Modern Biotechnology in LDCs: governing innovation in India's agricultural markets - Part 6: Conclusions and suggestions

In conclusion, the introduction of modern biotechnology might not increase food production, but has the potential to reduce the impact of production methods associated with the (not so) Green Revolution on the environment. Our exploration of Indian's uneasy situation in agricultural markets and the emerging institutional panorama governing the technology shows that current research and trials are rather detached from the reality and needs of the farmers and the population at large and that in the absence of the appropriate legislation granting not only innovator' but also farmers' rights, the former risk taking extreme steps in patenting original life forms and traditional local food.

For the immediate future, the degree of appropriability will determine the possibility of diffusion of the new technology as well as its ultimate effects on development. That would need to go in tandem with developing seed varieties that are useful for farmers, which is not as obvious as it should be. Future research should include in the agenda the responsible use of biotech for the needs of farmers, customers and people in LDCs. For instance by identifying and breeding crop varieties resistant to biotic and abiotic stress, such as drought and salinity or by growing crops with embedded vaccinations that might be too expensive to get or too difficult to access in rural areas and by investing in food crops with a nutritional impact, other than only for consumption. Nevertheless, a thread of this report is extent to which modern biotechnology can be subsidised and for whom since Indian farmers cannot afford it. This leads in turn to two set of questions.

On one hand this leads to ask how can GM technology be disseminated to reach farmers at feasible prices. And how can indigenous varieties be protected by uncontrolled/unregulated patenting from outside players, which could furtherance the country's dependence on Western agribusiness. The Protection of Plant Variety and Farmers Act of 2001 and its more recent 2002 version are both good in principle, but if local Breeders Rights patents can be given only to new life forms without doing the same for foreign companies there is a clear risk of foreign appropriation of local varieties, effectively forbidding local companies to do the same. In this process the rights of farmers and customers are poorly protected and the degree of appropriability uneven. The popular assumptions behind the introduction of GM in LDCs does not hold if lower regulatory barriers allow small scale production for seed exports in India, then growing the plants abroad and finally invading the LDCs' markets with GM crops imports as in the case of Bt Cotton.

On the other, there are a variety of concerns in relation to the legitimacy of GM foods themselves, not only on the economics of agricultural policy but for their unknown effects on human health, animals' life and the ecosystem. Arguably the area which encounters greater divergence of opinions, higher risk coefficients and uncertainties because of the lack of long-term studies on the effects of the use of such plant varieties for consumption by human beings. Both need to be considered highly on the agenda of regulators and scientists since GM foods are already present at various levels of the global food production chain. In order to achieve such objective there is a need to increase the availability of information to the farmer as well as the customer and to improve knowledge transmission systems between the various entities working on and with GM foods.

Such information should be made publicly available and then discussed at various levels of interaction among scientists, government entities, farmers and citizens. However, at the moment experiments on Public Participation and Governance of the Innovation [NbE: see the update at the bottom of this post (11.11.04)] of the type endorsed by the FGB are unrealistic in a country like India where only a very small portion of the population has access to the Internet and possesses the available income to purchase a Personal Computer. By the same token, the two arguments are inter-linked in the very same essence of the problems and potentials related to the use of new technologies. Unfortunately, more seems to be invested in protecting the rights of the innovators rather than the needs of the farmers in India, thus a more balanced approach along the spectrum is needed. That should not nevertheless divert our attention from the emerging institutional framework governing the innovation and allocating its property rights. It is strongly perceived that for the future an important objective should be to decrease prices, increase dissemination of the innovation and re-balance local and global policy inconsistencies.

Certainly, the considerations and suggestions advanced in this report remain limited to the agricultural sector, which need to be taken only as general given the size and diversity of a country like India. Even if the focus throughout the report was to look at the emerging global/local dimension governing the innovation that should not be uncapped by other parallel reforms such as land reforms, the availability of modern methods of irrigation, improvements in the distribution infrastructure and communication mechanisms. To be sure, more tests will need to be undertaken as there is much unknown about the effects of GM seeds on the ecosystem and human health.

Link to part 5

"Public Participation and the Governance of Innovation: main Results from of the research project promoted by Lombardia Region, Irer, Bassetti Foundation and Observa" (evaluation of procedures for citizens involvement).

(Posted by Daniele Navarra at 7 April, 2004) --- Permalink ---