Key Policy Challenges

In this volume we have brought together a unique set of analyses on managing agricultural biodiversity and biotechnology in the context of development. One of the key features of the book is using the common thread of plant genetic resource management as a point of departure in analyzing the potential for, and barriers to, jointly managing agro-biodiversity and biotechnology to achieve a range of development-related goals. These include increasing agricultural productivity and sustainability, reducing poverty, and improving the conservation of genetic diversity. Policies governing the management of both genetic diversity and biotechnologies have the potential to affect the ability of countries to achieve any of these objectives, depending on prevailing socioeconomic and environmental circumstances. One of the strengths of the approach taken in this volume is that it allows for an assessment of where there are overlaps, synergies, and contradictions in policy approaches to managing biodiversity and bio-technology. Just as importantly, the approach helps to identify where there is not likely to be any interaction between biodiversity and biotechnology management, and if not, the types of policy intervention needed in each separate arena to achieve desired outcomes.

Increasing the productivity of agricultural production systems through the development and dissemination of improved genetic resources is a primary means of accelerating economic growth and addressing the problems of food insecurity and poverty in developing countries. Biotechnologies provide one important vehicle to achieve this improvement, albeit with several caveats. Both institutional and technological obstacles need to be overcome to realize its potential. Since molecular biotechnology is a major innovation, the full ramifications of its impacts are still unknown, and safeguards for preventing undesirable consequences are necessary, but difficult to formulate in the presence of uncertainty. Advances in biotechnology have also generated radical institutional changes in plant breeding with a major shift of funds and control from the public to private sector. Harnessing the benefits of biotechnology for developing countries and poor farmers thus requires new institutions and new ways of managing existing institutions.

There are other means of improving genetic resource productivity in agriculture besides biotechnology, which may be more effective, particularly in marginal production areas. These include approaches such as production ecology (Chapter 17), participatory plant breeding (Chapter 5), or reducing the costs of accessing a diverse set of genetic resources by increasing the supply of diversity (Chapter 19). However, these strategies face their own set of constraints, including cost effectiveness. Biotechnology-based approaches to improving genetic resource productivity are not mutually exclusive with alternative approaches: In fact, enhancing the productivity of conventional approaches is likely to be one of the most valuable contributions of the technology to development. Regardless of the approach taken to improve the access to and performance of genetic resources, greater focus on improvements in the development and delivery of genetic resources that meet the specific production and consumption constraints of the poor is necessary in order to achieve poverty-reduction goals.

The conservation and sustainable utilization of agricultural biodiversity is another important policy objective in developing countries, which is separate but linked to that of increasing the productivity of genetic resources for food and agriculture. Agricultural biodiversity is a broader concept than genetic diversity, encompassing human knowledge and ecosystem functions as well as the genetic variability of plant, animal and microorganisms. Its conservation generates benefits that are realized globally as well as nationally and locally. As signatories to the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources and the Convention on Biological Diversity, many developing countries have assumed obligations to promote the conservation and sustainable utilization of agricultural biodiversity. The relevant decisions that face developing country policymakers are how to optimize the benefits from agricultural biodiversity management, including the potential for increasing productivity and sustainability of agricultural production, as well as receiving compensation for providing public environmental goods and services.

Much of the world's valuable plant genetic diversity is located in developing countries and the conservation of this resource generates both private and public goods (Chapters 5, 9, 19). To the extent that maintaining genetic diversity results in private benefits to the farmers who provide it through their planting decisions, incentives to conserve exist, although oftentimes rapidly eroding under processes of social and economic change. Maintenance of the public good aspects of diversity conservation (e.g., reduced vulnerability to pest and diseases, and options for future genetic inputs to plant-breeding efforts) requires some type of policy intervention. One way to generate a socially desirable level of conservation is by setting up mechanisms to allow for flows of payments from the beneficiaries to the providers (e.g., Chapters 9, 10, 11, 19, and 20). However, two major problems arise with such mechanisms. First, there are concerns that establishing property rights and rights to compensation for diversity conservation will lead to a reduction in the free exchange in genetic materials among crop breeders and farmers that has prevailed thus far, thus reducing their capacity to generate new varieties, and ultimately reducing farmer access to genetic resources in developing countries (Chapter 9). Second, even if payments are desirable, payment mechanisms are difficult to design due to difficulties in valuing the benefits associated with conservation (Chapters 4, 5, 9, and 20). This debate over compensation and benefit sharing is part of a bigger discussion about the ownership of genetic materials and the benefits that farmers, breeders, and other groups obtain from conserving agrobiodiversity, which have been the focus of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources and for Food and Agriculture whose implementation mechanisms have yet to be designed (Chapter 20).

