Juma is clearly wary of the extent to which multinational corporations have gradually acquired controlling interest in many sectors relevant to biotechnology, and is equally skeptical of their claimed intentions.

The first two chapters give a brief history of the movements of genetic resources in the wider sense, and place plant collecting activities in the context of earlier, imperialistic expansions of agriculture into colonies. Thus the establishment of plantations of tea, cocoa, coffee and rubber is seen as a major element of typical expansionist policies, with serious implications for the newly-independent nations that inherited the results. The world agricultural trade ethos that promotes trade based on cash crops for export has been increasingly criticized, but still pervades thinking at the intergovernmental level.

The third chapter looks at international activities involving genetic resources, plant breeding and the Green Revolution. It questions the way in which industrialized nations have exploited their opportunities, while leaving unacknowledged, or giving only token recognition (but no long-term benefits) to the sources of much of the biological diversity that underlies the multinationals' financial success. Much is made of the various activities aimed at recognizing and protecting the rights of plant breeders - most of whom just happen to work for multinationals, in the North. The lambasting of plant breeders, however, can be taken too far, and is especially prone to discussion out of context. A certain injustice is felt in the references to the Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) and the Plant Varieties Protection Act (PVPA), the first of which is an international convention and the second national legislation (though not differentiated in the text), and to the International Seed Testing Association (ISTA). The latter is a voluntary international organization set up to ensure standards of physiological seed quality and physical seed purity - with no direct relevance to cultivar agronomic quality - and, incidentally, an association of official seed testing stations, not "traders" as given in Juma's text. UPOV and ISTA are organs for ensuring that seed supplied to farmers is of the cultivar stated, clean, intrinsically healthy and with adequate germination potency. Neither is responsible for the policies of international seed trading. Their strict standards, while appropriate to the monocultural agriculture of industrialized countries, are not necessarily applicable to Third World needs.

Out of these various strands, the author develops the idea that gene banks are merely a source of genes for income generation by the plant breeding-cum-seed industry - a source of income deriving from Third World raw material, but whose suppliers are neither recognized nor rewarded. This assertion is backed up by various references to the international exchange of germplasm, many of which are somewhat simplistic, leaving the impression that Juma has only a superficial knowledge of the subject. Many arguments cited fall in the category of "old saws" and like most old saws are toothless and not always to be trusted. The logistical problems of maintaining germplasm collections safely in gene banks are touched on, but no solutions are proposed and little is made of the enormous outstanding task of systematically evaluating the accessions.

The fourth chapter addresses animal biotechnology, although standard low-tech topics, such as embryo transfer, are muddled up with high-tech topics, such as patenting of animals in the United States. Microbes get a look-in via the Microbiological Resources Centres (MIRCENs), which are the gene banks of the microscopic world, but differ in that samples submitted for safekeeping, unlike plant genetic resources, are fully described before deposition in the collections. The author suggests that the MIRCEN network should be subsumed into the newly-fledged International Centres for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEBs), an idea whose controversial implications deserve more than his passing reference.

Juma next considers biotechnology's long-term effects, emphasizing the potential for industrialized countries to develop substitutes for raw materials traditionally imported from developing nations. Many of these raw materials are mainstays of the export economies of Third World countries - cocoa, vanilla, pyrethrum - and there would be longterm consequences for trade if substitutes are developed through biotechnology. However, little mention is made of possible changes in food crop production if subsistence crops begin receiving the attention of bio-technologists.

Ownership of genetic resources is considered in chapter five, with discussion of patenting and plant breeders' rights and their applicability to life forms. Disparities in legislation are noted, together with recent developments in the United States. This is coupled with the GATT trade negotiations, implying a new form of protectionism. Juma moves from there to discuss who should profit from genetic resources collected in the Third World, but bred into cultivars in the North and sold back to the developing world through commercial seed companies. This contentious issue - which always seems to focus on looming "North-South seed wars", rather than on ways of enabling developing countries to exploit their own resources - was again in the international arena at the fourth session of the FAO Commission on Plant Genetic Resources, where aspects of biotechnology and genetic resources were discussed and considerable progress made toward an international Code of Conduct for biotechnology.

Chapter six is devoted to a case study of Kenya's agriculture and germplasm's role in it, and illustrates how historical developments have shaped the direction of present research and development in agriculture.

The book concludes by looking at the "way ahead" for Africa, and examining policy options. The current rapid changes in attitudes occurring there have created a state of nearchaos, with considerable re-thinking being done on many economic fronts. If the potential biotechnology offers for improving agriculture at grassroots level is not to be lost, then these countries must recognize the need to take due account of its importance in formulating their long-range plans. Despite its imperfections, Juma's book may help them do so.

Thorgeir Lawrence