In this article we will discuss about the subject-matter and types of modern biotechnology policies.
Subject-Matter of Modern Biotechnology Policies:
Modern biotechnology can enhance agricultural productivity in developing countries in a way that further reduces poverty, improves food security and nutrition, and promotes sustainable use of natural resources. But such benefits from biotechnology require policy action on a number of fronts.
The small farmer in developing countries faces a variety of problems and constraints. Crop losses due to insects, diseases, weeds, and drought threaten income and food availability. Acid soils, low soil fertility and lack of access to reasonably priced plant nutrients, and other biotic and abiotic factors also contribute to low yields.
Poor infrastructure and dysfunctional markets for inputs and outputs, along with lack of access to credit and technical assistance, add to the problems plaguing the small farmer. Solutions to these problems will benefit both farmers and consumers.
Although modern biotechnology cannot solve all these problems, it can provide a critical component to the solution if it is guided by appropriate policies. Four sets of policies are particularly important. Policies must expand and guide research and technology development to solve the problems of particular importance to the poor.
These problems include diets with inadequate levels of energy, protein, and micronutrients, and crop losses due to biotic and abiotic factors. Research should focus on the crops of particular importance to small farmers and poor consumers in developing countries.
Bananas, cassava, yams, sweet potatoes, rice, maize, wheat, and millet, along with livestock products, feature most prominently in the diets and production activities of the poor. Except for limited work on rice, bananas, and cassava, little biotechnology research currently focuses on helping the small farmer and poor consumer solve their productivity and nutrition problems.
The prediction so often heard that the poor in developing countries are unlikely to benefit from modern agricultural biotechnology in the foreseeable future could well come true-not because the technology has little to offer but because it will not be given a chance.
There are three ways to expand biotechnology research for the benefit of the poor. First, allocate additional public resources to agricultural research, including biotechnology research that promises large social benefits. Existing national and international agricultural research systems have to be strengthened or new ones built.
Low-income developing countries currently invest less than 0.5 per cent of the value of agricultural production in agricultural research, compared to about 2 per cent in developed countries. Underinvestment is widespread despite high annual economic rates of return from investments in agricultural research.
A recent assessment of more than 1,000 research projects and programs found an average annual rate of return of 88 per cent. Investments by the private sector are limited to research that permits a large enough profit from the returns.
Nonetheless, privately funded research can still generate large benefits to farmers and consumers, as illustrated by a recent study of the distribution of benefits from the use of genetically modified (GM) soybeans in the United States.
The private patent holders and private seed companies captured one-third of the total economic benefits, farmers and consumers gained two-thirds. While private-sector agricultural research has increased rapidly in the industrialized countries during the last 10 to 15 years, it currently accounts for a small share of agricultural research in most developing countries.
Second, expand private-sector research for the poor by converting some of the social benefits of research to private benefits for the private sector. The public sector can entice the private sector to develop technologies for the poor by offering up front to buy the exclusive rights to newly developed technology and make it available either for free or for a nominal charge to small farmers.
The amount of the offer could be determined on the basis of expected social benefits, using an annual rate of return normally expected from agricultural research, for example, 60-80 per cent.
The risk of failing to develop the specified technology would rest with the research agency, just as it does when technology is developed for the market. The public sector offer would come due to the research agency that first develops the technology, but only when the technology is developed, tested, and made available. Both private-and public-sector agencies could participate in this research.
Opportunities for collaboration between multinational life science companies and public-sector agricultural research agencies in both developing and developed countries might increase the probability of success. With necessary refinements, the arrangement proposed here should be of interest to international development assistance agencies.
The third way to expand biotechnology research to help the poor is to protect the intellectual property rights of a private research agency that develops a particular technology, for example, seed with infertile offspring, or that contracts directly with the farmer, in both cases forcing the farmer to buy new seed every season.
This would make it easier for the private sector to recuperate the incomes needed to justify the research. But seeds with infertile offspring may be inappropriate for small farmers in developing countries because they pose large risks to food security. Existing infrastructure and production processes may not be able to keep fertile and infertile seeds apart.
Small farmers could face severe consequences if they planted infertile seeds by mistake. Monitoring and enforcing contracts that prohibit large numbers of small farmers from using the crops they produce as seed would be expensive and difficult to do.
