The International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR)


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Public research and the biotechnology revolution: the case of rice

Douglas Gollin
Williams College

Over the past decade or so, the world has entered a new regime with respect to intellectual property rights for crop plants. Courts in the United States have taken the lead in allowing inventors to patent novel life forms, including plant varieties, and have given protection to those who identify new genes or biotechnological processes. New technologies and the accompanying legal protections have dramatically transformed the agricultural research sector. In particular, the relative importance of public and private sector researchers appears to be changing.

There is little evidence yet on the impact of this new legal-technological regime. From an economic standpoint, however, there are reasons to ask whether the new regime is desirable. Economic theory is, at some level, ambivalent on the subject of IPR protections. On the one hand, IPR protections may allow inventors to reap excess rents, and their inventions will in general be used at an inefficiently low level. On the other hand, this distortion is seen as a necessary evil that creates incentives for research and innovation - activities that drive long-term growth and productivity change. Many economists believe that Western systems of intellectual property protection have been important for the unprecedented economic growth achieved in the last two centuries.

Some of the most important research, in terms of economic impacts, has not taken place in the private sector, however. Public sector research has played an important role in generating economic growth, particularly in agriculture. The Green Revolution in rice and wheat yielded huge welfare benefits and contributed significantly to economic growth in East and Southeast Asia. This technological improvement took place largely on the basis of research performed by the public sector, and primarily by international agricultural research centers. In point of fact, it is doubtful that private sector research would ever have spawned the Green Revolution wheat and rice varieties, for reasons implicit in the technology of open-pollinated crop plants.

This paper will focus on the role and value of continued public sector research in rice, and particularly on the economic impact of the international agricultural rice research system. This system is comprised of national and international research centers, which until recently have exchanged genetic material on a relatively unfettered basis. The paper will present evidence on the effectiveness of the current system. It will in particular consider the effectiveness of the current system on the development of new varieties, the diffusion of genetic resources, and the ultimate gains in productivity. The paper will attempt to ask how technological change in rice production will be affected by the new legal and technological regimes.