Who Benefits from Biotechnology?

by Chuck Francis

In the future, who will own the seeds of our major vegetable and field crops? How can this seed can be made accessible to all in agriculture? Who will benefit from advances in biotechnology? What checks and balances operate in the system to assure that benefits are appropriately distributed?

These are questions raised frequently in meetings on organic and sustainable agriculture. The concentration of ownership of seed varieties into the hands of a few large corporations, and the introduction of technologies such as the "terminator gene," further enlarge the debate about who will gain from science and new technologies in agriculture.

Over the past two decades, several major changes have transformed the seed business and influenced the accessibility of a wide range of seed varieties to farmers. One of these changes is plant patenting, a trend that began in Europe as a response to companies that wanted to assure a fair return to their investment in research and technology development. This change has strongly affected the seed industry in the US, where the first patent on a life form was granted in 1980 (Ann Clark, in Acres USA, July 1999).

Plant patenting has reduced the exchange of basic germplasm between breeders in the public sector and those in private corporations, and even among the breeders in public programs who can now benefit from varieties that are patented by their universities.

One notable exception has been the decision by the international agricultural research centers that hold much of the reserve of genetic collections. They agreed through the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 1994 to not seek intellectual property rights to any of these collections, thus assuring their availability to plant breeders worldwide at no cost. According to Dr. Clark, this agreement has been violated by some private breeders who acquired seed from the centers, then sought their own patents.

Genetic fingerprinting technology makes it possible to detect the specific identity of patented lines and provide methods of enforcing the patents. Farmers now sign technology agreements with a company, stating that they will not save seed nor sell any from their own harvest to neighbors for planting in the next season. There have been numerous reports in the papers about abuses of these agreements and the companies’ quests to enforce their contracts with growers.

There is no debate about the issue of concentration of ownership. What has emerged is more competitive and secretive behavior by plant breeders. We have to ask if this will ultimately benefit farmers.

What about the issue of responsibility? The corporation has, by definition, a responsibility to serve its stockholders. Most local companies find that their owners are best served by attracting local customers and meeting their needs so that the same people return. There is familiarity on a personal and family level, responsibility to individuals and the community, and a level of personal trust that keeps the system stable.

As business ownership becomes more distant from the local community, it is less likely that any of these factors will play a role in the decisions made by a company. In the extreme case of multinational corporations, the decisions and responsibility are far removed from the clients, and there is little or no personal dimension to the business. It is easy to paraphrase President Harry Truman and say that, in the international corporate world, "the buck never stops."

Who benefits from advances in biotechnology? There is no question that corporations and their stockholders have the most to gain. In fact, there is a push right now to just recover the extremely high development costs of varieties resulting from use of genetic engineering technologies.

Have yields increased with the advent of biotechnology? The most frequent reports describe the benefits of reduced costs in weed control, and these have only occurred for some farmers in some years. There is little evidence to support changes in crop yields; in fact, there is much discussion about the ‘yield drag’ associated with transgenic manipulation. Plant breeders can make only so much progress in yield, and the more traits or genes that must be selected for at the same time, the slower this progress will be.

Yield drag is the difference between the latest varieties developed by conventional means and those developed by genetic engineering. According to Dr. Clark’s article, one study from 1995 to 1998 showed that Roundup Ready soybeans produced 10% less than the normal varieties, and a more recent study showed a 4% to 5% lower average yield in the Roundup Ready soybeans compared to normal varieties.

Given the current prices for conventional corn and soybeans, it is likely that thoughtful farmers will give greater attention to growing specialty varieties or other crops rather than try to increase yields of standard commodities.

In summary, we can look at the economics of agriculture as well as the current beneficiaries of biotechnology and see whether this kind of technology will benefit farmers in the future. Aside from the arguments about gene escape, food safety, and whether European consumers will accept US grain crops, it is important to study the question of ownership. Who owns genes, who owns crops, and how will these ownership issues affect our future global food supply?

We need to look at both the economic and social impacts of a global agriculture, and to see who really benefits from globalization. At this point, globalization appears to benefit only the few developed countries that have the resources and the infrastructure to participate. WorldWatch magazine (Sept-Oct. 1999) reports that the richest fifth of the world’s population enjoys 82% of the expanding export trade, while the poorest fifth has about 1%. The report says that a global, professional elite enjoys a world of open borders and abundant goods, but billions of others find borders as impassable as ever. These are extensions of prior inequities that have greatly expanded during the recent move to globalization.

Even in our developed country, we can question if the beneficiaries of ownership, concentration. and biotechnology include the farmers who produce low-value commodities with ever-increasing costs of production inputs, especially those such as seed that now include a ‘technology charge.’ Although the trends are toward greater concentration and less local autonomy, we should remember the words of Nobel laureate Rene du Bos: "Trend is not destiny." The future will be shaped by the choices we make today.

Charles Francis is a Professor of Agronomy at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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