A GREENER THAN GREEN REVOLUTION?
Historically, the CGIAR has been reluctant to embrace biotechnology, and genetic engineering in particular, as a tool in its R&D portfolio. However, it seems that it is getting ready to usher in a new era. At the launch of the findings of the third external review of the CGIAR in September this year, review panel chairman Maurice Strong could barely contain his excitement. In his call for the CGIAR to "bring the benefits of modern science to the poorest," he claimed that the "The world is at the cusp of a new scientific revolution in the biological sciences, much like the one early in the 20th century when Einstein's theories fundamentally changed physics and the world."
Put that way, the brave new world of biotechnology certainly sounds exciting. But the CGIAR had had good reasons for dragging its feet over the new biotechnologies: as yet, there is precious little evidence that they will bring any benefit to the majority of the world's farmers, to whom the CGIAR is supposedly accountable. Nevertheless, the mood is shifting and many of the International Agricultural Research Centres (IARCs) which make up the CGIAR already have significant and expanding biotechnology programmes.
There are a number of reasons why this is happening. Firstly, the 'cleverness' of the new biotechnologies, and genetic engineering in particular, is seductive to CGIAR scientists. Genetic engineering seems to provide wonderfully clean and quick solutions, albeit at a price. Secondly, and more importantly, the CGIAR is feeling squeezed financially and is looking to the private sector for support, which means embracing genetech. The private sector is clearly interested in getting involved, but on its own terms and to meet its own agenda. Though a visit to Monsanto's latest webpage tries to convince otherwise, industry motivation to team up with the CGIAR stems from profit, not philanthropy. While their missions sound almost identical, their agendas are quite different. It is a relationship that could fundamentally change the direction in which the CGIAR is headed, bringing with it serious consequences for food security, and the livelihoods of farmers and the poor of the Third World.
The genetic imperative
In the 1997 Annual Report, CGIAR chairman Ismail Serageldin describes a double-shift in the CGIAR's agricultural research paradigm: the integration of crop-specific research into a more holistic vision and what he calls "the genetic imperative." The latter shift involves embracing the new biotechnologies "to accelerate the breeding process and achieve the promise of all that science can do for the poor and the environment." The third external review proposed a new "integrated gene management" strategy, involving the adoption of a strong intellectual property right (IPR) policy, transforming the CGIAR into a legal entity so that it can hold patents, a shift in research emphasis towards genomics and bioengineering, and establishing an effective public information system. The panel apparently recognised that such a move would not prove popular amongst CGIAR observers! Although this strategy has not been well received by many donors and members, it seems likely that this is the route down which the CGIAR is headed.
Several of the IARCs already have substantial biotechnology programmes, and all but IIMI and CIFOR are planning to expand in this area. The CGIAR's 1997 expenditure on biotechnology amounted to $US 24.2 million, or 7% of the system's total budget (see figure 1). Some centres are much more active than others (Figure 2). ILRI spends 26% of its budget on biotech, while ICARDA spends less than 4%. Some centres foresee rapid expansion in this field. CIP, for example, virtually doubled its investment in biotech in 1997 and about 15% of its international staff work on biotech projects. The activities of some of the centres in genetic engineering are outlined in Table 1. The vast majority of the work on biotransformation is still in the early stages of research and only CIMMYT's Bt maize and CIP's Bt potato have reached the field testing stage.
The CGIAR is eager to give the impression that decisions regarding the application of biotechnology are given the most careful consideration. According to its 'Ethics and Equity' publication, "The CGIAR's scientific work, including that on biotechnology, is based on the principles of accountability, responsibility and precautionary action. For any undertaking, potential benefits shall clearly outweigh foreseeable risks, emphasising broad societal interests such as food security, poverty alleviation and environmental sustainability." Reality seems to belie the rhetoric, however, and in many cases the IARCs have been putting the biotech cart before the horse. In its medium-term plan 1999-2000+, CIMMYT admits that "Until now, most biotech research ... has focused on overcoming rather narrowly-defined technical challenges ... however, there is a need to direct increased attention to economic and social issues surrounding the eventual deployment of several innovative new research procedures that have potential commercial applications, as well as a number of transgenic germplasm products."
This tail-wagging-the-dog approach echoes the CGIAR's R&D strategy during the Green Revolution. It underlines past criticisms of the system for being too technically-focused and out of touch with the needs, means and expectations of the farmers it is supposed to be working for. Given the high cost of genetic engineering research, it is particularly remiss of the CGIAR to develop technologies and products without considering whether they will really be useful to farmers. The question of how appropriate biotechnologies are as a tool for the IARCs has not received the attention it deserves and the CGIAR seems to be rather too willing to accept them at face value.
