Washington, 25 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The move by the U.S. and some other industrial nations in recent years to allow the patenting of biotechnology research, and especially genetic engineering results, is threatening the global system of shared agricultural research that provided the green revolution so important to most developing countries, says a senior World Bank official.
Bank Vice President Ismail Serageldin, in his role as chairman of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), says the explosion of patenting in biotechnology -- which grants ownership rights and then restricts the use of the research to those with the money to pay for it -- is creating real fears in the developing world that they may be cut off from future advancements in agricultural research.
For nearly 30 years, agricultural research conducted around the world has been freely shared through the 16 independent research centers which make up the CGIAR system, a loose association organized in the broad United Nations system. In addition, dozens of national research centers, including several in East and Central Europe, work with the system to share their research and to make sure that germ plasma banks maintain the widest possible supplies for protecting the world's biodiversity.
It is this system which provided the research for the green revolution of the 1960s and 1970s that allowed many developing nations for the first time to be able to feed themselves. It has vastly expanded crop productivity, taught farmers how to protect their fragile environments, and helped find solutions to crop growing and producing problems in the poorest regions of the world.
Serageldin says there are dozens of examples, such as the system's research on a bug that was destroying cassava crops in tropical regions around the world. That led to a way to deal with the bug, and it has prevented untold famines in tropical zones for several years now.
The research could only have been done by an organization like CGIAR, says Serageldin, because cassava is a non-commercial crop grown in arid regions that are generally poor. The plant's starchy root is a critical part of the local diet, but would be of no concern to researchers in a major industrial nation and of no interest to a private researcher working for profit.
It has been a fantastic investment for the sharing system, however, he says. For every one dollar spent on the cassava mealy bug research, the African and Asian nations get 150 dollars in benefits in every year.
Serageldin says the CGIAR system is concerned because huge sums of money are now being diverted into commercial research looking for profitable developments to be patented; $9 billion was spent in the U.S. last year alone.
The CGIAR system's total budget the same year was just 3.5 percent of that or $320 million. CGIAR gets its money in donations from various international and regional organizations, some major private charitable foundations, and its 50 national members, including Romania and Russia. Due to its own problems, however, Russia has been unable to contribute to the budget since 1994.
A panel of experts asked to review the CGIAR system to help decide how it should proceed in the face of this rapidly changing global environment says it will recommend that CGIAR become an aggressive fighter for the rights of the poor and developing nations.
Panel chair head of the Earth Council, who heads the Earth Council and advises the U.N. Secretary-General on environmental matters, says the new system of patenting biotechnology developments is not all bad. Like pharmaceutical research, he says, this private research makes some wonderful discoveries.
However, he says, the pharmaceutical system tends to concentrate on profitable drugs, like sex-enhancing Viagra, and ignores things needed in poor countries like vaccines for malaria.
CGIAR, says Strong, must first make sure that its own research is not declared someone's private property and then work with the private sector to make sure developing nations are not cut off from future vital agricultural research developments.
"Global food security looms as society's largest challenge," Strong told a press briefing in Washington yesterday. Facing rising populations, there must be assurances that research for food production is available to all, he said.