Green Revolution and Modern Biotechnology!
There are three differences of particular importance for an assessment of social and economic risks and benefits. The research leading to the Green Revolution was undertaken by the public sector and the improved seed was usually freely available for seed multiplication and distribution.
Although breeders rights may permit an initial charge for the improved materials, the intellectual property rights (IPR) did not extend beyond the initial release. Having acquired the seed, farmers could reuse it without further payment, although reuse of hybrid seed would drastically reduce the yield advantage.
This is in keeping with the principle of “farmers’ rights” included in the 1983. International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources. In contrast, the bulk of modern agricultural biotechnology research is undertaken by private sector firms, which protect IPRs through patents that extend beyond the first release. Farmers, therefore, cannot legally plant or sell for planting the crop produced with the patented seed without the permission of the patent holder.
Patent holders, currently seeking ways to enforce their rights, are considering approaches such as legal agreements and technologies that will activate and deactivate specific genes. However, monitoring and enforcing contracts that prohibit large numbers of small farmers from using the crops they produce as seed would be expensive and difficult.
The so-called terminator gene is the first patented technology aimed at biological IPR protection. It is not appropriate for small farmers in developing countries because 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. Commercialisation of the terminator gene now seems unlikely in the short term.
Research is under way on other biological approaches to IPR protection that would not impose such risk on small farmers. These include, for example, genetically engineered seeds that contain desired traits, such as pest resistance or drought tolerance, but in which these are activated only through chemical treatment.
Otherwise, 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 to normal seeds, without the improved traits. The farmer would have the choice of planting the seed and doing no more, or activating the improved traits by applying the chemical. This approach complies with the principle of doing no harm.
It is important to note that even when patents permit a private company to enjoy monopoly or near-monopoly rights over a product it has developed, the firm is unlikely to capture 100 percent of the economic benefits. A recent study of the distribution of the economic benefits generated by the use of herbicide-tolerant soybean seed in the United States in 1997 found that the company, Monsanto, received 22 percent, while seed companies gained 9 percent.
Consumers of soybean and soybean products in the United States and other countries reaped a 21 percent share, whereas farmers worldwide obtained 48 percent (Figure 1). The share of U.S. farmers was actually 51 percent of the benefits, but farmers elsewhere experienced net losses of 3 percent.
A second, and related, difference between the Green and Gene revolutions involves the patenting of processes as well as products. The main process behind the Green Revolution was conventional plant breeding technology, which lies in the public domain, carried out by public institutions. Today, the processes used in modern agricultural biotechnology are increasingly subjected to IPR protection, along with the products that result.
This means that public sector research institutions may not be able to gain access to basic but proprietary knowledge and processes needed in research, including research on the so-called orphan crops such as cassava and millet. These are critical staples in the diets of many poor people, but they do not offer promising economic returns to private sector R&D efforts, so efforts to develop disease- resistant cassava or drought-tolerant millet, whether through genetic modification or conventional breeding, must come from the public sector.
Some firms have agreed to transfer proprietary technologies, without charging royalties, to developing countries where there are few potential commercial prospects. Monsanto, for example, has entered into agreements with Kenyan and Mexican government agricultural research institutes to develop virus-resistant crops. Arrangements such as these are few and generally involve the philanthropic arms of the private firms.
A third difference involves the adaptation of industrial country agricultural research to developing country conditions. Although based on earlier research in industrial countries, the Green Revolution was focused on solving specific problems in developing countries. Current application of modern biotechnology is focused on industrial country agriculture.
Industrial country research institutions had begun working on development of higher yielding crop varieties in the late 19th century. For example, in Japan, rice breeding under the auspices of the Ministry of Agriculture and public universities led to large yield gains in the early part of the 20th century, with a second wave of major gains after 1945.
During the early decades of Soviet history, under the leadership of geneticist Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov, the government carried out extensive crop improvement programmes and established one of the world’s largest germplasm collections. In the United States, hybrid maize research began in the 1920s. Much of the basic research was done by public institutions, such as land grant universities, state experiment stations, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Applications to particular farming conditions and the mass marketing of the new varieties were, in turn, handled by private seed firms such as Pioneer Hi-Bred and DeKalb. The research focused not only on developing higher yielding seeds to bolster food supplies for domestic consumption which was a critical U.S. concern up to the 1940s), but also on animal feed and production for export. This research could not simply be transferred to poorer developing countries, where the need was for improved varieties of locally- consumed staples.
The research that led to the Green Revolution involved further adaptation to the agro-ecological conditions of tropical and semitropical areas. It also focused on rice, wheat, maize, root and tuber crops, and tropical fruits and vegetables. The public sector role was, if anything, even more prominent, with international agricultural research centers (IARCs) and national agricultural research systems (NARS), particularly in Asia and Latin America, playing a prominent role.
Financial support came from donors of official development assistance and large private foundations, such as Ford, Rockefeller, and Kellogg. In contrast, modern agricultural biotechnology is still in an early phase, and the focus is overwhelmingly on production on industrial country farms and for industrial country markets.
In 1998, 85 percent of the land planted to genetically improved (GI) crops was in just five developed countries (Australia, Canada, France, Spain, and the United States), with the United States alone accounting for about 75 percent of the area.
Argentina, China, Mexico, and South Africa cultivated the remaining 15 percent, and the countries other than China include a substantial number of large- scale, capital-intensive farms that produce primarily for industrial country markets. Among the crops produced in these four developing countries are insect-resistant cotton and maize, herbicide-resistant soybean, and tomatoes with a long shelf life.
Globally, herbicide-resistant soybean, insect-resistant maize, and genetically improved cotton (containing insect resistance and/or herbicide tolerance genes) account for 85 percent of all plantings. Both the area planted to genetically improved crops and the value of the harvests grew dramatically between 1995 and 1999: from less than 1 million hectares to 28 million in 1998 and approximately 40 million in 1999, and from US$75 million in 1995 to US$1.64 billion in 1998.
