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7 The Challenge of Biotechnology

A Pandora's Box

The second Green Revolution is coming of age. Biotechnology applied to plant and animal production and processing opens a "Pandora's box" of technological options in terms of increased yields and an ever wider variety of productive processes and end-products: foodstuffs, big-energy, big-plastics and other chemicals, pharmaceuticals, pulp and paper, etc.

For the first time in history human beings are sharing the responsibility of creating entirely new - and sometimes dangerous - forms of life. The challenging ethical problems posed by this situation will not be discussed in this chapter, which is concerned with the more pedestrian questions of policy options that can ensure that biotechnologies are used for the greater benefit of the rural and urban poor.

Under what conditions may biotechnologies become a lever of sustainable development by developing regenerative agriculture, agroforestry, and aquaculture instead of temporarily achieving sustainability by means of ever increasing inputs of commercial energy and nutrients?

How to plan for intensive use of renewable resources leading to more balanced rural-urban configurations and fairer employment and income distribution patterns by redeploying modern, small-scale big-industries integrated into ecosystem-specific production systems that recycle and minimize the wastes? How can biotechnologies be used to improve the livelihood entitlements of poor peasants by making a greater range of technologies available to them that could ensure higher and more reliable yields on marginal lands with little water?

South-South Co-operation

The context in which biotechnologies have been developed to date does not lend itself to optimism. In third world countries they are rightly perceived as a menace because of their potential to enable industrialized countries to reduce their imports of tropical products. Numerous natural products which account for a significant share of third world exports are being displaced by biosynthethic substitutes or else by "tropical" products that have been developed to grow in a temperate climate. This ominous trend adds one more difficulty to the already depressed situation of the exporters of tropical commodities, even though in some cases new opportunities may also appear for third world producers.

Furthermore, biotechnologies come to the market almost entirely privatized, protected by patents and, to a great extent, controlled by powerful transnationals quick to buy the results of pioneering research and development performed by smaller, more creative enterprises. This degree of knowledge privatization considerably exceeds that observed during the first Green Revolution. The situation is diametrically opposed to the vision of science and technology becoming increasingly part of the "common heritage of humankind": biotechnologies are being commoditized to the disadvantage of third world countries and especially to their masses of poor peasants.

This explains the pessimistic conclusion about biotechnology by Costa Rica's Minister for Science and Technology, Rodrigo Zeledon:

Everything seems to indicate that the new technologies, far from being the instruments that will automatically save us from calamities, will simply serve to create new mechanisms for even more dependence. (Inter Press Service [Rome], Report 27, January 1988).

The political implication is clear. Third world countries should press international organizations to assist them in improving their access to the accumulated capital of knowledge, even though the prospect for advancing in this direction will remain dismal so long as commoditization and privatization are considered as panaceas for all economic ills.

More importantly, third world countries should develop their own research capability both for putting biotechnolgy to good use without depending on transnationals and for strengthening their position for the inevitable bargaining on the international technology market. The present unfavourable balance of power should not lead them to underestimate the paramount importance of biotechnologies for tropical countries, insofar as they can provide opportunities for a more efficient and intensive use of biomass produced both on the land and in the water.

On the contrary, third world countries need to assess the potential of an industrialization strategy based on the self-reliant but by no means autarkik development of biotechnologies, particularly those using biomass, "the fuel of development" (Hall and Overend 1987). Self-reliance here means autonomous decision-making with respect to research priorities, selective purchase of foreign technology, and promotion of collective self-reliance among third world countries.

South-South co-operation among countries that share similar natural conditions is urgently called for, going beyond the usual regional boundaries. The United Nations system should play a much more active role in bringing together scholars from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, arranging for the exchange of students, and promoting technological co-operation and joint industrial ventures. All of these facilities exist on paper, but in practice North-South circuits play a dominant if not exclusive role.

Paradoxically, developing countries are well placed to seize these new opportunities for spatially redeploying their secondary and even tertiary activities insofar as they are starting from scratch and need not struggle to overcome the inertia of the existing industrial structure. Indeed, leapfrogging should be seriously considered in this realm given the enormous savings arising from foregoing the heavy infrastructure investment that, sooner or later, large metropolitan centres will claim. The more so that countries like India already enjoy a considerable comparative advantage in qualified labour-intensive services such as software production or applied research required to accomplish this kind of strategy.

