Harnessing Technology for the Poor and the Environment: Corporate Social Responsibility in International Agricultural Research
Chair of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR)
Sam Dryden, Chair of the CGIAR Private Sector Committee
"The idea of two worlds of science is anathema to the scientific spirit. It will require the commitment of scientists and scientific institutions throughout the world to bring the benefits of science to all." Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations
The international community aspires to reduce poverty and hunger by half by 2015.
Science and technology applied to agriculture have produced high yielding varieties, irrigation, and improved farming practices that have brought about tremendous gains in productivity and food production, helping to reduce hunger worldwide and preserving land from conversion to agricultural use. For the least-developed countries, rural development, particularly in the agricultural sector, is the prime source of sustainable and broad-based economic growth needed to reduce poverty.
Yet, despite intensive efforts, sustainable rural development remains elusive, 1.2 billion people live on less than $1 a day, 800 million are hungry, ecosystems are under stress. Food demand in developing countries will double over the next 30 to 40 years.
Scientific knowledge continues to furnish powerful means for solving the challenges facing humanity. Recent advances in natural resource management, information technology, genetics and related biological sciences hold great prospects for the well-being of humankind.
The challenge is to harness the benefits of modern technology for the rural poor and the environment. This will require understanding the contextual factors affecting the exchange of scientific solutions, such as intellectual property rights and trade rules, and the shifting boundaries between public and private sectors. It also requires dialogue concerning innovative models of partnership to mobilise the comparative advantages of the public and private sectors.
The private sector, from smallholder farmers to large multinational corporations, has a distinct comparative advantage in product development and delivery. This advantage fuels much of the world's economic growth and increases wealth for many. At the same time, there is awareness within the corporate sector that much of the world's rural sector has not participated in this growth. There is also recognition of the social context within which the private sector operates as well as its impact on the environment.
The concept of corporate social responsibility has arisen as a major topic of discussion, debate and, hopefully, improvement. At issue is the need across every economic sector to reconcile the creative forces of private entrepreneurship with the needs of the disadvantaged and the requirements of future generations.
A major area for consideration in this regard is the changing context for international agricultural research.
Traditionally, agricultural innovation was fostered through a scientific culture of cooperation and free exchange of information and was publicly funded by national governments and foundations. International agricultural research centres and others safeguarded genetic diversity and developed it in the public interest, without ownership claims of the genetic material.
The context for agricultural innovation today is very different, levels of public funding have declined, science is increasingly proprietary, and agricultural research is more and more funded and carried out privately. Biotechnology, trade liberalisation, and intellectual property regimes are changing the incentives facing research.
In the industrialised countries, investment in private agricultural research has grown twice as rapidly as public research since 1981. Since 1993 private research has exceeded public research in the United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. The technology gap between industrialised and developing countries has widened. A recent estimate is that private firms spend US$10.8 billion annually on research, of which only US$0.8 billion is spent in the developing world. This asymmetry and the well-known knowledge divide must be addressed in the coming years.
Despite this extraordinary growth in many sectors, very little private investment specifically targets the development of products for the rural poor. Understandably, there is little commercial incentive to develop such products, as is the case for technologies that address the food crops, production ecologies and development needs of marginal farming communities, because markets are too small or poor to be profitable.
Compounding this situation is the increasing trend toward privatisation of intellectual property. Restrictions on technology flow complicate the freedom to operate for researchers working in the public interest. There is concern that this may also lead to the neglect of less commercially oriented areas of science.
The development of vitamin A-enhanced "golden rice" demonstrates both the challenges of and solutions for working in the new environment. Golden rice, which holds great promise for eliminating a key source of blindness and immune deficiency in poorer countries, was developed with technologies protected by roughly 70 patents from 30 different organisations. Yet the example of golden rice also shows how public and private sectors can work together to overcome such restrictions to develop technologies in the public interest.
The private sector must be enlisted to ensure that the poor benefit from the best of new agricultural technologies. This must be done as part of a coordinated and cooperative effort with the public sector.
Being purist on public versus private goods often leads to stalemate and inaction. There is a need to search for a middle ground through enlightened public and private sector policy. Effective science and technology requires the correct balance and communication between public and private research organisations achieved through dialogue and partnership. Each sector brings unique capabilities and resources needed for long-term innovation and economic growth.
It is encouraging that new mechanisms are being explored and developed within both established institutions as well as entirely new entities. For example, one of the world's leading institutions for bringing the public and private sectors together is the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) -- a strategic alliance of public and private investors and international agricultural centers that mobilizes cutting-edge science to benefit the poor and the environment. This alliance, through the efforts of the CGIAR Private Sector Committee to promote dialogue and partnership, has just been the object of a declaration of support signed by the Chief Executive Officers of leading agribusiness companies from around the world. The purpose of the declaration is to strengthen cooperation between the private and public sector to promote agricultural research and agricultural development as catalysts of growth and sustainable development.
The CGIAR's multi-disciplinary, multi-country, multi-institutional "Challenge Programs" provide another innovative means to leverage additional funding and in-kind resources for international agricultural research, including from the private sector, to target issues of global significance.
While a growing number of companies wish to make their technologies available for humanitarian use in poor, food-insecure countries, their efforts have been complicated by concerns linked to intellectual property, protecting commercially important markets, and liability.
One innovative approach to the intellectual property issue is the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF). It is a mechanism to create an enabling environment for the royalty-free transfer of proprietary technology of benefit to resource poor farmers in a way that addresses the concerns of technology providers.
Another is a global consultative process being led by the World Bank to obtain input from key stakeholders on the opportunities, risks and policy issues associated with the use of agricultural science and technology to reduce hunger and improve rural livelihoods.
There are also several joint ventures between corporations and public institutes for pro-poor adaptive research. Examples include Plantech's (Japan) granting rights to the International Rice Research Institute to use the stemborer resistance gene in all developing countries and development of virus-resistant sweet potatoes and insect-resistant maize for exclusive use in Africa with patented genetic material from Monsanto (United States) and Novartis, now Syngenta (Switzerland), respectively.
Sound policy support that addresses the interests of the poor as well as technology providers and users is critical to the success of new productivity-enhancing technologies, as is stakeholder participation. A win-win approach to intellectual property is needed to provide incentive to private sector research while maintaining access of the poor to technology for food security and to prevent the misappropriation of traditional knowledge.
For technology to have maximum impact in improving agriculture, developing countries must also provide an enabling environment through good governance, wise policies (especially on land ownership), fostering markets for inputs and credit, investing in infrastructure, and regional harmonisation of the regulatory environment.
Countries must be assisted to develop the scientific and institutional capacity to determine what new technologies exist, which ones are relevant to their needs; how to obtain and manage them; and how to develop nationally appropriate regulatory and biosafety regimes within which to introduce them.
The public and private sectors continue to demonstrate a willingness to explore innovative ways to cooperate. It is the responsibility of both the corporate and public sector leaders to ensure that public-private partnerships deliver the benefits of technology to all sectors of society.
For more information:
African Agricultural Technology Foundation: www.aftechfound.org/
World Bank International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology: www.agassessment.org/
Science and Intellectual Property in the Public Interest (SIPPI): http://sippi.aaas.org/
Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) Secretariat
+1 202 473 8951