GM foods are not intrinsically good or bad for human health. Their health effect depends on their specific content. GM foods with a higher content of digestible iron are likely to benefit consumers with iron deficiencies. But the transfer of genes from one species to another may also transfer characteristics that cause allergic reactions.
Thus, GM foods need to be tested for allergy transfers before they are commercialized. It was precisely such testing that avoided the commercialisation of maize with a Brazil nut gene. GM foods with possible allergy risks should be fully labelled.
Labelling may also be needed to identify content for cultural and religious reasons or simply because consumers want to know. Finally, labelling may be required to identify the production process itself when that, rather than any specific health risk, interests consumers.
Failure to remove antibiotic-resistant marker genes used in research before a GM food is commercialized presents a potential although unproven health risk. Recent legislation in the European Union requires that such marker genes be removed before a GM food is deemed safe for consumers. Risks and opportunities associated with GM foods should be integrated into the general food safety regulations of a country.
Effective national biosafety regulations should be in place before modern biotechnology is introduced into a country’s agriculture. Such regulations should be country- specific and reflect relevant risk factors.
The ecological risks policymakers need to assess include the spread of traits such as herbicide resistance from genetically modified plants to plants that are not modified, and the build-up of resistance in insect populations.
Seeds that produce infertile offspring may be an effective solution to the risk associated with cross pollination but, they may be inappropriate for small farmers. The approach used to develop terminator seeds, however, offers great promise for the development of a seed that will avoid the spread of new traits through cross- pollination.
The seed would contain the desired traits, such as pest resistance or drought tolerance, but each trait would be activated only after treatment with a particular chemical. Without treatment, the seed would maintain its normal characteristics. Thus, if a farmer planted an improved seed, the offspring would not be sterile; rather they would revert back to being normal seeds.
The farmer would then have the choice of planting the normal seed or bringing back the improved traits by applying a particular chemical. Contrary to the terminator gene, this approach complies with the principle of doing no harm.
Both food safety and biosafety regulations should reflect international agreements and a society’s acceptable risk levels, including the risks associated with not using modern biotechnology to achieve desired goals. The poor should be included directly in the debate and decision-making about their desire for technological change, the risks of that change, and the consequences of no or alternative kinds of change.
Recent mergers and acquisitions have resulted in increasing concentration among companies engaged in biotechnology research. The outcome of this growing concentration may be reduced competition, monopoly or oligopoly profits, exploitation of small farmers and consumers, and successful efforts to gain special favours from governments.
Effective antitrust legislation and institutions to enforce the legislation are needed, particularly in small developing countries where one or only a few seed distribution companies operate.
Effective legislation is also required to enforce intellectual property rights, including those of farmers to germplasm, along the lines agreed to within the frameworks of the World Trade Organisation and the Convention on Biological Diversity.
Modern biotechnology research may help reduce poverty, improve food security and nutrition, and make the use of natural resources more sustainable, only if it focuses on the problems and opportunities poor people in developing countries face and only if appropriate policies accompany it.
Modern biotechnology is not a silver bullet, but it may be a powerful tool in the fight against poverty and should be made available to poor farmers and consumers.
Types of Modern Biotechnology Policies:
Will developing countries adopt policies that promote the planting of genetically modified (GM) crops, or will they select policies that slow the spread of the GM crop revolution? The evidence so far is mixed. In some prominent countries such as China, policies are in place that encourage the independent development and planting of GM crops.
Yet in a number of other equally prominent countries the planting of GM crops is not yet officially approved. The inclination of developing countries to promote or block the spread of GM crops can be judged by the policy choices they make in five separate areas: intellectual property rights (IPR) policy, biosafety policy, trade policy, food safety policy, and public research investments.
i. Policy Options toward GM Crops:
If developing countries want to bring GM crop technologies into their farming systems, they may have to recognise some of the intellectual property rights claims of the private companies that have been developing GM crops. At one extreme, they might even adopt the U.S. approach and provide full patent protection.
A somewhat less promotional policy could offer only plant breeders’ rights as IPR guarantees, which entitle breeders to use protected varieties as an initial source of variation for the creation of new varieties as in the 1991 agreement of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV).