Considerable scope seems to exist to design decentralized, agro-energo-industrial systems not only in conformity with the ecological paradigm but also in such a way as to make maximum use of "combined technologies" blending along the production chain technologies of different vintages and capital intensity.

Co-operatives might offer a suitable institutional solution, allowing for the creation of strong and efficient enterprises without excessive concentration of capital in private hands. More generally, the potential of the social "third sector", as distinct from public and private ownership, should be explored in the search for new forms of partnership between the market, the state, and the civil sector within the paradigm of the "mixed economy".

The example of north-eastern Italy offers a double lesson in this respect. It shows that it is possible to reach a very high level of industrialization and prosperity through the development of small-scale enterprises. But it also points to the elaborate social fabric and local policies which were conducive to such development: it would be a total mistake to credit this outcome to the free interplay of market forces.

Choosing Priorities

For Ducos and Joly (1988), the pace of discoveries and innovations in biotechnology is so rapid that most of the products that will reach the shelves of supermarkets by the end of the century are not yet known. While this vision may be exaggerated, there is no doubt about the amazing versatility of biotechnologies.

Much will depend, therefore, on the objectives set for the researchers. Powerful economic interests are likely to play a determining role in the choice of priorities: pesticide-resistant seeds instead of pest-resistant ones, fancy processed milk products catering to the urban middle class instead of a range of products maximizing the food intake per unit of currency spent on them, and so on. Finally, the considerable sophistication of the new techniques and the high capital outlays involved are likely to strengthen the position of large farms and businesses at the expense of smaller ones.

In other words, if left uncorrected, the present practices will reinforce the model of growth through inequality and of lopsided modernization, widening the gap between the elite and the growing mass of marginalized rural and urban poor.

Brazil stands as a striking example of the potential and limits of such growth through "maldevelopment". It managed to sustain an average 7 per cent annual rate of growth or GNP for 40 years - from 1940 to 1980 - and to build an integrated and modern industrial sector, but at a staggering social and ecological cost, which is seriously threatening its future.

Fortunately, Brazil and most tropical countries are blessed with climates that enable a high level of primary productivity of biomass, subject to the availability of land and water. Biotechnology can be directed to partly overcome land and water constraints and to greatly enhance productivity in areas with an adequate mix of such resources. Moreover, they can be instrumental in producing from biomass an array of useful products - food, fodder, energy, fertilizers, and a rapidly growing variety of intermediate and finished goods. Agro-industries based on the more efficient capturing of solar energy through plants are "sunrise" industries, literally and metaphorically.

Applications of biotechnology need to be pursued simultaneously at three levels: overcoming local constraints in environmental resource endowment, enhancing vegetal and animal biomass productivity, and industrial processing of biomass. Their joint effect may result in a permanent comparative advantage of tropical countries and ultimately unfold into an original pattern of decentralized industrialization. Such a pattern would be less capital-intensive than the one prevailing at present because of lower expenditure on large-scale urban infrastructures.

Properly planned and administered, biotechnology could generate considerable employment related to the management of soils, water, and forests for the production of biomass. Many biotechnology-based agro-industries are being located in rural areas and can adjust their rhythms to the seasonal variations of demand for agricultural labour. Their efficiency depends less on the scale of production than that of other industries.

At any rate, by operating a network of "agricultural refineries" that transform bulky biomass into less voluminous semi-products, considerable flexibility is obtained for the choice of the size and location of second level agro-industries. Even dispersed and small industries can now interact with the national and international markets without incurring high transportation costs.

Biotechnology and modern communication facilities thus work in the same direction: they undermine the concepts of economies of scale and of concentration inherited from another industrial age and force us to assess them carefully case by case. They offer the possibility of "diffuse" industrialization, performed by small, innovative businesses that are quick at penetrating foreign markets.

Self-reliance in biotechnology is an ambitious but not impossible goal which requires a sustained public policy in research and development with clearly set priorities that benefit from a critical assessment of the lessons learned from the first Green Revolution (Glaeser 1987).

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