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Working Draft

‘AGRICULTURAL BIOTECHNOLOGY FOR FOOD


SECURITY AND POVERTY REDUCTION’

Solutions to the challenges of hunger and poverty are complex and cut across the realms of
economics, politics, ecology, gender and agricultural technologies. Climate change and the
environmental degradation of agricultural resources in many countries make the goal of food
security even more daunting. Yet with the world’s food needs expected to double by the middle of
this century, technical advances will be required in all aspects of agricultural production to meet
projected demand. These advances include: improved genetic material; more efficient and effective
fertilizer use; expanded and more efficient irrigation; tools and equipment adapted to small-scale
farming; and more environment-friendly plant protection and disease control measures.

Agricultural biotechnologies, including GMOs (genetically modified organisms), represent one tool
in a large array of potential productivity-enhancing technologies. Based on limited initial evidence,
certain biotechnologies hold out the promise of considerable benefits, including greater tolerance to
drought, pests and diseases and reduced agrochemical and fertilizer requirements, thus addressing
some of the criticisms of traditional green revolution technology.

Yet technological advances are not the only determinant of agricultural productivity, and one should
avoid thinking that there is a technical fix for every production constraint. Effective agricultural
development will require an integrated set of production techniques that are more ecologically
sustainable, and about which decisions are best made on a participatory and demand-driven basis.
This paper addresses the set of essential conditions under which agricultural biotechnologies and
other production technologies can be adequately assessed, developed and managed consistent with
these priorities.

The potential benefits of crop biotechnology should be weighed against environmental risks and
uncertainties, and considered within a broader political, social, and economic development
framework. Recommended criteria for adoption of biotechnologies include their potential for
reducing hunger and poverty, the benefits they offer smallholder farmers, and the extent to which
decisions regarding their use reflect informed developing country input at all levels.
Working Draft 7.13.09
InterAction Food Security & Agriculture Working Group Policy Brief
‘Agricultural Biotechnology for Food Security and Poverty Reduction’

Background:

Agriculture, throughout its long history, has been characterized by a steady stream of technological advances.
Continued advances are critical to meet the world’s expanding food needs, which are expected to double by the
middle of this century. Climate change is rendering the task even more daunting. Agriculture in developing
countries is going to have to become considerably more productive than it is at present.

Technological advances are not the only determinant of increasing productivity, and one should avoid thinking that
there is a technological fix for every problem. Lack of secure land tenure or access to markets, or unsupportive
policies are frequently greater determinants of agricultural productivity than technologies per se. Nor is increasing
production in itself going to end hunger. The issues of hunger and poverty are complex and the solutions,
ultimately, fall as much into the realm of economics and politics as technology.

Still, it is impossible to envisage meeting the projected demand for food and fiber without continued technological
advances. Improvements are required in all phases of agricultural production: improved genetic material, more
efficient and effective fertilizer use, expanded and more efficient irrigation, tools and equipment adapted to small-
scale farming, more environment-friendly plant protection and disease control measures.

The Green Revolution is the most commonly-cited example of the benefits of technological innovation in
agriculture. There can be no doubt that the widespread deployment of green revolution technologies (improved
seeds, chemical fertilizers, irrigation) resulted in major gains in productivity, saved literally millions of lives
around the world, and laid the foundation for broad-based economic growth in much of Asia and Latin America.

However, over time the limits and drawbacks of the green revolution technology package have also become clear:
soil fertility and groundwater depletion, loss of biodiversity. The packaged approach of seeds, inputs and irrigation
has over time shown diminishing marginal and even total returns. Even in irrigated areas, increased inputs are
required just to maintain current levels of production. As a result, there is a growing consensus around the need for
alternative approaches that are more sustainable, demand-driven and participatory.

An Appropriate Role for Biotechnology

Agricultural biotechnology, including GMOs (genetically modified organisms), is just one element of a large array
of potential productivity-enhancing technologies. Biotechnology represents a continuum of different techniques,
ranging from non-controversial tissue culture (essentially cloning) to genetic marker assisted breeding (a means of
accelerating traditional plant breeding) to full-blown genetic modification, involving the manipulation of genetic
material across species or organisms. Based on limited initial evidence, selected biotechnologies promise
considerable benefits, including greater tolerance to drought, pests and diseases and reduced agrochemical and
fertilizer requirements, thus addressing some of the criticisms of traditional green revolution technology.

Biotechnology, broadly defined, is already demonstrating benefits for developing world farmers. Tissue culture has
been employed in numerous countries for the development of disease-free planting material for vegetatively
propagated crops such as cassava and banana. Marker-assisted breeding (MAB) is not as far along, but is being
used by the entire CGIAR network as well as national research systems in developing countries. The FAO, in
2007, published a thorough review of marker-assisted breeding.1 Examples of MAB currently underway are
drought-tolerant maize for Africa (DTMA)2, which employs marker-assisted selection to accelerate the

1
Marker-Assisted Selection – Current Status and Future Perspectives: ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/010/a1120e/a1120e00.pdf
2
http://dtma.cimmyt.org/)

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Working Draft 7.13.09
InterAction Food Security & Agriculture Working Group Policy Brief
‘Agricultural Biotechnology for Food Security and Poverty Reduction’

development of both hybrid and open-pollinated maize varieties, and CIAT’s Bean Improvement Program for the
tropics.3

Turning to GMOs in particular, the record is mixed. Overall, there has been relatively little work to date on their
applicability and potential in developing countries. While there is research in the pipeline – particularly in the
public sector – targeted towards the needs of developing countries, almost all of the GMO technology available
today has been oriented toward the interests of large-scale farming in developed countries. According to a recent
IFPRI study,4 for the few biotech crops (Bt cotton and maize, herbicide resistant soybeans) that have been
introduced thus far in developing economies, the balance sheet is promising. But, the authors caution that the
sample is small, with wide variations in results.

