Economic Concentration in Agricultural Biotechnology

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Modern biotechnology R&D has been conducted in an institutional and economic environment that differs significantly from the development of the earlier Green Revolution technologies. While the latter were essentially the prerogative of public research institutions and philanthropic foundations, the application of modern biotechnology to agriculture is essentially a competitive, commercial endeavor in which powerful private sector interests compete. Similarly, while the Green Revolution technologies were essentially dedicated to the public, the strengthening and extension of IP protection, particularly since the conclusion of the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations has increased the private character of biotechnologies.

Multinational companies in the seed, agricultural chemical, pharmaceutical, and food-processing industries play a major role in biotechnology research. They have invested heavily in in-house research facilities, commissioned research, taken equity positions in new biotechnology firms, and entered into contractual arrangements with public research institutions or universities. As a result of mergers and acquisitions in the past few years, the development of new biotechnology applications in agriculture has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a decreasing number of companies. The dominant companies that operate within global markets are Aventis, AgrEvo, Dow, DuPont, Monsanto, and Syngenta.

Table 2.1: The Evolution of the Science of Genetics, Leading to Modern Biotechnology

1866 Mendel postulates a set of rules to explain the inheritance of biological characteristics in living organisms. 1900 Mendelian law rediscovered after independent experimental evidence confirms

Mendel's basic principles. 1903 Sutton postulates that genes are located on chromosomes.

1910 Morgan's experiments prove genes are located on chromosomes.

1911 Johannsen devises the term "gene", and distinguishes genotypes (determined by genetic composition) and phenotypes (influenced by environment).

1922 Morgan and colleagues develop gene mapping techniques and prepare gene map of fruit fly chromosomes, ultimately containing over 2000 genes. 1944 Avery, MacLeod and McCarty demonstrated that genes are composed of DNA rather than protein.

1952 Hershey and Chase confirm role of DNA as the basic genetic material.

1953 Watson and Crick discover the double-helix structure of DNA. 1960 Genetic code deciphered.

1971 Cohen and Boyer develop initial techniques for rDNA technology, to allow transfer of genetic material from one organism to another.

1973 First gene (for insulin production) cloned, using rDNA technology.

1974 First expression in bacteria of a gene cloned from a different species.

1976 First new biotechnology firm established to exploit rDNA technology (Genentech in USA).

1980 USA Supreme Court rules that microorganisms can be patented under existing law (Diamond v. Chakrabarty).

1982 First rDNA animal vaccine approved for sale in Europe (colibacillosis). First rDNA pharmaceutical (insulin) approved for sale in USA and UK.

First successful transfer of a gene from one animal species to another (a transgenic mouse carrying the gene for rat growth hormone).

First transgenic plant produced, using an agrobacterium transformation system.

1983 First successful transfer of a plant gene from one species to another.

1985 US Patent Office extends patent protection to genetically engineered plants.

1986 Transgenic pigs produced carrying the gene for human growth hormone.

1987 First field trials in USA of transgenic plants (tomatoes with a gene for insect resistance).

First field trials in USA of genetically engineered microorganism.

1988 US Patent Office extends patent protection to genetically engineered animals. First GMO approved. Human genome mapping project initiated.

1989 Plant genome mapping projects (for cereals and Arabidopsis) initiated.

2000 Plant genome mapping projects for rice and Arabidopsis completed, and about 44 million hectares of land planted to GMO crops.

DNA = deoxyribonucleic acid, GMO = genetically modified organism, rDNA = recombinant DNA, UK = United Kingdom, USA = United States of America. Source: Adapted from Persley (1990).

Biotechnology R&D has been concentrated in a limited number of industrialized countries, with the United States (US) in the lead in financial and human resources. A growing number of developing countries have invested in biotechnology R&D, but the amounts are small compared to the sums invested by private companies in the industrial world. While private sector investment in agricultural research in general is increasing in developed countries, there is still little private sector biotechnology research effort in developing countries, particularly in Asia (Pinstrup-Andersen and Cohen 2000).

The commercialization and distribution of new agricultural biotechnology products, particularly transgenic crops, is also concentrated in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member countries, with a few exceptions (James 2000). These products are for the most part crops of economic importance in industrial country agricultural production and in world trade in agricultural commodities, mainly soybean, maize, cotton, and canola. During the past five years, the area under GMOs3 has increased rapidly from 1.7 million ha to 44.4 million ha, 75 percent of which are in the US. The remaining 25 percent are distributed in both developed and developing countries, including Argentina, Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, PRC, France, Germany, Mexico, Portugal, Romania, South Africa, Spain, Ukraine, and Uruguay (Appendix 2).

Relatively little biotechnology research is being undertaken on the problems of small farmers in rainfed and marginal lands. Neither is there much interest in Asia's basic food crops: rice, tropical maize, wheat, sorghum, millet, banana, cassava, groundnut, oilseed, potato, sweetpotato, and soybean. These are considered orphan crops because of the private sector's reluctance to work on them. That focus is unlikely to change because of the perception that investments in such orphan crops and from working on problems of small farmers yield limited returns. To participate more fully in the biotechnology revolution, Asian governments will need to expand their capacities to undertake biotechnology research linked to the problems of small farmers and orphan crops. In certain situations, however, there may be opportunities to purchase, license, or import technology applicable in Asia.

3 The term genetically modified organism (GMO) is synonymous with living modified organism (LMO), genetically engineered organism, genetically improved organism, and transgenic material.

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