Linkages Between Agricultural Biodiversity And Biotechnology Overview

Between 1961 and 1999, global per capita cereal production increased by 22% while total acreage devoted to cereals increased by only 4.9%.4 This increase in productivity is partially attributable to an increase in fertilizer, pesticide, and water use. However, in a recent study, Evenson and Gollin (2003) show that the development and adoption of improved genetic materials were a significant and large part of the increase in agricultural productivity over this period. They estimate that between 1961 and 1980, 21% of the growth in yields in food production in developing countries was attributable to the adoption of modern varieties among farmers, as was 50% of the yield growth experienced between 1981 and 2000. Modern production systems are frequently characterized by their domination by monoculture, the adoption of which can lead to decreased genetic diversity, at least by some measures of diversity. The loss of genetic diversity generates costs in terms of reduced resilience of farming systems and reduced options for future crop and variety development.

The concern over the erosion of genetic resources may be linked in part to the increasing globalization of the economy, which has created pressures and conditions for the increasing intensification of agriculture, leading to the adoption of modern plant varieties around the world and, in turn, possible loss of traditional plant varieties. At the same time, some developing countries perceive that major international corporations primarily from developed countries are likely to earn much income through the utilization of genetic materials that have been conserved mainly by farmers in developing countries. The desire to maintain national sovereignty over their genetic resources has led to at least a dozen countries establishing controls over access to their genetic resources, and an equal number of nations developing such controls.

Enough international concern has developed over the need to conserve agricultural genetic resources to lead to the establishment of a multilateral system of access and benefit-sharing for key crops, the International Treaty

4 "Cereals" include wheat, rice, barley, maize, millet, sorghum, as well as other grains. These figures are derived from the FAOSTAT database (

on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture—hereafter denoted as the International Treaty. The International Treaty is considered a major step towards guaranteeing the future availability of the diversity of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFAs) on which farmers and breeders depend, as well as a fair and equitable sharing of benefits. This treaty entered into force on June 29, 2004.

Of course, PGRFAs are the basic biological input into the breeding of new crop varieties.5 Molecular biotechnology is increasingly at the forefront of modern crop breeding techniques. However, as applying such techniques is costly, modern crop varieties tend to be produced with developed country conditions and markets in mind, thereby limiting the extent of their relevance to developing country conditions and likely adoption rates. This situation is unfortunate as biotechnology can potentially be of great use to developing countries in helping them meet the demands of feeding their populations. At the same time, to the extent that farmers in developing countries are adopting modern crop varieties, their adoption may be coming at the expense of traditional farmers' varieties, or landraces, concentrations of which tend to be in developing countries. In the process, it is possible that PGRFAs of potential future value in crop breeding may be lost. However, as the cost of biotechnology applications fall, and consequently, biotechnology transfers to developing countries increase, agricultural biodiversity in these countries could be increasingly threatened. In sum, PGRFA conservation and the promotion of biotechnology applications in developing countries may be strongly linked. If so, policy mechanisms addressing each would be more efficient if they were linked. This book explores the economics of both the conservation of PGRFAs and adoption of molecular biotechnology and the economics of whether or not their respective policies should be linked and, if so, how.

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