The challenges outlined in the paragraphs above are being faced by developing country policymakers in a rapidly changing and high-stakes environment, where current policy choices may have significant consequences for current and future generations. This book has been designed to provide insight into the key problems of managing agro-biodiversity and biotechnology efficiently and equitably in the context of economic development. It is structured in an incremental fashion, first looking at the key forces and factors which are shaping the overall "rules of the game" under which biotechnology and biodiversity can be managed, and the impact of these on the ability to achieve efficient and equitable management regimes. Next, specific considerations of biodiversity conservation, biotechnology development and dissemination, and sharing benefits from genetic resource management are addressed. The last part includes a series of policy-oriented chapters drawing upon the analyses in earlier sections.

In the first part of the book, the chapters describe a series of major changes in global economic and environmental settings. On the environmental side, there is a decline in the global natural capital asset base of plant genetic diversity, together with a rising appreciation of their value and institutions designed to promote them. On the economic side, increased integration of global agricultural markets gives rise to changes in the structure of production and marketing, resulting in the expansion of markets and the economic opportunities associated with them. However these same changes may also result in increased barriers to market participation, particularly among small-scale and low-income producers (Chapter 2).

Three key lessons can be summarized from the chapters in the first part. The first is that markets are increasingly important as mechanisms for transmitting incentives for production and consumption decisions, as they are expanding in terms of participants on both the supply and demand side for a wide range of agricultural input and output products as well as for environmental goods and services (Chapters 2 and 3). Secondly, demand and supply are increasingly determined at supra-national levels—e.g., consumers and suppliers beyond national borders have increasing impact on market signals at a national and subnational level. One example is the rise of environmental concerns in developed countries leading to increased willingness to pay for agricultural products grown under specific environmental conditions, e.g., organic, no genetically modified organisms (GMOs), etc., affecting the production decisions of farmers in developing countries who supply international markets (Chapter 2). Another is the potential impact of the privatization and commercialization of genetic resources in developed countries on the cost of accessing these resources in developing countries (Chapters 3 and 17).

The third, and perhaps most key point, is that we cannot rely on market forces alone to generate socially desirable levels of poverty alleviation, agricultural biodiversity conservation and biotechnology development (Chapters 3, 5, 15, 16, 17, and 19). In some cases this is because markets are non-existent for the socially desirable goods and services, as is the case with agricultural biodiversity conservation. The value and sources of diversity are difficult to identify and quantify and, thus, so is the establishment of market-based payment mechanisms. In other cases the problem arises from distortions and poorly functioning markets. Examples here include the inability of poor farmers to express their demand for improved genetic resources in commercial seed markets due to their limited purchasing power and poorly functioning seed, credit, and other markets. Increased reliance on a market-based research and development system in this era of increased privatization would bypass the needs of the poor farmers in technology development. Another example is concentration and vertical integration in agricultural input and output markets that lead to noncompetitive and inefficient markets. Finally, markets are a means of achieving efficient, but not necessarily equitable, allocations of resources and thus interventions may be required to achieve socially desirable levels of equity.

The tension between the increasing importance of markets as a means of improving genetic resource management for both conservation and development on the one hand, contrasted with the increasing recognition of a need for policy interventions to either improve, supplement, or substitute for markets on the other hand, is a theme that recurs throughout the analyses presented in this volume.

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