There is no consensus amongst CGIAR personnel about the role that biotechnology, and genetic engineering in particular, should play in the R&D portfolio. Some staff point out that industry is increasingly 'taking care of' large-scale farming operations in the South. Consequently, the CGIAR should focus on small farmers in resource-poor areas, in which case genetech may not be the best R&D option available. Others think that the CGIAR can justify focusing on both resource-poor and resource-rich farmers, which makes genetech an acceptable option. But despite varying opinions, the reality is that biotechnology is an expanding research area. CIMMYT, for example, states that it is aiming for "genetic engineering [to be] a routine tool for transgenic maize and wheat production."
There are two key questions to consider here. Firstly, are the new biotechnologies appropriate tools to serve the interests of resource-poor farmers? Secondly, are they appropriate for any farmers? The first question is a matter of debate in IARC circles, but the second is not discussed at all: it is assumed that genetech is a prerequisite for the future of agriculture. This is particularly scary, since the evidence is already piling up to the contrary, and the CGIAR should be in a better position than most to recognise the warning signals, given its Green Revolution experiences.
Agroecology expert Miguel Altieri, who is also chair of the CGIAR's NGO committee, has serious reservations about the CGIAR's forays into the world of biotech. He sees farmers in resource-poor areas as the key audience for the IARCs. According to Altieri, "To help these farmers, technologies need to be risk-reducing, environment-enhancing and socially-activating. Biotechnologies are quite the opposite." He points out that the spread of CGIAR Green Revolution varieties has been an important cause of genetic erosion. The uniformity caused by increasing areas sown to a smaller number of varieties is a source of increased risk for farmers, as monocultures are more vulnerable to disease and pest attack. In addition, most of them perform poorly in marginal environments. Altieri warns that, "Given their monogenic nature and fast acreage expansion, transgenic crops will only exacerbate such effects."
One of the arguments the CG uses in favour of moving towards biotech is that tropical countries need transgenic crops even more than temperate ones because there are so many more pests to deal with. Industrial agriculture in the tropics tends to require even higher amounts of chemicals than it does in more temperate regions, and biotech can reduce chemical inputs. From an agroecological perspective, analysis of the problem leads to the exact opposite conclusion. The presence of more pests makes biotech even less desirable, and the need for ecological management all the more important. The disease plagues that wiped out hundreds of thousands of hectares of Green Revolution fields largely resulted from the technologies used. The exact same phenomena are already beginning to emerge even in the brief history of transgenic crops, and given the increased genetic uniformity they present, such problems are set to escalate rather than shrink. The IARCs are wading in all the same. CIMMYT, for example, is looking to transfer Bt into tropical maize, as if temperate varieties havent proved enough of a problem. It's strategy for overcoming the resistance problem is simply to insert two genes instead of one - this hardly qualifies as an "integrated approach."
Another problem with transgenic crops is the possibility of transgenes spreading to wild relatives of the plants. This is a particular problem for the IARCs because they are often located in the centres of diversity of the plants that they work on - CIP works on potatoes in Peru, CIMMYT on maize in Mexico, IRRI on rice in the Philippines and so on. In CIMMYT's field trials with Bt maize, the problem of outcrossing has been overcome by destroying the plants before they flower. This is fine for the time being, since researchers are still testing to see if the resistance gene is working, but at some point, they will need to grow the crop! As yet, CIMMYT has not established a strategy to deal with the problem.
The CGIAR's 'bright-siders' continue to see only the benefits of biotech. "All sorts of possibilities are opening up," proclaims Strong. "Food crops with higher yields and better nutrition content, plants that resist drought and pests, and livestock that are immune to disease." Strong's enthusiasm echoes around the IARCs. "We're interested in producing a cleaner potato," says Wanda Collins, CIPís Deputy Director of Research. "More chemicals are used to produce potatoes than any other food crop. In an environmentally-conscious world, that is increasingly unacceptable." Many IARC researchers do recognise the need for using biotechnology as part of integrated approaches, rather than as silver bullet solutions. As Collins says, "Transgenic plants are only appropriate in these approaches if they offer substantial progress that cannot be achieved in other ways and if any associated risks are acceptable or controllable." This sounds good in theory, but these are big "ifs." Historically, the CGIAR has not been very good at looking at alternatives to technology fixes. It will require a huge shift in institutional and individual ways of thinking and working to uproot the CGIAR, as Serageldin has promised, from its technology-focused approach to a more holistic one.
