Philippe Cullet

published in
Survey of the Environment 2000
(2000), p. 179.

Agro-Biotechnology: Can it Deliver?

The development and use of modern agricultural biotechnology (agro-biotechnology) is of tremendous significance for agricultural and environmental management. Indeed, the introduction of genetically modified plant varieties and foods has been extremely controversial in Europe and some of the implications of agro-biotechnology have already been the subject of significant debate in India. These include concerns with the environmental impacts of the introduction of these varieties, the impacts on human health and the legal and policy impacts.

Some of the controversies which have surfaced include, for instance, the patenting abroad of genetically modified varieties derived from varieties tended by farmers in India. This is the case of   a patent taken in the U.S. on a rice variety having substantially the same characteristics as Basmati rice. Reactions to the introduction of agro-biotechnology have included various strategies, from challenges to patents obtained abroad to direct action in the field. Thus the first field trials of genetically modified cotton which were being carried out in Karnataka in 1998 were simply not allowed to go ahead and the fields were burnt out.

Agricultural biotechnology has been touted by some as the best solution to the shortcomings of chemical agriculture. It has been argued that it possibly constitutes the only available avenue for raising yields sufficiently fast to be able to feed an ever-increasing world population while minimising environmental impacts. It would in other words constitute a replacement for the Green Revolution whose shortcomings are being more and more widely recognised.


Arguments against

Another set of arguments points out that current malnutrition is not caused by lack of food worldwide but by its maldistribution both among countries and within countries. The solution thus does not lie exclusively with the development of new technologies but requires mainly better access to land, food and natural resources. Further, critics argue that from an environmental point of view, genetically engineered varieties are marred by a number of caveats. In the case of cultivars with resistance to insect and microbial pests, for instance, critics argue that pests will necessarily evolve ways to cope with the resistance mechanisms after some years.

The regulatory framework for agro-biotechnology constitutes one of the most important elements which will influence the impacts of transgenic varieties in developing countries, including their environmental impacts. One of the reasons for the importance of the legal framework in this area is that the development of agro-biotechnology is largely dependent on the property rights regime being put in place to give incentives to developers. The main form or property rights at stake here is intellectual property rights, such as patent rights, which give inventors monopoly rights over their inventions. This is the mechanism through which scientists in the US have been able to seek protection for the rice variety having characteristics similar to Basmati.

Generally, the rationale for the introduction of monopoly intellectual property rights is that these rewards are necessary to give private firms the necessary incentives to get involved in this business. A number of consequences flow from the reliance on intellectual property rights.


Commercialisation of agriculture

First, it places the whole inventive process within a commercial framework. It is therefore not surprising that ‘inventors’ focus more easily on new varieties which are likely to bring in profits rather than varieties which are primarily meant to benefit the very poor and provide for their food needs. This is logical within this framework, for instance, because of the high costs associated with filing and maintaining a patent.

Second, monopoly intellectual property rights imply that one inventor derives all the benefits associated with a given invention. The intellectual property rights system is generally meant to reward the invention which is technologically most advanced to the exclusion of any other related invention. This implies that if a scientist develops a genetically engineered variety on the basis of a local variety developed by farmers, the latter will not be able to apply for any property rights for their variety.

The current regulatory framework at the international level is a direct reflection of the regimes in place in North America and Europe. These norms have now been embodied in the intellectual property agreement (TRIPS agreement) administered by the World Trade Organization (WTO). This implies that developing countries now have to adopt standards already in place elsewhere.


Legal protection

One of the obligations of all WTO member states is to introduce some form of legal protection for plant varieties. This constitutes one of the central mechanisms for the expansion of agro-biotechnology to developing countries. Indeed, without intellectual property protection, private firms are hesitant to invest in these markets.

In itself, the development of genetically modified plant varieties does not threaten subsistence farmers and the existence of a patent in the US does not imply that farmers cannot save their own seeds, exchange them, breed them and replant them. However, a number of points must be noted.

First, India is in the process of adopting a plant variety legislation which may drastically reduce farmers’ existing rights if it is adopted in its current form.

Second, one of the attractive aspects of genetically engineered varieties for large private companies is the possibility to get exactly the product that is most desirable for them. Thus, it is likely that farmers who grow cash crops for export will be under significant pressure to adopt genetically engineered seeds rather than their own. This can be significant since this tends to lead to the disappearance of local varieties and thus to a loss of agro-biodiversity, to the higher dependence of farmers on external inputs such as chemical fertilisers and also brings about a new circle of financial dependence which cannot be broken easily subsequently. This can have dramatic consequences as illustrated by the cases of suicides by cotton farmer in Andhra Pradesh a couple of years ago.

