|Correct citation:||Muñoz Schick, C. (1997), "Chile's Experiences in Planning Agricultural Biotechnology." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 31, p. 1214.|
Chile's new programme on the development of agricultural biotechnology sets the context for future public investments in biotechnology research. A team of international experts together with national scientists and policy makers defined programme priorities. This process led to a high level of commitment to the programme, but not to workable criteria for the funding of individual projects. Therefore, Chile entered a second round of priority setting. Carlos Muñoz reviews the process.
Chile combines favourable agro-climatic conditions, an agricultural cycle opposite to the Northern hemisphere and, more recently, a government policy to promote exports. This has resulted in a share of 25 per cent of agriculture in Chile's exports, and of over 7 per cent in its gross domestic product. However, because Chile has entered several free trade agreements with other Latin American countries, the focus of Chilean agriculture is again under discussion. Argentina has a better potential to produce certain agricultural bulk products, and other neighbouring countries such as Brazil are emerging as producers of fruit. Therefore, it can be expected that Chile will import wheat, maize and oil crops and needs to improve quality to remain competitive with the new fruit producers. The Ministry of Agriculture (MINAGRI) has defined a new policy to maintain and enhance the competitiveness of Chile's agricultural sector both in the national and international markets. The strategy includes diversification of production, quality improvement, a decrease of production costs, a higher added value to agricultural export by the production of fruit juices, canned fruits etc., and protection of the environment. In this context, the development of science and technology is a central issue and particularly biotechnology is expected to play a central role, due to its innovative and multidisciplinary nature. Agricultural biotechnology in Chile offers a potential for the development of new products, and less dependence on foreign technology.
MINAGRI initiated a National Programme for
the Development of Agricultural Biotechnology (NBP) to be coordinated
by the National Institute of Agricultural Research (INIA) and administrated
by the Fund for Agricultural Innovation (FIA), both of which are
part of MINAGRI. To elaborate the programme further, INIA and FIA established
a Technical Advisory Committee (TAC), consisting of representatives
of several national and international organizations involved in agricultural
biotechnology. The TAC commissioned an FAO consultant to survey the current
situation of agricultural and forest biotechnology in Chile.
The survey demonstrated that human resources are scarce: no more than 80 researchers were involved in agricultural biotechnology in Chile, only a few of whom at PhD or MSc level. The number of students in the existing training programmes in biotechnology is limited. However, the survey also indicated that a significant number of Chileans abroad are willing to return, or to cooperate in the development of biotechnology in Chile. Chile has 42 laboratories involved in agricultural biotechnology, 60 per cent of which are located in or near the capital Santiago. 80 Per cent of these laboratories are part of universities, and therefore have strong teaching commitments. The equipment of the laboratories varies significantly.
Chile has no specific legislation to regulate the development and use of biotechnology. Instead, general laws addressing the trade of seed and plant sanitation are applied to the release of transgenic organisms in the environment. Other legislation, such as the plant breeders' rights act and the patent act are also applicable to agricultural biotechnology.
An increasing amount of competitive grants are available for Chilean scientists. However, there are no clear priorities and there is no formal coordination among granting agencies or research institutes. Additionally, the linkages between research and the productive sector are almost non-existent.
Putting forward the initiative
On recommendation of the TAC, the Chilean government requested the FAO to formulate a proposal for the new Biotechnology Programme. For three weeks, a team of five senior international scientists visited the main scientific groups working in biotechnology in Chile, the MINAGRI, the funding agencies, and FIA and Comisión Nacional de Investigación Cientísica y Tecnológica (CONICYT), the institutes responsible for science and technology development in the country.
Also three priority-setting workshops were held in specific areas: plant breeding, forestry and animal biotechnology. These workshops were organized by INIA in collaboration with national and/or international organizations and attended by scientists working in the respective areas. In all three cases, priorities were just set after simple discussions within working groups and a final discussion in a synthesizing group.
The draft proposal of the international team and the outcome of the three priority setting workshops were inputs for a planning conference attended by national biotechnology researchers, policy makers, and representatives of international agricultural research centres and international donor organizations. Although invited, only a few representatives of the private sector attended the conference.
