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 IBS Holds First Regional Seminar
on Biotechnology Policy in Southeast Asia
By
John Komen
 
 
Keywords:  Intermediary Biotechnology Service (IBS); Indonesia; Malaysia; Philippines; Singapore; Thailand; Vietnam; Relation public-private sector; Intellectual property rights; Technology transfer; Policies/Programmes.
Correct citation: Komen, J. (1995), "IBS Holds First Regional Seminar on Biotechnology Policy." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 22, p. 18-20.

A growing number of countries are implementing national programmes in agricultural biotechnology. This raises a diverse set of questions for decision makers, such as: how are needs and priorities for biotechnology determined in relation to overall agricultural objectives? Is the necessary regulation for the safe application of biotechnology on hand? What are the likely financial requirements for research in agricultural biotechnology? Against this background, the Intermediary Biotechnology Service (IBS) organized a regional policy seminar in Southeast Asia.

The objectives of the seminar were to: (1) introduce policy makers, scientists and end­users to a decision­making framework for integrating biotechnology in agricultural research; (2) identify gaps and needs in biotechnology research management and planning; and (3) develop follow­up initiatives at national and individual level, to be reviewed and implemented after the seminar. Selected highlights of the different sessions of the seminar are given below.

Priorities for biotechnology research
The objective of this session was to increase awareness that priority­setting for biotechnology should take place in the broader context of agricultural research and national objectives for agriculture. The session began with a keynote address by Klaus Lampe (International Rice Research Institute, the Philippines), who analyzed agricultural objectives for Southeast Asian countries in relation to overall national objectives such as growth, equity and the need for innovation. This presentation stressed the need to consider biotechnology research as part of the agricultural research continuum. Lampe addressed inhibitors at the human, agricultural and economic levels which could prevent adequate food supplies in the future. He outlined the role that biotechnology could play to help avoid food shortages, with a particular reference to rice. A range of scientific breakthroughs, including breaking the yield barrier, developing durable pest and disease­resistant varieties and nitrogen­fixing crops, are needed if food production is to meet expectations.
Following Lampe's address, Willem Janssen (ISNAR) looked at priority setting for biotechnology in the context of national agricultural objectives. He enumerated three issues which require special attention: (1) the limited data available for assessing biotechnology research; (2) the timing of investments in this type of research; and (3) the comparative advantage of biotechnology versus conventional types of agricultural research.
A developing­country example of priorities for biotechnology research was given by Tran Duy Quy (Institute of Agricultural Genetics, Vietnam). For the period 1995­2010, the government's first priority for scientific research is in biotechnology. Four priority research projects in the field of agricultural biotechnology have been identified:

The discussions following the presentations illustrated some of the common fundamental constraints on the development of agricultural biotechnology in Southeast Asia, such as a lack of capital and a weak science base, and a weak link between the research, productive, and consumer sectors.

