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Time for Resurgence of Public Sector Agricultural Research
By
H.K. Jain
Keywords:  Relation public-private sector; Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) Public institute; Private industry; Intellectual property rights.
Correct citation: Jain, H.K. (1999), "Time for Resurgence of Public Sector Agricultural Research." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 39, p. 24.

Over recent decades, the private sector has contributed an increasing share to agricultural research. However, H.K. Jain argues for a reconsideration of this trend. In his view, only with the long-term commitment of public sector research can the new technologies be generated that are necessary to meet the needs of a sustainable, yield-increasing agriculture.

At present, common wisdom seems to be that agricultural research, and especially that related to biotechnology, is best carried out in the private sector. In industrialized countries the privatization process gained momentum during the 1980s. The British government, for instance, sold its two leading research institutions, the Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) (see also Monitor No. 32) and the John Innes Institute. At the same time, in the USA a number of biotechnology companies started to develop transgenic varieties and to commercialize other products such as recombinant growth hormones.
In developing countries, the global monetary crisis of the 1980s left many public sector research organizations dysfunctional. At the same time, the supposed virtues of the private sector were passed over to developing countries by development organizations. For instance, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) now increasingly tries to create private-public partnerships, which should bring benefits of agricultural research to developing nations. Privatization of agricultural research appeared to make sense given the often overstretched research services in these countries. Many scientists have to perform several other functions along side their research agenda, such as seed multiplication or the production of vaccines. Following the example of the industrialized countries, many Asian and Latin American countries have been actively promoting private sector involvement in agricultural research. In India, for instance, MAHYCO, India’s largest seed company, but also multinationals such as Pioneer Hi-Bred (USA), are now actively engaged in plant breeding research. While this development is welcomed by policy makers as a cost-effective reform, concerns are being raised by scientists and farmers.
Firstly, the private sector aims at privatization of agricultural progress. It is widely recognized as a legitimate objective that there should be a reasonable return on investments and, towards this end, intellectual property protection is seen as inevitable. This has been acknowledged also by developing countries, most of which have signed the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). However, while the agreement on Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) stimulated many countries to endorse plant breeders’ rights (PBR) for newly developed plant varieties, in the USA and some other countries even stronger protection by utility patents is envisaged. With the European Directive on the Legal Protection of Biotechnological Inventions, patent legislation in Europe is also moving in this direction (see also Monitor No. 36), which will further limit farmers’ and scientists’ unrestricted access to this material. Recent technological developments on mechanisms to trigger embryo abortion in seeds prove that there has been a deliberate shift from reasonable returns to control over farmers’ decision making and scientists’ freedom to pursue research. Yet the free distribution of germplasm has been a vital prerequisite for agricultural progress during the history of humanity.
Secondly, the scientific basis of agriculture in the 21st century will have to be different, with the emphasis shifting to sustainability and the use of renewable sources of energy. This new agriculture will have to be more productive than current agricultural practice, which is reaching its yield barriers. It will also have to be more efficient in the ratio of energy input (in the form of seeds, inorganic fertilizers, pesticides, and mechanization) and the output of energy in the form of harvested produce. This will give rise to new priorities in the field of photosynthesis research, biological nitrogen fixation, integrated pest management, biological conversion of crop residues and more cost effective use of the applied inputs. Continuing advances in molecular biology and biotechnology will provide the basis for this kind of agriculture. This new focus of agricultural research will call for long-term commitments, which only the public sector can make. All major discoveries that laid the foundation of modern agricultural biotechnologies, such as DNA hybridization and amplification, marking of genes for disease resistance, gene cloning and DNA sequencing have been made by scientists in the public sector.
The private sector will continue to have an important role, but depending upon it exclusively would be counterproductive. Furthermore, public/private partnerships should be developed, but they make sense only if they are developed from a position of strength of public institutions. In the interest of free choice for farmers and scientists, and the evolution of the new agricultural technology, it is time to reverse the current decline in public sector agricultural research and press instead for a resurgence in its funding.
 

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