Opponents of GMOs (and agricultural technology skeptics more broadly) have frequently cited the findings of the
2008 IAASTD (International Assessment on Agricultural Science and Technology for Development), and its
recommendation that it is time to “fundamentally rethink the role of agricultural knowledge, science and
technology in achieving equitable development and sustainability.” The IAASTD places relatively greater
emphasis on the needs of small farms in diverse ecosystems, and on considering and valuing diverse forms of
knowledge. It also recommends a reduced reliance on “modern” reductionist scientific approaches and seeking a
technological fix for every problem.

The IAASTD itself notes that some GM crops can bring yield gains in some places.5 It also points out that the
possibility of patenting genetic modifications can attract investments in agricultural research, but also tends to
concentrate ownership of resources, drive up costs, inhibit independent research, and undermine local farming
practices, such as seed saving, that are especially important in developing countries.6 The IAASTD’s greater
concern seems to be that new GM techniques are being developed more rapidly than longer-term assessments can
be completed of their environmental and health benefits and risks. In this situation, uncertainties compromise
sound decision making, giving rise to skepticism and speculation about unknown risks.

Recommendations

Given the scale of the challenge, no potentially productivity-enhancing technology should be preemptively taken
off the table. Agricultural biotechnology, broadly defined, has great potential to enable the world’s farmers to meet
the challenges of climate change, drought, salinity, pests and disease. However, any work in this area should be
guided by the following principles and understandings:

Although biotechnology can play a role in enhancing agricultural productivity and food security, it cannot
by itself solve the hunger problem around the globe. Productivity improvements can also be realized
through conventional plant breeding, integrated pest management, agro-ecological approaches, more
efficient fertilizer use and better water management.

3
http://cgmap.cgiar.org/documents/MTPProjects/2003-2005/CIAT_2003-2005_IP-1.PDF
4
Measuring the Economic Impacts of Transgenic Crops in Developing Agriculture during the First Decade -- Approaches,
Findings, and Future Directions: IFPRI Food Policy Review No. 10, 2009

5
Agriculture and Development – A Summary of the International Assessment on Agricultural Science and Technology for
Development: www.greenfacts.org/en/agriculture-iaastd/
6
However, this is not an issue limited to GMOs. All hybrid seed, on which much of contemporary agriculture is dependent, is
subject to patents and proprietary rights and restrictions.

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Working Draft 7.13.09
InterAction Food Security & Agriculture Working Group Policy Brief
‘Agricultural Biotechnology for Food Security and Poverty Reduction’

Any potential yield benefits of crop biotechnology must be weighed against potential risks, and considered
within a broader agricultural and economic development framework. Benchmarks for this assessment
should be related to reducing hunger and poverty, and to helping poor countries achieve sustainable and
equitable development.

Selection of technologies for research and dissemination with ODA (public) resources should be based on
accessibility and benefits to poor and smallholder farmers.

The legitimate concerns regarding the potential environmental impact of GMOs need to be taken seriously.
Prior to release, biotechnologies must be shown to not threaten either biodiversity or environmental
sustainability.

Developing countries should be able to choose for themselves whether to pursue the use of crop
biotechnology. Therefore, support should be given to building up developing countries’ capacity to carry
out systematic, thorough and unbiased evaluations of biotechnology’s benefits and risks. This includes the
ability to establish appropriate bio-safety policies, to implement them through capable institutions, and to
participate in related multi-party negotiations. It’s noteworthy that, according to the above-cited IFPRI
study, the most promising experiences with GMOs were in those emerging economies with vibrant research
institutions and strong markets. In sum, a strong policy framework and institutional capacity are
important determinants of whether GMOs do, in fact, begin to manifest benefits that match claims.

Intellectual property rights should be shaped to ensure broad benefits of new technology, particularly in
supporting global research, so that developing countries and the poor are not left behind.

Plant genetic materials developed and preserved by the CGIAR remain in the public domain and are not
subject to proprietary restrictions. The “public good” aspect of this regime argues for increased agricultural
biotechnology work to be conducted through the CGIAR.

Most importantly, decisions about agricultural technologies, institutions and policies should be made by
governments in developing countries with the full participation of civil society (including farmers and
consumers, with particular attention to women, who often fill both of these roles), without undue external
influence from companies, governments, or advocacy groups.

Summary:

Fundamentally, the development issue regarding agricultural biotechnology, and GMOs in particular, is about who
makes the decisions, and on what basis. Donor countries should not presume to make the call on behalf of others.
But for developing countries to make informed decisions, capacity building and local ownership are critical. As the
IAASTD notes, many current and potential problems could be avoided if choices about biotechnology adoption
focused on enabling the full spectrum of local and national stakeholders to identify country priorities through
transparent processes that culminate in local decisions.

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Working Draft 7.13.09
InterAction Food Security & Agriculture Working Group Policy Brief
‘Agricultural Biotechnology for Food Security and Poverty Reduction’

Contributors:

InterAction’s Food Security and Agriculture Working Group contributed to the


creation of this document.

For questions or feedback please contact:

Brian Greenberg
InterAction
Director of Sustainable Development
202-552-8227
bgreenberg@interaction.org

or

Charles Uphaus
Foreign Assistance Policy Analyst
Bread for the World Institute
202-464-8167
cuphaus@bread.org