The question of whether biotechnologies can really work as part of the integrated approach that the CGIAR espouses is still open. Such a strategy has never been tried, and by nature biotechnology does not 'fit' very well in the agroecological model. Despite its scientific wizardry, it is too blunt a tool to mesh easily with the complex management system that characterises agroecology. The fruits of biotechnologies cannot adapt quickly enough to changes in biotic and abiotic stresses; they are too limited in their focus (ie providing resistance against a single pest and/or focusing only on one productivity characteristic such as yield); they act against many of the tools in the agroecology basket (eg killing helpful insects as well as harmful); they reduce system complexity and alter internal energy flows (the key to agroecological balance); and they destroy the bond between local technology, culture and food.
In addition to the agroecological arguments that warn against relying on biotech to produce the crops to feed the world, there are several compelling arguments that tie in with the high cost of such technologies, and the fact that they are largely under the control of the private sector.
Private Sector Involvement
Almost all of the genetech research being undertaken at the centres relies on joint ventures with advanced research institutes and/or private sector support in the form of cash and/or technology. It's an expensive game. Industry invested $9 billion in biotech in 1997 in the US alone. Monsanto's Bt cotton R&D has been estimated to exceed US$ 100-150 million. Earlier this year, Novartis invested $600 million in its new Agricultural Discovery Institute in California - this is almost twice the CGIAR's entire annual budget! There is talk of centres jointly acquiring technologies and expertise to reduce costs, but even so, biotech is a luxury the CGIAR can barely afford, unless industry helps out significantly.
Why should it? The answer is simple: because it sees that there is something to gain from the partnership. The corporate giants are starting to wake up to the potential the CGIAR offers as a ready-made global conduit to channel its products to the millions and millions of farmers around the world that it finds hard to reach directly. According to Sam Dryden, chair of the CGIAR's Private Sector Committee, the private sector thinks that "the CGIAR can help corporations move into territories where agriculture has been traditionally served by the public sector." He adds that they also think it could help with "product stewardship," helping farmers implement the kinds of agronomic practices necessary to keep the technology viable, such as refuges. And while the CGIAR cannot enforce national legislation, it can put pressure on governments to set it in place.
Industry's involvement cannot help but shape the CGIAR's research agenda. Its biggest problem with the CGIAR at the moment is that the world's hungry are not good customers. So it is hoping that the CGIAR will adopt its own 'feeding the world' strategy. The CGIAR does not have a very good record of serving poor farmers around the world. Industryís influence is likely to make it even less responsive to their needs and shift it back towards its technology-focus and cash crop agenda. Henry Gorrisma of the Dutch government suggests that, "The private sector may have a role to play in agricultural research, but the CGIAR is trying too hard to get it on board." To this end, Gorrisma suggests, it is reorienting its research direction, at the expense of losing sight of its mandate and the poor. "It is easy for industry to sway the CGIAR," Gorrisma adds. "It does not have to put up much money to exert a great deal of influence."
Table 1: Genetic engineering R&D at selected IARCs
So far, most of industry's involvement with the CGIAR has largely been limited to the donation of genes and technologies on an ad hoc basis. Monsanto has collaborative projects with CIMMYT and CIP, while Novartis has links with IRRI, and AgrEvo with CIP and ICARDA (see table 1). In all cases, the companies donated genes and some technologies, but only in the case of CIMMYT has funding also been provided ($75,000 for work on hybrid wheat). The CGIAR's policy guidelines on private sector funding are currently "in the making" according to Chief Financial Officer Ravi Tadvalkar. Its present position is that it "prefers to take money from foundations rather than directly from companies, in order to maintain an arms-length relationship." The new guidelines will be "pragmatic," taking into account that the private sector "is doing a lot of useful work," while protecting the CGIAR's open access policy with regard to genetic resources. Of course, given the CGIAR's current structure, these will still only be guidelines, and individual IARCs will continue to make their own decisions about whether or not to take the money and run.
