In this article we will discuss about the role of farmers in plant biotechnology.
Over the past decade there has been some advocacy of a need for a pro-poor bias in the development and dissemination of modern biotechnologies. However, whether any benefits of current plant biotechnology research will actually reach poorer farmers and consumers without major public sector intervention is an open question.
There are many such poorer people. Over 1100 million farmers, in many different farming systems and environments, are economically active in agricultural production globally.
The vast majority of the world’s farmers are known to have a limited level of access to external inputs or other productive resources. Resource poor farmers, by definition, are unlikely to have easy financial access to agricultural inputs such as pesticides, fertilizers or irrigation.
Moreover, it is now thought that an increasing majority of the world’s resource poor farmers are women. For instance, over 70% of the people in developing countries living below the poverty line are women, the majority of whom live in rural areas.
While such resource-poor farmers practice approximately 60% of global agriculture, they produce 15- 20% of the world’s food. However, when looked at another way the small-scale resource poor farming sector is responsible for 80% of agricultural production in developing countries and is key to future food security.
The low productivity of resource poor farmers tends to perpetuate rural poverty to the extent that of the more than 2,500 billion people in developing countries who live in rural areas, approximately 1000 million live below the poverty line: 633 million in Asia; 204 million in Africa; 27 million in the Near East and North Africa; and 76 million in Latin America.
Science alone is unlikely to provide a ‘technical fix’ for alleviating such poverty. There are many processes, factors and socio-economic structures underlying rural peoples poverty such as; lack of access to land and other productive resources, low purchasing power, political powerlessness, fragile environments, peripherally from markets, etc.
In this milieu, agricultural research is but one factor which could have differential impacts on rural poverty. Indeed, the potential contribution of biotechnology to developing country agriculture or to poverty alleviation is considered to have been overstated, in the short term at least.
Yet over the longer term there is little doubt that some biotechnological approaches to crop improvement could generate social, economic and environmental benefits if specifically targeted at specific needs, especially those of poorer groups.
Such needs might for instance include the reduction in pesticide use via insect/disease resistant crops, improved nutritional composition of crops, elimination of toxic substances or allergens, developing early maturing varieties, reducing post-harvest storage losses, abiotic stress tolerant crops or reducing labour demands at appropriate times during the cropping cycle.
For commercial reasons, richer farmers are likely to be the main target market for most privately funded plant biotechnology research.
The many resource poor farmers in developing countries who depend on an income of less than a $1 per day are not likely to be a near term target market for most of the agricultural biotechnology companies.
If plant biotechnology research is to be better targeted to addressing the needs of poorer farmers, it will be necessary for relevant public sector institutions to more transparently identify which farmers needs are of concern to their research or funding agenda.
Yet, even in the face of increasing population pressure and such large numbers of resource poor farmers in developing countries, internationally there are only a handful of underfunded plant biotechnology initiatives with an explicit focus on poorer farmers as their primary clients/markets. This may reflect to overall current bias in agricultural biotechnology research to commercial rather than social markets.
The major agricultural biotechnology companies are concentrating on the development of two broads types of proprietary traits: (i) Input traits such as herbicide tolerance, insect or disease resistance etc. and
(ii) Output traits which improve the nutritional contents of foods or exhibit unique properties for very specific end uses or markets.
Such input and output traits will be incorporated into existing elite varieties to provide higher value seed with further added value, which may offer to the farmer lower costs or higher yield, and increased value of the end product. Initially, it is likely that biotechnology generated varieties brought to the market will focus on input traits.
However, the long-term commercial potential of plant biotechnology is considered to be in the development of value-added output traits that will address a wide range of specific needs or market niches.
To assess the level of demand for particular types traits or products, the marketing departments of most agricultural biotechnology companies typically conduct surveys of farmers with different income levels to determine what commercial products might be developed by their technologists to meet the needs of customers who can express their demand in financial terms.
Because demand driven companies are likely to make more money, most marketing departments in companies are responsive to customer concerns and demands. However, within many public sector research organizations, there is often an absence of demand driven biotechnology research agendas, especially in relation to the agronomic or socioeconomic needs of poorer farmers or developing countries.
Some publicly funded plant biotechnology research could in effect be competing with the private sector for the same customers or clients. For the private sector, poorer farmers and consumers are by definition not a lucrative market and are unlikely to exert any effective ‘demand pull’ on the private sector research agenda.
In theory, the onus would therefore fall on the public sector to fund and perform any research required to meet the differential needs of poorer farmers or consumers.
Yet, in most public sector institutions or funding bodies there are currently few priority setting or needs assessment mechanisms in place to help guide the direction of publicly funded plant biotechnology or crop improvement research towards meeting the immediate needs of poorer farmers.
In some instances plant biotechnology may represent one of a number of competing technological approaches to addressing a particular agronomic problem. For instance, a particular pest problem might equally be addressed through conventional plant breeding, through a transgenic approach, or through an integrated pest management (IPM) approach or any combination of these.
Within the broader agricultural research community there is often a lack of priority setting mechanisms and relative cost-benefit analyses to determine which available technological approaches may be the most suitable within particular timeframes for addressing prioritized agronomic needs or the needs of particular groups of farmers.