The International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR)


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M. Eric Van Dusen

This essay describes issues which confront the role of transgenic crops in developing country agriculture. The goal is to outline major issues for the implementation of a policy for the release of transgenic crops in a developing country, concentrating on issues which may not be of concern for developed countries. Mexico is used as a case study. Two major areas are investigated: the presence of wild relatives, seed recycling and seed exchange; and the weakness of national institutions for biosafety regulations.

A principal issue that confronts transgenic crops is the presence of wild and weedy relatives of the target crops. In developing country agricultural systems there are larger numbers of possible related crops and larger areas of interaction in a more fragmented system. Relatively high levels of geneflow and the stability of hybrids have been documented. Furthermore the implications for escape of transgenes and the effects on weediness are compounded by possible effects on the crop genetic resources that landraces or wild relatives may contain.

A second issue that is relevant to agricultural systems that still have a large peasant sector is the evolutionary and dynamic nature of seed management. High levels of seed exchange and genetic flow among farmers have been documented, reflecting ecological, genetic, and cultural factors. The recycling of hybrid seed by farmers and the mixture of hybrid and local seeds to select third and fourth generation local adaptations have also been documented. These two factors drastically change the modeling of population genetics and the possibilities of containing transgenic crops to specific conditions or areas.

A final major issue is the lack of institutions for elaboration and enforcement of bio-safety protocol. On the approval and release side there is the problem that many biosafety regulations are approved based on past research done in other countries. Because of the above mentioned biological and ecological complications further field trials or population modeling may be necessary, but out of reach of the developing country agricultural institutions. Furthermore the transgenic technologies coming from developed countries may well enter via firms using market leverage and trade agreements in order to enter the market, as they do with other products.

On the monitoring and enforcement side there is an even clearer lack of institutional capacity to deal with the demands of transgenic plants. In developed countries there are mechanisms to control the unauthorized reproduction, sale, and distribution of seeds, and this framework is fundamental to the control of the release of transgenes. Although developing countries are under mandate to develop corresponding

IPR systems, the judicial and legal systems for enforcement are lacking as well. For illustration, the use of refugia to control the pest resistance problems associated with transgenes has been carried out by US federal mandate and contracts between farmer and seed company. In the developing country case the moral hazard problem of offsetting production with refugia will limit the possibilities of voluntary compliance and legal barriers will be undermined. There is a strong need for work in the mechanism design for technology adaptation in order to look at ways in which biosafety protocol can rely on incentives more than legal restrictions.