After the planning conference the international team recommended to MINAGRI:
Reviewing the formulation procedure
The formulation of the Biotechnology Programme took about a year and a half. More than US$ 270,000 was spent, including the costs of the participation of numerous international experts. 60 Per cent of this amount was contributed by the Chilean government. Some savings in time and money could have been made with careful planning. For example, it appeared that the precise diagnosis of the state of the art of biotechnology in Chile was not used to elaborate the proposal. However, the proposal has been considered favourably by the government, and the programme might start in 1998.
The Biotechnology Programme has some positive characteristics. Firstly, the fund takes into account the singularities of the Chilean highly variable agro-ecosystems and its diverse endemic flora which offers possibilities for the domestication of new species for food, feed, medical or industrial purposes. The development of new products, which is included in MINAGRI's strategy to increase competitiveness, could both apply to new products of known crops and domestication of native species.
Secondly, the Programme takes into account the particular composition of the Chilean farming sector, which consists of small-scale farmers and entrepreneurs. Applicable technologies should be considered for each segment separately. The granting programme should address technologies for both, but lacks a clear allocation to each segment. In spite of the two groups are differing in cultural background and access to economic resource, neither of them have clear explicit biotechnological demand, i.e. they do not know what biotechnology can offer them in terms of new products or lower costs. Other funding agencies request co-funding by the private sector. As mentioned above, private industry is not yet interested in investing in agricultural biotechnology, since farmers are used to obtaining technology free-of-charge from the government. The Programme does not request co-funding from the private sector, but instead uses the condition that linkages with the private sector must exist.
Thirdly, the Programme acknowledges different stages in the development of biotechnology. Creation of new infrastructure, human resources and a critical mass are seen as a first, fundamental step. In later stages, the Programme should focus on the production of specific products.
Fourthly, it recognizes the small number of biotechnologists in Chile. Therefore, peer reviewing by Chilean scientists is replaced by peer reviewing by foreign scientists in order to avoid conflicts of interests and thus to safeguard scientific merit.
Fifthly, by assigning a board to the Programme, the necessity to set further priorities and policies is acknowledged. Finally, because of the involvement of well-known international scientists and the participation of scientists and national political authorities, the Programme has received a high level of commitment both scientifically and politically.
Apart from these positive characteristics of the Programme, some critical observations should be made to improve future programmes. Firstly, priority setting exercises are highly dependent on the group of people participating in the exercise. For example, priorities set by forestry plant breeders did not coincide with priorities set by non-breeder forest researchers. This also applies for scientist versus users. Therefore, priority setting should include researchers of several disciplines, farmers of both agricultural sectors and policy makers. In this case, farmers were not included in the process.
Secondly, the economic assumptions from which the priority setting process started, are extremely fragile and subject to rapid changes. For example, priorities for plant breeding were set before Chile entered MERCOSUR, the Southern Cone free trade agreement. Consequently, most priorities set are no longer applicable today. For example, food crops for the domestic market are no longer a priority since they can now cheaper be imported.
Thirdly, a simple list of biotechnological disciplines is too general for setting priorities in agriculture. It will be of little help for the assessment of individual project proposals. Obviously, the scientific merit of the proposal is an important criterion, but economical, social, environmental and institutional criteria should also be taken into account. The Chilean exercise did not lead to a portfolio of projects which could be developed by Chilean scientists.
Since selecting projects will be a difficult task, INIA, as coordinating agency of the Programme, is now participating in a project started by the International Service for National Agricultural Research (ISNAR) and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETHZ). The project uses the Analytical Hierarchy Process (see article on page 2) as a conceptual framework to prioritize biotechnology projects. This process is based on the decomposition of the decision problem in a hierarchical structure and the subsequent evaluation of its elements by pair-wise comparison by scientists. Apart from economic, social and environmental criteria, criteria for the assessment of uncertainty related to research and technology transfer are included as well. In several meetings with researchers of the seven projects under evaluation and decision makers in public institutes, a list of criteria and indicators has been developed. The results of these case studies should lead to clear indications as to the way projects for the Biotechnology Programme could be selected.
Carlos Muñoz Schick
Instituto de Investigaciones Agropecuarias (INIA), Casilla 439-3, Santiago, Chile. Phone (+56) 2 541 7223; Fax (+56) 2 541 7667; E-mail email@example.com
This article is based on a paper earlier presented at the IBS-CamBioTec Regional Seminar on Planning, Priorities an Policies for Agricultural Biotechnology, October 6-10, 1996, Lima, Peru.
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