Third, there are significant uncertainties concerning the environmental impacts in the short and long run of genetically engineered crops. While this is a problem which is common to all countries adopting these seeds, developing countries are likely to be more at risk than developed countries.

Indeed, while the U.S. seed industry was capable of quickly replacing seeds affected by the southern corn blight epidemic because they had sufficient stocks of an alternative variety, this would probably not be the case in India.

Fourth, significant attention has been given to the controversy concerning the development of the genetic use restriction technology, also known as terminator technology. If seeds containing genes which stop them from germinating after the first generation are commercialised, this will be of tremendous negative significance for developing countries. Indeed, while it would be virtually impossible to control the enforcement of a patent or plant breeder’s right in this country where agriculture is characterised by the very small size of the average land holding and a great number of farmers, a terminator technology patent would basically be self-enforceable. Farmers would have no option but to purchase new seeds every year.


No direct relevance

More generally, it is significant that private agro-biotechnology can only thrive in an appropriate regulatory regime. In other words, agro-biotechnology will not develop in a context where information is freely available to all and shared on this basis. The development of a private sector in this field thus depends on the existence of legal mechanisms to restrict access to information. Intellectual property rights, such as patents or plant breeders’ rights, fulfil this function. While research in agro-biotechnology for the fulfilment of basic needs in developing countries can – and is – undertaken by public sector institutions, most of the research is today carried out by the private sector. This has definite implications on the kind of research which is carried out. It appears indeed that only a tiny part of the overall effort put in agro-biotechnology is directly meant to provide better seeds to subsistence farmers in developing countries while the bulk is either meant for developed countries or to improve crops which are not of direct relevance for food security at local levels.

The case of a recently developed transgenic rice containing Provitamin A indicates that even genuine efforts to use agro-biotechnology to meet basic needs may not necessarily constitute the most appropriate solution. In this case, even if this variety was indeed developed with the best intentions – something which is not unanimously accepted – this rice variety may not constitute an appropriate response to the challenges of malnutrition.

Indeed, studies indicate that the beta-carotene deficiency responsible for debilitating blindness is caused not so much by the fact that rice does not provide this component but by the fact that poor people’s diets have been reduced to rice. One of the best ways to address this problem is thus through a diet including vegetables containing beta-carotene, something which has been tried successfully in a number of cases.


Agro-biotechnology for Basic Needs?

Genetically modified plant varieties need to be put in perspective. While their development holds the prospect that science can break some new ground towards fulfilling food security objectives for an expanding world population, a number of reasons militate for a careful approach. First, the international framework which has been and is being put in place seems to imply that the international community puts more and more emphasis on commercial incentives for the development of new varieties. The profit making logic seems in practice to pre-empt agro-biotechnological research from being mostly concerned with the fulfilment of basic needs. Thus, while canola, soybean and cotton have received a lot of attention, research on millets has, for instance, been scanty despite their central place as a source of proteins for millions of poor people.

Second, even if genetically modified varieties do not have the potential to seriously harm the environment – something which is the subject of significant debate among scientists – it is significant that they do not constitute the ultimate solution to the problems of chemical agriculture. An inbuilt pest resistance will, for instance, not last forever.

They should thus at most be used in conjunction with other strategies, such as organic agriculture, to avoid a complete breakdown in case one strategy fails, something which cannot be discounted given previous experience.

Third, the kind of chemical agriculture propounded during the Green Revolution is now the subject of significant criticism. Agro-biotechnology is thus opposed to chemical agriculture because of its alleged lesser negative impacts on the environment. Whether this holds or not in the long term, there is one aspect where the two kinds of agriculture do not differ. The introduction of all these varieties has immense impacts on agricultural management. On the environment side, they tend to displace local varieties and contribute to a general reduction in biodiversity because of associated chemical fertilisers or pesticides. On the economic side, both are associated with building a loop of financial dependence for farmers. This is because while average yields tend to be higher than with local varieties, the costs of the inputs are also much higher.

Overall, while one may welcome the advances of science in this field, it is remarkable that the legal and policy framework being put in place at the international level does not lead one to believe that agro-biotechnology will indeed deliver its stated benefits. The framework is too lopsided towards the commercialisation of agriculture. Research in agriculture should be re-oriented towards fulfilling food needs in developing countries and should not overly disrupt existing environmentally sustainable agricultural practices. Given that the private sector is unlikely to be interested in this venture, this implies a much more prominent role for public institutions.

The concerns with the current development of agro-biotechnology have led at least to the consideration of some of its environmental consequences. A protocol on ‘biosafety’ regulating the transboundary movement of genetically modified organisms was recently adopted within the context of the biodiversity convention. This may signal the beginning of a new era in which the regulatory regime will not be concerned exclusively with the commercial aspects of agro-biotechnology but with a broader perspective.