National policy issues
The policy issue selected for discussion in this session was intellectual property rights (IPR). The objective was to increase awareness of different opinions regarding national biotechnology policies and their relation to objectives and needs for agriculture. Three plenary presentations examined various aspects of policy decisions that developing countries face, with an emphasis on IPR.
Stephen Crespi (patent consultant, UK) examined the nature and function of IPR, and focused on the concerns of developing countries. This included discussion on national policy decisions regarding the publication or protection of inventions, types of IPR, and international negotiations in GATT and the Biodiversity Convention. Factors affecting the attitude of governments to IPR are: (1) the existing level of the national technology and expectations as to its future development; (2) the need to encourage technology transfer from developed countries; and (3) the desire to induce foreign investment in the country or region. Crespi argued that a strong patent system is more likely to catalyze technology transfer and foreign investment, but will not in itself ensure that technology transfer takes place.
Two presentations, one from Thailand and one from the Philippines, expressed opinions on these issues from a private company and from a regional non­governmental organization perspective. These illustrate the complexities that decision makers are facing with regard to agricultural biotechnology policy, and to IPR in particular. Kriangsak Suwantaradon (Ciba Geigy, Thailand) described four concerns from the perspective of a private company regarding national policies for the development of biotechnology. Firstly, although the Thai government has taken important steps toward implementing a national system for biosafety regulation, there is still uncertainty whether the new regulations for biotechnology research are understandable for all parties concerned, including public and private sector researchers and government officials who are involved in approving and monitoring experiments. A second private­sector concern relates to the loss of critical information and research material to competitors during the approval process, which is the responsibility of several different government offices. Thirdly, regarding IPR, concern was expressed that Thailand's recent draft Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA) may not effectively protect new transgenic plant varieties. In addition, there is also concern for the co­ordination, as two different government departments (the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Intellectual Property) are working on different draft Acts.
In the presentation by Elenita Daño (South East Asia Regional Institute for Community Education, SEARICE), consideration was given to the broader macroeconomic and policy environment for developments in agricultural biotechnology. Daño emphasized that enhancing peoples' participation in policy making for agricultural biotechnology and developing technology transfer policies that effect a genuine transfer from 'North' to 'South' should receive attention. The need to evolve IPR systems recognizing the contributions made by farming communities and to support the conservation of genetic resources, especially at community level, were two other points she stressed.
The discussion following these presentations elaborated the difficulties for developing­country governments in designing appropriate IPR policies. It was recognized that implementing IPR policies following those in industrialized countries may not be appropriate until the industries in developing countries have reached a competitive level comparable with that of their counterparts in the developed countries.
The patenting of genes was also noted as controversial in view of the fact that patents should be directed to inventions rather than discoveries. However, the cloning of genes and their transfer to different species is viewed as patentable in some developed countries (e.g. USA), especially if innovative methods are used.
Another point for concern is that some basic technologies are subject to patents. Examples cited referred to polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and particle gun transformation. These techniques are used extensively in research, but when the results are commercialized, royalty fees have to be paid to the patent owner. The setting up of an international mechanism for acquisition and exchange of such proprietary techniques was proposed, to enhance access to suitable technology.
 
Seminar facts

Six Southeast Asian countries attended the regional policy seminar: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The seminar included delegations consisting of policy makers from different relevant sectors (agriculture, science & technology, finance, planning), research managers from the public and private sector, and non-governmental organizations. It was the first of a series of regional seminars designed to strengthen the capacity of developing countries in planning and managing agricultural biotechnology. Held in Singapore, September 25-29, 1994, the seminar was organized by the Intermediary Biotechnology Service (IBS, the Netherlands), a special project executed by the International Service for National Agricultural Research (ISNAR), in collaboration with a local organizing committee from Singapore.
A report on the seminar, containing full papers, and summaries of discussions and national working-group meetings, will be available in April 1995.

Contact: John Komen, Intermediary Biotechnology Service, 
ISNAR, PO Box 93375, 2509 AJ The Hague, the Netherlands. 
Tel (31) 70 3496100; Fax (31) 70 3819677; E-mail J.KOMEN@CGNET.COM

Mobilizing and allocating resources
Nihal Amerasinghe (Asian Development Bank) chaired and introduced this session by stating that pressure on agriculture in Asia is increasing with rapid population growth, water shortages, and labour shortages as a result of urbanization. Agricultural research has an important role to play in alleviating pressure. The contributions to this session included short presentations by financial planners, such as by Anwar Wardhani (National Development Planning Agency, BAPPENAS, Indonesia). He presented a summary of the national planning and budgeting process for agricultural research in Indonesia under the Five­Year Development Plans. A new institutional feature in Indonesia are so­called 'tripartite partnerships', in which government, public research institutions, and the private sector co­operate in funding, conducting and commercializing R&D.
In the resulting group discussion, it was concluded that innovative mechanisms for mobilizing funds from the private sector, such as the tripartite partnerships, will have to become more important in the near future. Indonesian public research institutions should be encouraged to raise revenues from the sale of research products, royalties, or services. In his concluding remarks, Amerasinghe outlined the main findings relating to policy makers and research managers. When considering investments in agricultural biotechnology in a situation with limited resources, the following points have to be addressed:

Programme management and collaboration
This session was developed in co­operation with research managers from the participating countries, and aimed at examining the management issues involved in implementing research programmes in agricultural biotechnology. This subject was introduced by Joel Cohen (IBS), who reviewed issues that research managers face, when designing and implementing research programmes in agricultural biotechnology. Most countries participating in the seminar have set specific national objectives for agricultural biotechnology, as an element of broader programmes for agricultural research or biotechnology.
Bruce Holloway (Crawford Fund for International Agricultural Research, Australia) examined one specific management aspect, human resource development. Urgent needs in this area are: (1) to upgrade the skills of mid­career agricultural scientists; (2) to establish a second tier of training focused on the provision of specialized laboratory technicians; and (3) to initiate specific courses for research administrators, managers, and policy makers to understand the changes and benefits inherent in the introduction of biotechnology.
In the plenary discussion, biotechnology project management courses came up as a major need in the area of training, as there are few opportunities for research managers and decision makers to improve their skills in this respect. Training in other technical areas appears to be increasingly available, but more effort should take place in collecting and circulating information on training opportunities.

Technology transfer and end users
This session was designed to analyze the diverse issues regarding technology transfer and product diffusion to identified end users. In addition, specific needs were discussed for products from the public and private sector, and how the two can collaborate on product development. Amongst others, short presentations and discussions were given by Nguyen Van Uyen (Saigon Biotech, Vietnam), on private­sector enterprises for potato and banana micropropagation; Julia Pantastico (Micro­Biomass International, the Philippines), on microbial pesticide production; and Elda Adiningrat (Fitotek Unggul, Indonesia), on banana and pineapple micropropagation. All these presentations emphasized the strong relationship between the public and private sectors in product development. Examples of how government institutions can influence product development include: (1) offering on­farm demonstrations, pilot­scale production facilities, or Science Parks; and (2) procuring and distributing micro­propagated planting material. This relationship was further discussed in national working groups, and, finally, summarized by the session's chairperson, William Dar (Philippines Council for Agriculture, Forestry, and Natural Resources Research and Development, PCARRD). He presented a range of guiding principles for delivering benefits from agricultural biotechnology research, which include:

Follow­up planning
At the final session, the country­groups examined the range of identified needs and possible actions to address these, in order to obtain relevant follow­up actions for review and implementation after the seminar. Each country­team listed a series of actions that they proposed to follow through. In most participating countries, specific actions addressing identified follow­up actions have already been implemented. IBS is monitoring this process and provides assistance upon request. The specific actions include the following examples.
In Indonesia, priorities for agricultural biotechnology, IPR and biosafety will be discussed at the Second National Conference on Agricultural Biotechnology, to be held in June 1995. The Philippine Agricultural Biotechnology Agenda was discussed during a national workshop in December 1994. The Singapore delegation has initiated further discussions to explore possibilities such as organizing a regional biosafety conference and sharing databases on biotechnology research.
The identified priority actions for Vietnam included: (1) propagating elite varieties, development of biofertilizers and biopesticides; (2) conservating biodiversity, and (3) strengthening the co­ordinating power of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment (MOSTE). These recommendations were discussed during a national science conference in December 1994.
The concluding remarks and some specific recommendations were given by Yongyuth Yuthavong (National Science and Technology Development Agency, Thailand). He selected three main subjects which particularly stood out: (1) the sustainable utilization of biological resources through biotechnology; (2) the dilemma between meeting the requirements of small farmers and agro­industry; (3) the build­up of biotechnology capability, especially human­resource development.
On the basis of the discussions during the sessions, he concluded that more, and innovative, modes of funding should be explored, especially joint funding (e.g. consortium of private­sector agencies with government acting as 'catalyst'). Furthermore, consideration needs to be given to the establishment of an international fund for technology development and the transfer of suitable proprietary technology in areas related to agricultural biotechnology. Another suggestion was to form a 'consortium of users' to negotiate transfer of proprietary technology to developing countries. Intra­country technology diffusion should be need and market driven, which should be promoted by international or national intermediary organizations, such as IBS, non­governmental organizations, or national biotechnology programmes. With respect to IPR systems, it was concluded that they should be strengthened, but also that 'farmers' rights' should be respected, to spread the benefits of agricultural biotechnology fairly among various groups.
John Komen (IBS, ISNAR)



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