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Policy and Institutional Framework are Critical for Effective Impacts of Transgenics on the Poor
Sivramiah (Shanthu) Shantharam,
Biologistics International,
Ellicott City, MD 21042.
Presented at the Conference on - "Transgenics and the Poor: Science, Regulation and Development Strategy."
November 7-8, 2003,
Cornell University, Ithaca, NY

In any discussion on the role of biotechnology (transgenics) in helping the poor, we enter into an elephantine paradigm that needs a multi faceted approach to address various issues and problems that beset the subject.  Biotechnology like many other agricultural technologies is an enabling technology that can have beneficial impact on the poor only when it is given a fair chance in the context of a public policy framework that addresses all the causes of poverty.  If there is a lesson that we should have learnt from the failure of green revolution technologies from reaching the poor is that it by passed most of Africa and many parts of Asia for want of proper policy and institutional (governing) frameworks in a sovereign democratic set up.  It seems that transgenics is set to face a similar failure in the same regions of the world for precisely the same reasons, and the problems are now confounded by a worldwide campaign against agricultural biotechnology that is so highly politicized and polarized.  Transgenics will be the Achilles heel of modern agriculture if the problems and issues of policy and governance are not addressed in an effective and expeditious manner.  It is not the fault of the technology that we don’t have sound policy frameworks to facilitate appropriate technology transfer, but it is the world wide ideological and political movement against transgenics that has left policy makers in a quandary. If this situation persists longer, the poor of the world who need the technology the most will either be denied or delayed.  Hyperbole, for and against modern biotechnology is not helping the situation, and there seems to be no resolution in sight.

No other modern technology in the post-modern times bar nuclear technology has caused so much of public controversy as agricultural biotechnology in the form of transgenics.  Transgenics had a painful birth and is still suffering from growing pains even in its teens.  The focal theme of this conference is to address the question of whether transgenics will benefit the poor when they are made available in majority of the developing countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America where majority of the “poor” reside.  This is an attempt to do a sort of an ex-ante analysis to facilitate the transfer of technology.  Enough theoretical and rhetorical analyses have been carried out to conclude a range of opinions from “it will benefit - may benefit - will not benefit depending on ones ideological beliefs.  If one wants to make any progress with this analysis, it is time to tackle the issues in a pragmatic manner, and answer a simple and direct question –“given the current status of transgenic technology, are transgenics geared up to solve the ground level problems of a subsistence and resource poor farmer to grow his or her crop and enhance income?   All other questions and concerns become secondary and take back seat for a poor farmer.

Most of the poor in Asia and Africa live on marginal lands where most often even grass does not grow.  These areas suffer from chronic drought, flooding, and farmers don’t have good quality inputs.  When and if these resources are available, the poor has no money to afford them.  Currently, transgenic Bt cotton is four times the price of regular hybrid cotton. There are no institutional mechanisms to provide any succor to the poor farmer.  The plight of the landless poor is something one cannot even begin to imagine. Transgenics or no transgenics, seeds need water, fertilizer, herbicide, insecticide and many other management tools to enhance productivity.  If these basic needs are not met, there is no chance for any new technology much less transgenics to make any economic impact on the lives of the poor.  It is important to bear in mind that in modern agriculture two of the most critical risk factors in agriculture have been weather and commodity prices.

If there is a direct economic benefit to be had from transgenics, rich and poor alike will adopt transgenic technology without any hesitation.  Another important ingredient of the success of transgenic technology is that it must be affordable, solve crop production problems, save money for cultivation, and bring additional income.  Currently, in addition to increasing the yield of the poor farmer’s crops, really very cheap and labor efficient methods of protection against pests and diseases and growing crops with minimal water and other costly inputs should be priorities.  That will be the only convincing way of ensuring an effective technology transfer to the poor.  The three fundamental constraints for the implementation of transgenics in developing and poor countries of the world are: absence of or dysfunctional policy and institutional framework for the stewardship of technology and its products, proper needs and matching technology assessment, and creating public awareness about the technology itself.  In the din of the ongoing public controversies about agricultural biotechnology, the way the scientific community and the policy makers have attempted to communicate differing opinions on the safety and benefits of technology leaves much to be desired. 

