The International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR)


Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture: The North-South Divide


Joseph C. Cooper, ERS - USDA, Washington DC
David Zilberman, UC Berkeley





There is concern in developing countries about certain tendencies associated with the evolution of biotechnologies in developed countries. Due to advances in biotechnology, farmers will have to pay for the seeds and, in some cases (e.g., the case of the terminator gene), will not be able to plant the seeds harvested from their crops. Crop breeders in developing countries may also be concerned about possible difficulties in accessing and paying for the use of new biotechnology innovations. In addition, the major mergers and takeovers occuring among agribusiness firms could lead to increased concentration in the agricultural input supply and monopolistic pricing.

Concerns such as these lead developing countries perceive that, under the current system, the evolution of biotechnology may make them worse off. Major international corporations that are mainly from developed countries are likely to earn much income through genetic materials that have been preserved mainly by farmers in developing countries. Furthermore, these same farmers may have to pay for the use of genetic materials that they preserved.

Enough concern has developed on both sides of the table on this issue that in April, 1999, the 161-member nation Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (CGRFA) has agreed that a multilateral system of access and benefit sharing should be established for key crops with proposals for payment of conservation of agricultural genetic resources in developing countries. According to these proposals, financing of the global plan of action for the conservation and sustainable development of plant genetic resources will cost the international community an estimated total of $155 to $455 million (US) annually (CGRFA-8/99/4). Some of this funding will be distributed directly to developing countries for use in genetic resource conservation activities. Another portion will be distributed to developing countries as part of benefit sharing, whose end use may not necessarily be tied to conservation activities. Economists were asked by the CGRFA to develop criteria to determine the distribution of the burden among nations as well as mechanisms and principles to allocate this amount. The purposes of this paper are to: (1) consider alternative criteria to determine the amount to be paid and the sharing of the burden, (2) determine how the money should be allocated, (3) evaluate the merit of the funding proposal in general, and (4) address alternative ways that developing countries can benefit from biotechnology. We pave the way for these topics by first discussing the implications of biotechnology for developing countries and the political motivations for benefit sharing.



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