A still weaker approach would be to embrace an earlier 1978 version of UPOV, which preserves the privilege of farmers to replant seeds from protected varieties on their own farms. Weaker still would be to provide no IPRs at all for plant breeders.
In the area of biological safety, the most promotional policy toward GM crops would be to approve the use of these crops without any careful case-by-case screening for unwanted gene-flow or damage to non-target species. A less promotional approach would be to screen GM crops case by case but only for risks that can be scientifically demonstrated.
A more cautious approach would be to hold crops off the market case by case even without proof of risk so long as some scientific uncertainties remained. The most cautious approach would be to assume risk in all cases because of the novelty of the GM process.
Consumer acceptance of GM crops in major importing countries continues to evolve. Assuming adequate consumer acceptance, a promotional trade policy toward GM crops would be to seek the import of GM plant materials and seeds without restriction and promote the planting of GM crops in hopes of cutting farm production costs and becoming a more competitive exporter.
A more neutral approach would be to neither promote nor prevent the planting of GM crops and to treat GM seed and commodity imports the same way as non-GM imports. A more cautious trade policy approach would be to develop and implement a separate and more restrictive method for regulating and labelling the import of GM seeds or commodities compared with non-GM.
A preventive trade policy choice would be to ban GM imports and block the planting of GM crops. If consumer acceptance of GM crops in international markets continues to weaken, such a ban on planting GM crops could be defended on trade grounds as a way to seek price premiums on the world market as a “GM-free” exporter.
GM crops currently on the market pose no new hazards to human health and to impose no additional inspection or labelling burdens on them. A less promotional approach would be to require labelling of some GM foods in the interest of a consumer’s right to know but to make the labelling standards lenient enough so that a complete segregation of GM from non-GM commodities is not required.
A still more cautious approach would be to impose mandatory comprehensive labelling for all GM foods in a manner that would require market segregation. A fully preventive approach would be to ban all GM foods or to label them in ways, intended to stigmatize and prevent their use.
Developing countries must also make a range of agricultural research investment choices toward GM crops. At one extreme they might spend treasury resources to develop their own GM crops. As a second option they could invest only in the more limited goal of backcrossing GM traits developed by others into their own domestic germplasm.
As a still more limited option they could allow their scientists to pursue backcrossing of transgenes into local varieties only if donors were willing to pay for it. At a preventive extreme they could decide not to spend any money, even donor money, on GM crop research.
ii. Policy Choices:
This system can be used to classify the actual policy choices toward GM crops that were made by governments in Brazil, China, India, and Kenya in 1999-2000. Whereas China opted for relatively permissive policies toward GM crops, Brazil, India, and Kenya have in most respects been more precautionary.
In Brazil, India, and Kenya biosafety approval has emerged as the principal point of resistance against moving the GM crop revolution forward. This is a surprising discovery given the fact that biosafety approvals for GM crops have not been such a strong sticking point in the industrial world, given the traditionally weak agricultural biosafety policies of most developing countries, and given the potential biosafety benefits of some GM crop applications.
It is particularly surprising that Brazil and India have moved so slowly on biosafety approvals for GM crops, given the significant state investments that are simultaneously being made in both countries to develop GM crops.
International pressures of four kinds help explain this pattern of caution in the developing world:
(1) Environmental groups based in Europe and North America have used media campaigns, lawsuits, and direct actions to project into the developing world a tone of extreme caution toward GM crops;
(2) Consumer doubts in Europe and Japan regarding GM crops have discouraged planting of those crops by developing-country exporters;
(3) The precautionary tone of the 2000 Biosafety Protocol governing trans-boundary movements of GM crops is reinforcing biosafety caution in the developing world; and
(4) Donor assistance to developing countries in the area of agri-biotechnology has often focused more on the possible biosafety risks of the new technology than on its possible agronomic or economic advantages.
A further spread of GM crops into the developing world will depend on more than just the availability of suitable technologies. It will also depend upon the future willingness of biosafety authorities in developing countries to give farmers permission to plant GM crops.
This willingness, in turn, will likely depend as much on the external pressures and influences faced by these regulators as upon actual documented threats to biosafety from GM crops.