It will be a serious, and quite probably insurmountable, challenge for the IARCs to team up with the private sector while still being responsive to the world's farmers. Even in the US, where industry reports that farmers are only too keen to gobble up their transgenic delights, many farmers are only turning to these products because the pesticide treadmill has become intolerable and their crops so poisoned that they will not eat their own produce. As one Idaho transgenic potato farmer admitted to the New York Times recently, buying into biotech "gives corporate America one more noose around my neck." The consequences of being dependent on industry's products and agenda are far more serious in the Third World, because the lack of accountability means that industry will be even less concerned about producing products that really work and are safe. In addition, Third World farmers do not have the same kind of safety nets as their Northern counterparts, and a failed crop may mean starvation.
The IPR quagmire
The CGIAR is in a complete mess regarding its Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) policy. Partly because of private sector involvement in CGIAR genetech research and partly because of the costs of undertaking such research, the CGIAR has become entangled in tortuous and heated debates on this subject. In 1996, the CGIAR adopted "guiding principles" on genetic resources and IP. These principles reaffirm that the resources maintained in the centres' gene banks should be freely available, and that the centres should not seek legal protection for their innovations unless it is absolutely necessary to ensure that developing countries have access to new technologies. This strategy is known as "defensive patenting." The guiding principles state that centres should not seek legal protection for income-generating purposes and must not view potential returns from such protection as a source of operating funds.
Since then, the CGIAR has been reassessing its position. Donors and staff are divided on whether or not to pursue a stronger IPR policy. The external review came out in favour of such a move and a specially commissioned report from the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) on proprietary science and technology suggests that a more "positive view about the role of IP" is now in order. At the CGIAR's annual meeting, however, there was strong opposition to these proposals from donors and members alike. Those in favour of applying legal rights to IP developed at the IARCs argue that such protection is desirable:
The pro-IPR lobby is "gravely concerned about the idea of the CGIAR acting as 'a voice for the poor.'" They believe that somehow this would "inevitably polarise the CGIAR's supporters; put at risk its scientific credibility; and undermine its ability to continue its enormously valuable technical contribution to the welfare of the poor." Needless to say, the private sector is exerting great pressure on the CGIAR to adopt a pro-IPR policy. According to Dryden, given the way the world is headed, "Even if the CGIAR decides not to address IPRs at this point, in time it will be driven towards more consolidated approaches to IPRs." Globalisation is gathering momentum and the CGIAR is not immune from the shadowy spectre of the WTO.
Those against doing down the IPR road argue that:
Despite these seemingly unmarriageable viewpoints, one thing is crystal clear: something has to be done to tidy up the current mess. A number of IARCs are already using proprietary technologies belonging to industry and/or other research institutions. A recent study by ISNAR demonstrated that "in nearly half the cases in which IARCs were using proprietary biotechnology, they were uncertain whether the results of their research could be applied freely, if at all." This is an outrageous situation, since it means that the IARCs may be completely wasting their time and money. In addition, they are unwittingly providing free research for industry, who may use the research in a way that is against the interests of the farmers the CGIAR serves.
The ISNAR study polled (anonymously) researchers from seven IARCs about the application of proprietary research inputs and the prospects of generating proprietary products from them. In their replies, researchers described 45 tools used in 166 applications. In more than 40% of cases, centers do not have enough information on knowledge to anticipate difficulties in the post-research use and dissemination of outputs generated from the proprietary technologies. Only "a few centers have considered the implications of legal agreements for research outputs, with 14% of responses foreseeing some sort of limitations." Few had considered what kind of protection might be necessary for the products they were developing - in 36% of cases, researchers reported that they did not know what they would do.
Table 2: CGIAR products expected from the application of proprietary tools
CIMMYT's work on Bt maize illustrates the problems centres are facing at the moment. According to biotech director David Hoisington, CIMMYT's strategy was to "get on with the product, instead of sitting round a table talking about theoreticals." So they went about their work, gathering genes from a number of different sources. The trouble is that CIMMYT is now sitting round a table having much more difficult discussions with almost all the biotech companies working on Bt as to what they can now do with the Bt maize currently being field tested. This task is made even more challenging, given that Bt's legal arena is already cloudy, with companies squabbling amongst themselves over proprietary rights.
Many researchers defend their work with proprietary technologies by pointing out that their work is covered by a research exemption. But what is the point of research if you can't use the product? A number of centres have gone ahead with research, trusting the private sector to 'do the right thing' when the question of dissemination comes up. For example, proprietary technology being used at ICARDA for lentil transformation "is [currently] used for research purposes only. However, negotiations in good faith might later on lead to possibilities of commercialising transgene legume varieties."(emphasis added). In CIP's case, researchers did negotiate rights to use AgrEvo's Bt gene in ten countries specified in the initial agreement (those where they felt it would be most useful). But, as Wanda Collins admits, if CIP decides it wants to use the gene in another country, they have to go back and ask AgrEvo.
