|Keywords:||Relation public-private sector; Genetic improvement (plants); United Kingdom; Wheat.|
|Correct citation:||McGuire, S. (1997), "The Effects of Privatization on WinterWheat Breeding in the UK." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 33, p. 811.|
The withdrawal of government funding for agricultural research and development usually results in greater commercial orientation for public institutions. The UK government's outright sale of its premiere Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) in 1987 is an extreme example. However, the privatization of research on crop improvement could have comparable consequences for developing countries.
The widespread shift towards privatization of agricultural research contributes to the intensity of current policy debates around genetic resources. Privatization affects the direction of crop development and of research in general, especially through shaping the roles different actors play in these debates. Most analyses of privatization of agricultural research focus on economic measures such as expenditures and cost efficiency. These economic measures in themselves, however, cannot fully explain the actual outcomes of research. Institutional context, such as relationships between stakeholders influence research directions as well. Privatization leads to new networks and new types of institutional shaping of research, and these changes may be as important to research directions as spending itself.
The history of the Plant Breeding Institute
The Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) was established by the UK government in Cambridge in 1912. As with most other formal breeding initiatives of this period, its impact was not immediately visible, while adoption of new varieties was slow. This situation changed after World War II, when food shortage made public funding for agriculture and agricultural research a strategic asset to gain food security. PBI's research is focused on the improvement of wheat, although breeding activities comprise also other crops such as barley, oilseed rape and peas.
Despite competition from abroad and from private UK breeders, PBI's wheats dominated the UK from the 1970s onward. PBI's combination of basic and applied research was praised both in the basic research community as well as in the breeding community. Its breeders interacted closely with researchers in genetics, tissueculture, pathology, and physiology. At the time of its sale, PBI wheats occupied nearly 90 per cent of UK acreage.
In 1987, the UK government decided to privatize its main public agricultural research institute. Though direct public investment in breeding was minor, government policy was to divest from profitable enterprises. Large corporations, like ICI (UK) and Unilever (UK/The Netherlands), expressed their interest, hoping to capture high profits through tying PBI's breeding in with their chemical and food processing activities, respectively. Unilever acquired PBI's breeding and other 'nearmarket' research activities, while 'fundamental' scientists (e.g. molecular biologists, cytogeneticists) remained in the public sector.
There are presently six private companies which breed wheat in the UK. The former PBI is still the largest and dominant one, but saw its market share declining from around 80 per cent in the 1980s to 59 per cent in 1994. Its competitors include private seed industry giants like Novartis (the merger of the Swiss multinationals Ciba Geigy and Sandoz), Limagrain (France), and Zeneca/van der Have (UK/the Netherlands). Profit margins are tight in UK wheat breeding, and some observers expect one or more companies to eventually withdraw. Most companies are taking a lowrisk approach to longterm survival, and are preoccupied with keeping spending low, both in their breeding, and in their investment in researching new options.
Changing research structure
The changes in property structure of PBI have had consequences for plant breeding research on a national level. The fundamental scientists that remained in public sector research must now raise half of their budget through industrysponsored research. In their attempt to gain funding, fundamental scientists try to carry out projects for private breeding companies, including their former employer, PBI. However, research funded by breeders in general is restricted to strategic goals, such as gene mapping for markerassisted selection. Little resources are directed toward research that is risky or may have importance only in the long term, such as basic germplasm evaluation and enhancement.
Private companies that fund research in the public sector seek full control of the results, often through confidentiality agreements. Different companies may fund parallel projects at the same institute, still the findings of each project might not be exchanged and publication is often delayed. Some publicsector researchers therefore criticize that the new situation negatively affects their research efficiency and their public accountability. They fear that the shift towards donorled, shortterm contract nature of research and staffing has already affected detrimentally longterm research capacity.
Limited variation in wheat germplasm
In the UK, the declining public support for basic research and germplasm enhancement has proven to be a major constraint in the pursuit of new lines of work. Breeding exhibits 'pathdependence': new paths (e.g. using different germplasm) places initial costs and risks on one firm, though all firms eventually benefit when the technology is refined. Before privatization, the PBI used to play this groundbreaking role, as an interdisciplinary institute. Through screening of genebank accessions and laboratory diagnostics, they introduced some of the first varieties with semidwarf stature, durable disease resistance, or good milling quality in the UK. Benefits, such as significant increases in yield and in the use of domestic wheats for milling, were spread widely. Many breeding companies that were competing with PBI developed their own semidwarf and milling varieties using PBI's germplasm.