Two recent examples of the pro-biotech establishment sending confusing messages gives fodder to anti-technology propaganda are: (1) the decision of EPA to allow for the commercialization of root corn worm resistant corn with a relatively small percentage of refugia than what was recommended by the scientific advisory panel, and (2) the notification by FDA that cloned animals are safe to consume that are being challenged by many scientific experts (NY Times November 3 and 4, 2003).  It is these kinds of confusing messages coming from the establishment (regulatory agencies) that add fuel to the controversy and will delay and might even deny any opportunity for transgenics to demonstrate its impact o the poor.  In the propaganda war, the opponents of biotechnology seem to have the lead and the proponents seem to be constantly trying to undo the public perception damage.  This is proving to be a costly battle.

Even to this day, in a leading developing country like India, poor farmers do not have the wherewithal or the knowledge or skills to carry out productive farming.  It is appalling to see that poor farmers mostly disenfranchised politically and economically do not know how to sow seeds on a raised bed platform and do simple crop rotations combined with proper water management to keep their meager land (half an acre to an acre) productive round the year.  Agricultural extension service has completely disappeared, and in the absence of any such support system it is hard to imagine how a transgenic or non-transgenic crop would bring economic benefits to the poor farmers.  Poor farmers, by and large do not have access to agricultural loans for buying good quality seeds, and other agricultural inputs in a timely manner, have no insurance against crop failures due to weather and spurious seeds and other agricultural inputs.  Simple technological interventions are still the crying needs of the poor farmers.  If there are no institutional and policy framework in place to provide these services for crop husbandry, it remains a big question as to how transgenic seeds will confer benefits to the poor.  Some of the policy reforms that should be put into place urgently are markets reforms to allow farmers to grow and sell whatever crops they see fit for their economic benefit, infrastructure to harvest, store and transport the harvest.  Direct access to markets is something most poor farmers still lack in most developing countries.  Unless this situation is remedied by policy reforms and by providing the necessary infrastructure, no amount of technology innovation will help the poor farmers.

Scientifically, there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that transgenics are unsafe than any other types of seeds or will cause any more detrimental impact on the environment when compared to all other forms of agriculture.  On the contrary, plenty of empirical evidence exists to prove that transgenics are a lot more environmentally beneficial, and cause no significant impact on the environment or biodiversity.  Transgenic technology is making rapid strides with the advent of genomics and proteomics to deliver hitherto unprecedented traits and benefits in the form of drought tolerant, salinity resistant and yield enhancing traits, and many other types of traits that can tackle malnutrition, medicines, drugs and vaccines.  If the poor nations do not erect sound policy and institutional frameworks, then it will be once again the poor who will be denied the benefits.  But, then why is it that a simple message does not get across to the farmers and growers whereas false and misleading information reaches them much faster.  It has something to do with the way we communicate the risks and benefits of transgenics.  Serious attention must be paid to improve our communications not only among ourselves, but also directly with the farmers in poor countries in a language they understand.

What is happening with transgenics is not a rapid technology transfer, but slow and frustrating technology osmosis.  Transgenics need a chance to demonstrate that it can benefit the farmer, and it needs sound public policy and related technology transfer instruments to be in place.  It seems that the policy makers and regulators in most developing countries are supportive of transgenics, but don’t seem to have the conviction to take a public stand for the fear of public backlash and criticism from the activist groups.

Poverty and the poor come in different shapes and forms in different parts of the world.  There cannot be one solution to all.  It will have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. For example, there are poor farmers who have land but nothing to grow, and there are landless people who are absolutely disenfranchised.  The relationship of technology to these two groups of the rural poor is entirely different.  No single technology has solved every problem, and transgenics will be no exception.  What is important to understand is how does any new technology will help a majority of the farmers to make a difference in their lives?

At an event like in this conference, we are embarked on a discussion to assess the benefits of transgenics to the poor; still there are vast number of countries that have not benefited from a forty year old technology called “hybrid seeds” Like the green revolution technologies, transgenics and biotechnology are also enabling technologies and unless lessons learned from the failures of deriving benefit from green revolution are applied to transgenics, the poor will remain untouched by the new technology.  That lesson is in addition to good seeds and quality inputs needed for crop cultivation.  There is dire need for sound policy and institutional reforms that will support appropriate technology interventions.

Transgenics are largely a privy of private sector, and there is not much of optimism that the public sector in poor countries will be able to deliver them in the near or distant future.  Any public policy on transgenics must include instruments needed to facilitate mutually beneficial participation by the private sector (public-private partnerships) for rapid technology transfer.

In any debate involving the discussion of transgenics and the poor, it is the poor that is the most important stakeholder.  The poor farmer must be included directly in all discussions to hear their concerns directly and offer potential solutions that will facilitate meaningful transgenics intervention.



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