Many researchers play down the risk of being sued by the owners of the proprietary technology. But even if the centers are not sued, their clients are at risk, and the biotech giants are likely to show no mercy. Monsanto has shown no hesitation in going after farmers that fail to honour their contracts on Roundup Ready soybeans, having pursued more than 475 cases of seed saving in the US in the last two years.
In terms of making the fruits of biotech available to the poor, the pro-IPR lobby argues that companies will be willing to license their technology if it is able to 'segment' markets. This means finding a situation in which the company can both sell its products at a premium and also license it to those who cannot afford to pay. This sounds great in theory, but companies often have ulterior motives for licensing, as illustrated by Monsanto's experience in Mexic.
One critical issue seems to have been largely ignored in the TAC report and other discussions on IPR policy. Through its 1994 agreement with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the CGIAR centres are supposed to hold genetic resources in trust for the international community. Under this agreement, the CGIAR may not take out any form of intellectual property protection on the resources and to pass on this obligation if the material is transferred further. A number of violations of this agreement have already come to light (see Seedling, March 1998), and these are not isolated incidents. There has been next to no discussion in the CGIAR of what will become of the "in trust" agreement, nor of the fate of Farmers' Rights (which are completely incompatible with IPRs), nor how the IPR policy will affect the Convention on Biological Diversity objectives on the equitable sharing of benefits of genetic resources.
Despite all the talk of ushering in a new era of environmentally-friendly agriculture, the biotech revolution is simply a continuation of the Green Revolution paradigm the CG started, not an escape from it. Freedom from the chemical treadmill is simply being replaced with dependence on a faster-moving and more expensive technology treadmill. Like its predecessor, the biotech strategy is founded on the principle of dependency and planned obsolescence, whereby farmers abandon all their traditional pest management tools in favour of a single product with a short life-span. Once hooked, it is hard for farmers to go back to their old practices, and they find themselves running harder and harder on the treadmill.
It is one thing for industry to ignore the strong evidence that there are other, more sustainable, ways of enhancing food production beyond biotech; it is hugely irresponsible of the CGIAR to do so. A few IARC programmes have taken some impressive steps away from the technology treadmill towards a more holistic, farmer-first approach to research. But once the proverbial biotech cuckoo takes over the CG's nest, it will gobble up all the resources available, negating any progress made in this realm. The CG needs to look beyond its own institutional survival to the survival of farming communities around the world in considering whether or not to bite the biotech bullet. If it manages to do so, the answer will soon become clear.
* TAC (1998) Report of the CGIAR Panel on Proprietary Science and Technology, Paper prepared for CGIAR Mid-Term Meeting, May 25-29, 1998. SDR/TAC:IAR/98/7.1
* TAC (1998), Report of the CGIAR Expert Panel on General Issues In Biotechnology, TAC Secretariat, FAO, Rome.
* J Cohen et al (1998), Proprietary Biotechnology Inputs and International Agricultural Research, ISNAR Briefing Paper #39, ISNAR, The Hague. http://www.cgiar.org/isnar/Publ/BPapers.htm
* A Krattiger (1997), Insect Resistance in Crops: A Case Study of Bt and its Transfer to Developing Countries. ISAAA, Ithaca, NY, USA. http://www.isaaa.cornell.edu
* IRRI (1997), Bt Rice: Research and Policy Issues, IRRI, Los Baños, The Philippines http://www.cgiar.org/irri/BTrice.htm
* J Richter et al (1998), Biotechnology for Crop Protection - its Potential for Developing Countries. Proceedings of an International Workshop held from 9-13 December 1996, Berlin, Germany, DSE, Feldafing, Germany.
* M Altieri (1998), The Myths of Agricultural Biotechnology: Some Ethical Questions. http://www.nature.berkeley.edu/~agroeco3
* Personal communication with: Wanda Collins, CIP; Michael Baum, ICARDA; David Hoisington, CIMMYT; John Bennett, IRRI; John Komen, ISNAR; Sam Dryden, CG Private Sector Committee; Carl-Gustaf Thornstrom, SIDA; Henry Gorrisma, DGIS; Miguel Altieri, CG NGO Committee; Klaus Leisinger, Novartis Foundation; Sheena Bethell, Novartis; Lisa Drake, Monsanto; Jacob Mignouna, IITA; Ravi Tadvalkar, CG secretariat.