Though the cereal genebank still remains in the public sector, the private breeders complain that nobody wants to fund new work on germplasm screening and enhancement. As a result, the tendency towards limited variation in breeders' outputs has increased. Examples reported by the National Institute for Agricultural Botany (NIAB) support this suggestion. NIAB is responsible in the UK for locational trials prior to variety registration. In one instance, seven lines derived from the same cross released for testing were by four different companies. As one breeder conceded "the top 100 crosses in the UK are probably the same combinations." In the future, this could have implications for genetic diversity, and for meeting the distinct, uniform and stable (DUS) requirements for seed registration. It also may tread close to being 'essentiallyderived varieties', varieties that have, according to the Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) Convention from 1991, only minor changes from established varieties, and so would have to pay royalties to the owner of the plant breeders right of the original variety.
Different competitive strategies
Although quality characteristics such as milling quality, texture, protein content are tested, they are not a required part of varietal certification in the UK. In the past, farmers gave preference to high yield varieties and many wheat farmers have generally operated along "high input/high output" lines. However, anticipated reductions in European Union price support, as well as higher price of inputs, especially chemicals, are making farmers more sensitive to production costs and the requirements of the endmarket. It is into this context that UK breeders must promote their varieties. Nevertheless, only a minor part of their client responsiveness is directed at farmers. Breeders are mainly concerned with requirements of other actors in the food chain. Moreover, seed production, grain marketing, food processing and milling are increasingly integrated and dominated by a few actors. Therefore the largest breeders aim for the major markets, such as the 3 milling corporations who process 70 per cent of bread wheat. These corporations play major roles in grain purchasing and transport, milling and feed compounding. In the UK, large private companies like Dalgety (UK) offer a whole variety of services and products, such as seeds, inputs and consultancy to the farmers.
The ten years since PBI's privatization have seen an increase in competition. Breeding or growing for niche markets is a possible strategy. Smaller, more flexible companies could gain some advantage by tailordeveloped varieties for these users who are otherwise ignored, envisioning guaranteed markets for their varieties. At present, local millers, organic farmers and other stakeholders with broader health, environmental or social justice concerns are still not served by breeders. The main barrier is formed by the costly testing and the definition of criteria for variety approval.
There may be a way for social interest groups to have some input into the direction of breeding, however. An alliance of social interest groups together with networks of farmers and retailers may be able to place strategic demands on breeders who are seeking to spread risk by linking with endusers. In the future, demandled, local outcomes of increased competition therefore might lead to the development of more diverse varieties for diverse needs.
Parallels for the South?
Recent years have witnessed an increased role for marketdriven changes in agriculture of many Northern and Southern countries. Governments withdraw from seed supply, encourage commercial breeding with plant variety protection laws, and enter into contract relationships with basic research. Though few Southern breeding programmes are up for sale, the increasing commercial orientation of research and development affects relationships in similar ways, especially with germplasm. Most Southern countries differ with the UK in terms of technology use, market links or intellectual property policy. Nevertheless, similar issues of public involvement and longterm concerns are raised in a Southern context, too.
Barriers to the involvement of wider stakeholders are different between
North and South, but privatization is a contributing factor in both contexts.
As in the UK, networks of actors working on coalition may have the best
chance to place demands on formal research and inject concerns of farmers
and wider stakeholders in crop development. As the activities of many farmers'
and indigenous peoples' organizations show, networks of farmers involved
in diversity conservation or in farmerled breeding are growing, some
of them rooted in cooperatives and marketing networks as well. They
could form important new clients for crop development, and in some cases,
like in Malawi, have been able to effectively articulate their needs. It
remains to be seen, however, if the national research will be responsive,
especially to the needs of poorer farmers.
As in the UK, some form of public screening and germplasm enhancement remains essential. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) has traditionally filled this role for national systems. A strength of the PBI was the close integration of breeders and other scientists, with considerable informal exchange. National programmes in the South, however, are more distantly tied to the CGIAR. In the past, the CGIAR was criticized for delivering standard packages for testing. Instead, the receiving countries should participate in the development and their specified needs be taken into account.
Here as well, networks among national programmes involved in germplasm enhancement and conservation may offer an alternative approach. National programmes may not be able to afford effective publicfunded germplasm enhancement. However, regional networks may, especially if they can attract donor funding. This is the case with the Southern African countries, and with the West African Rice Development Association (WARDA). WARDA, although a CGIAR institute, is at the same time a network of national programmes in rice improvement. Members of this network profit from the sharing of information and material in all directions.
A broader debate on genetic resources should also address whether these networks can access germplasm, information, and, if relevant, biotechnology, in an increasingly privatized global context. Of equivalent importance will be to see if such networks have a part to play in bringing crop research and development closer to national and local needs. Since relationships between actors in national agricultural research systems (NARS) are growing more complex and dynamic, their importance in innovation and in disseminating knowledge is gaining recognition.
Technology and Agrarian Development Group, Wageningen Agricultural
Univeristy, Nieuwe Kanaal 11, 6709 PA Wageningen, the Netherlands. Phone
(+31) 317 482776; Fax (+31) 317 484759;
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study of winter wheat breeding in the United Kingdom. Unpublished M.Sc.
thesis, Development Studies, University of East Anglia, UK.
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