The International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR)


Can Biotechnology Reach the Poor? The Adequacy of Seed and Information Delivery


Robert Tripp, Overseas Development Institute, London





There is an expectation that biotechnology can provide significant benefits for the poor in developing countries. There are hopes that in addition to productivity increases that can lower food prices, new technology can be directed to resource-poor farmers, addressing some of the areas and production problems overlooked by the Green Revolution. This paper examines these expectations in the light of evidence on current seed systems and variety use in Africa and Asia. In particular, it examines the adequacy of information flow and the performance of seed markets.

Although some commercial transgenic varieties may be immediately appropriate for resource-poor farmers, it is generally acknowledged that developing and delivering biotechnology for the poor will require adequately funded public-private partnerships. This paper assumes that such partnerships will feature a strong component of public research but will increasingly rely on private seed delivery.

The success of biotechnology in reaching poorer farmers depends in part on the adequacy of information management. Many of the biotechnology innovations discussed for use by small farmers feature cryptic qualities (such as disease resistance or enhanced nutritional content) that may not be immediately obvious to farmers. The paper reviews several studies that show significant limitations in farmers’ abilities to recognise (conventional) modern varieties. It also reviews evidence from Ghana on farmers’ recognition and utilisation of a nutritionally-enhanced maize variety. Implications are drawn for the potential demand for transgenic varieties.

Many countries in Africa and Asia have inadequately developed commercial seed systems. The paper reviews a recent study in southern Africa describing the impediments to seed system development. It examines the incentive problems that must be overcome, reviews the limitations of farmer-to-farmer seed diffusion, and draws implications for the delivery of transgenic varieties. Even where commercial seed systems are fairly well developed there are still challenges in transmitting information about crop varieties. The paper examines evidence from commercial seed markets in India and discusses the relevance of formal certification and company reputations as mechanisms for information provision.

Although the paper discusses problems in the provision of seed and information that can seriously limit the poverty impact of biotechnology, the conclusions are not unduly pessimistic. Instead, the emphasis is on adequate priority setting in public research and ensuring that investments in agricultural research are accompanied by policies that encourage commercial seed system development and that empower farmers to be able to take full advantage of new technology.


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