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 The Politics of Biotechnology:
On the exposure of Trojan horses
By
Theo van de Sande
 
 
 
Keywords:  Green Revolution; Small-scale farming; Policies/Programmes.
Correct citation: Sande, T. van de (1994), "The Politics of Biotechnology: On the exposure of Trojan horses." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No.19, p.24.

The characteristic of the initial phases of plant improvement ('farmer managed land races' and the 'hit­or­miss' phase) is that the direct producers themselves are the major innovators. Biodiversity as well as the indigenous knowledge of crops, storage and processing methods are the result of the innovative attempts of small­scale farmers to survive.
Although the same conventional breeding techniques were applied, the 'first designer phase' radically differs from its predecessors. The segregation between science on the one hand and productive application on the other gained dominance as the best way of mastering the environment. The Green Revolution was designed in (international) research institutes, sponsored by Western donor organizations. Instead of tailor­made solutions to locally prevailing agricultural problems, farmers were provided with standard solutions from a far­off institute. Farmers had to be taught to apply its results, and to follow the prescriptions with respect to fertilizer, pesticides, and irrigation. Extension became an indispensable instrument to 'discipline' the farmers and to persuade them to apply the often inappropriate innovations.
The supply of biological options became regarded as being dependent on researchers' understanding of the biological environment. Transfer­of­technology from North to South was intrinsically linked with the transfer of the Northern institutional culture. Scientists, irrespective of their descent and the location of their institute, became the magicians of progress.
From a farmers' perspective, things look different. They were persuaded to apply the miracle seeds of the Green Revolution irrespective of whether they were able to adjust their environment to make the miracle work. Since the margins for success or failure are very small for most producers in developing countries and the penalties for failure are quite high, it comes as no surprise that these producers are suspicious towards drastic technological change. Risk evasion counterweighs the promise of potential gains.
The question on the results of the competition between different institutional cultures becomes acute again with the emergence of the second designer phase in plant breeding: The Biotechnology Revolution. With respect to the institutional culture, it seems that modern biotechnology can only thrive in a culture which is radically different from the previous one. In the case of the Green Revolution, technology development was a one­way process from the top (scientists) via the change agent (extensionalists) to the bottom (farmers). The further development of biotechnology innovations seems to hinge upon the successful integration of both top­down and bottom­up interaction. Two observations are in place.
The first observation is that in the Biotechnology Revolution the distance between science and productive application seems to be smaller than before, or even non­existent. Instead of providing standard solutions, biotechnology research could provide tailor­made answers to local problems in local processes. The only way in which these problems and processes can be identified is by involving those familiar with them in the research process. The prevalence of (short­term) research contracts and the intimate co­operation between research institutes and enterprises are only two expressions of the applied character of biotechnology. Examples are not only be found among the multinational enterprises in the industrialized countries. For example, Vietnamese farmers deal with local biotechnology research institutes on a no­cure­no­pay basis.
The second observation is related to the position of small­scale farmers in the above described Biotechnology Revolution. This Revolution is dependent on precisely the knowledge of producers in developing countries the Green Revolution eliminated. For example, indigenous knowledge on medicinal plants and herbs, on species and varieties, on cropping methods and on processing agricultural raw material provides a rich and indispensable source for the great biotechnology leap forward. Pharmaceutical companies hire the services of entire villages to reap the jungle of the secrets only known to those familiar with it. Farmers' knowledge is one of the keys to success.
Contrary to the Green Revolution, the institutional culture of the Biotechnology Revolution does not by definition seem incompatible with local cultures in developing countries. The latter seems able to discuss with and respond to them... and to make use of them.
Still, it is yet unclear how the new institutional culture ­eventually­ will turn out, but this is equally true for all actors involved. The new norms and rules will be the result of a tiresome process of trial­and­error between all those involved. It might be beneficial as well as detrimental to small­scale farmers in developing countries. According to many the latter possibility is the more likely.
One of the major advantages for small­scale farmers is that they can become involved again in decision­making, provided that they are able to materialize their strategic position based on their ownership of indigenous knowledge. The free access to germ banks and biodiversity ­the common heritage of mankind­ can be disadvantageous for the negotiation power of those who have developed the germplasm and biodiversity.
The ambivalence of the Biotechnology Revolution makes it all the more necessary that it features high on the political agenda of farmers, their organizations and their allies. Trojan horses are only effective when you do not know what is inside them. There can be no misunderstanding that the other actors involved will do their utmost to enforce a maximum piece of the pie. Based on an understanding of the interests of the other actors, small­scale farmers' organizations should set up a strategy that enables them at least to co­determine the new institutional culture. For the coming decade, the biotechnology policy agenda consists of one major item: the issue of the rules and norms of the new institutional culture.
Theo van de Sande

Theo van de Sande is a political scientist at the Department of Biology and Society, Free University, Amsterdam (The Netherlands)



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