Biotechnology and development
I have read with interest the Spotlight on Biotechnology in the March edition of the Observer (no 216). The issues treated -- public perception, consumer concerns over food safety, IPRs, trade barriers -- reflect concerns currently expressed in OECD countries. It is disconcerting, however, -- particularly as someone who is quite familiar with the OECD Development Centre's work on biotechnology -- to find only a few short sentences throughout the Spotlight referring specifically to countries outside the OECD.
In today's context of globalisation and sustainable development, such a narrow perspective is difficult to defend. During what became known as the Green Revolution, new technology was developed in the international agricultural research centres and national agricultural research systems specifically to increase food supply in developing countries. The technology "package" consisted of high-yielding varieties of wheat, maize and rice, chemical pesticides and herbicides and, often, irrigation. Green Revolution technologies did indeed increase grain production. However, they were also the vehicle for transferring the chemicals-intensive methods of production predominant in the most technologically-advanced systems of OECD countries to developing countries.This model of production has been brought into question and more sustainable methods of production must be sought. Biotechnology -- whether in the form of new varieties with specific properties, or as a tool in the research process -- now offers all countries the potential for more sustainable agriculture, that is an agriculture which, inter alia, causes less water and soil pollution. For developing countries it also has the potential for improving local food crops and for creating drought-resistant varieties. The potential of biotechnology for developing countries will not necessarily be realised by importing the same food products and the same varieties as those developed for OECD countries. Furthermore, biotechnologies produced for intensive OECD agriculture may perform poorly under the production conditions of developing countries.What is needed therefore is more innovation within developing countries. Even though it is clear that some elements of technology and knowledge need to be transferred from external sources, it is still important that biotechnology innovations should be generated within the research and innovation systems of developing countries. This would require increased, sustained public research effort and innovative forms of collaboration between the public and private sectors. The Green Revolution technologies were developed as "public good" technologies, funded largely by philanthropy and the international donor community. In contrast, agricultural biotechnology has been spearheaded by private sector interests.Developing countries in the process of reform have generally been compelled to reduce public funding of research. At the same time, official development assistance has tended to contract. Yet, as your editorial says , "it is the developing world which has the greatest need for the new knowledge and techniques promised by biotechnology". What role could OECD play in helping developing countries meet this challenge?Carliene Brenner
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