Private industry has dominated research (there are a few exceptions: for example. Rockefeller Foundation support for research on rice, USDA’s role in developing the terminator technology, and modest programmes at lARCs). Consolidation of the industry has proceeded rapidly since 1996, with more than 25 major acquisitions and alliances worth US$15 billion.
Little private-sector agricultural biotechnology research so far has focused on developing country food crops other than maize. Moreover, little adaptation of the research to developing country crops and conditions has occurred through the “enlightened” (that is, not for profit, public goods oriented) public and philanthropic channels prominent in the Green Revolution of the developing countries.
A programme directed at public/private sector linkages is that of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), which transfers and delivers appropriate biotechnology applications to developing countries and builds partnerships amongst institutions.
Relatively little biotechnology research currently focuses on the productivity and nutrition of poor people. As with the Green Revolution, the challenge is to move from the scientific foundation established by industrial country-oriented research efforts to research focused on the needs of poor farmers and consumers in developing countries. Direct transfers of the fruits of agricultural biotechnology research to the developing countries will not work, in most cases.
More appropriate research for the developing world might focus on biotechnology and conventional breeding to develop alternative forms of weed resistance, such as leafier rice that denies weeds sunlight rather than incorporating herbicide tolerance into rice. The West Africa Rice Development Association (WARDA), a public IARC in Cote d’lvoire, has used a combination of conventional plant breeding and tissue culture to develop such rice.
Insect-resistant crops would have great potential value for poor farmers. So far, however, the development of crops containing genes from the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacterium, which produces a natural pesticide, has focused largely on the crops and cropping environments of North America. The new crop varieties containing the Bt gene require extremely knowledge-intensive cultivation. They might well be transferable to larger scale operations in some developing countries such as Argentina.
The potential usefulness of this application in crops grown by small farmers is open to question. There is considerable debate about risks of the development of resistance in pests, harm to beneficial insects, and crosspollination of wild and weedy plants with the novel gene. The evidence on these issues is still inconclusive and warrants careful monitoring before the application of Bt is tried on a large scale in crops grown by subsistence farmers.
Research on crops and problems of relevance to small farmers in developing countries will require the allocation of additional public resources to agricultural research, including biotechnology research, which promises large social benefits. There is no reason to believe that this research will offer lower rates of return than other agricultural research and development.
Private-sector agricultural research currently accounts for a small share of agricultural research in most developing countries. The public sector can expand private-sector research for poor people by converting some of the social benefits to private gains, for example, by offering to buy exclusive rights to newly developed technology and make it available either for free or for a nominal charge to small farmers. The private research agency would bear the risks, as it does when developing technology for the market. lARCs have an important role to play as intermediaries in facilitating such arrangements.
Without more enlightened adaptation, continued expansion of genetically improved crop production in the industrial countries may well have a negative impact on small farmers in developing countries. Some developing country consumers would benefit, but those consumers who also farm could experience net losses.
In addition, the development of industrial substitutes for developing country export crops, such as cocoa (which in many developing countries is produced by small farmers) could have a devastating impact on developing country farmers’ livelihoods. In sum, the biggest risk of modern biotechnology for developing countries is that technological development will bypass poor farmers and poor consumers because of a lack of enlightened adaptation.
It is not that biotechnology is irrelevant, but that research needs to focus on the problems of small farmers and poor consumers in developing countries. Private sector research is unlikely to take on such a focus, given the lack of future profits. Without a stronger public sector role, a form of “scientific apartheid” may well develop, in which cutting edge science becomes oriented exclusively toward industrial countries and large-scale farming.
The outcomes of the Green Revolution offer some guideposts for assessing the likely risks and benefits of agricultural biotechnology for developing countries. Risks and benefits may be inherent in a given technology, or they may transcend the technology. The policy environment into which a technology is introduced is critical.
For example, IFPRI research has found that in Tamil Nadu State in India, the adoption of high-yielding grain varieties meant not only increased yields and cheaper, more abundant food for consumers, but income gains for small and larger-scale farmers alike, as well as for nonfarm poor rural households.
Increased rural incomes contributed to nutrition gains for these households. Because the Tamil Nadu state government has pursued active poverty alleviation strategies, including extensive social safety net programmes and investment in agriculture, rural development, and a fair measure of equity in access to resources such as land and credit, the benefits were widely shared.
Where increased inequality followed the adoption of Green Revolution technology, it was not because of factors inherent to the technology, but rather a result of policies that did not promote equitable access to resources. And even in these areas, rural landless laborers usually found new job opportunities as a consequence of increased agricultural productivity, particularly where appropriate physical infrastructure and markets developed.
Successful adoption of Green Revolution technology, however, depended on access to water, fertilizer, and pesticides. Thus, inequality between well-endowed and resource-poor areas increased because of the properties of the technology itself. Likewise, excessive or improper use of chemical inputs led to adverse environmental impacts in some instances.
This problem was offset, to some extent, by characteristics that were also inherent in the technology: by allowing yield gains without expanding cultivated area, the technology kept cultivators from clearing forests and moving onto wild and marginal lands.
Overall, the Green Revolution was extremely successful in enhancing productivity in rice, wheat and maize; in increasing incomes and reducing poverty; and in preserving forests and marginal lands by improving yields within existing cultivated areas.
By reducing unit costs and prices for food, it greatly benefited poor consumers, and by boosting farmers’ incomes, it contributed to gains in nutrition. Would agricultural biotechnology produce similar results in developing countries? The answer depends on whether the research is relevant to poor people and on its ownership, that is, the nature of the intellectual property rights arrangements.