In his opening statement at the 1997 Mid-Term Meeting in Cairo, Chairman Ismail Serageldin urged the Group to frontally address the many issues raised by the changing framework of biotechnology research and application. These issues include ethics, equity, biosafety, and proprietary science and technology. He indicated that biotechnology is a tool, to be used with other tools, to pursue the mandate of the CGIAR, and that the CGIAR may have to increase its capacity to deploy that tool as effectively as possible.
The Group discussed the present role and future scope of the CGIAR's efforts in biotechnology research, in the context of the rapidly advancing developments and escalating investments in biotechnology by both the public and private sectors globally. The following text describes some highlights of the MTM97 discussion on biotechnology.
The value of the private sector and NGO community participating in the CGIAR's discussions on biotechnology was recognized. The perspectives of the Private Sector Committee and the NGO Committee were welcomed.
The importance of biotechnology as a powerful tool of modern science that must be used appropriately was emphasized. There is substantial potential for biotechnology to contribute to more rapid and sustainable agricultural growth in developing countries, particularly in the solution of intractable problems. Given this potential, the CGIAR was urged to become a more significant global player in biotechnology, by raising its capacity and profile in select biotechnology areas of particular relevance to agriculture and natural resources management in developing countries.
The CGIAR must ensure that its biotechnology research is geared toward solving the problems of poor farmers rather than toward scientific priorities, i.e. technology should be needs driven rather than science driven, as the latter would run the risk of adding more technologies that are irrelevant to the majority of small scale producers and to sustainable agriculture.
NARS should play a lead role in using the technologies developed through biotechnology for the benefit of the poorest people. Strengthening developing country access to biotechnology and its benefits was seen as an important means of encouraging developing countries to continue to support open access to indigenous genetic materials.
The CGIAR must recognize the social, cultural, and legal implications, in addition to the technological implications, of employing biotechnology. It is important to get the support of, and a sense of direction from, society at large.
Before the CGIAR becomes more involved in biotechnology, it must carefully assess and clarify its position on a range of critical issues and develop a strategy on how to proceed. First, the CGIAR must assess the need and scope for an expanded CGIAR effort, the CGIAR's comparative advantages globally, its current strengths and weaknesses, and whether it will move forward in an ad hoc fashion, with each center making individual arrangements with partners as is currently the case, or whether there will be collective agreement on a set of guidelines that the centers will follow.
Second, the CGIAR must assess issues pertaining to the use, risks, and funding of biotechnology, biosafety, intellectual property rights, equity, poverty, ethics, and public opinion. The importance of the CGIAR clearly positioning itself in the global agricultural research system on these issues was emphasized. The CGIAR was urged to take a more proactive stand, to develop its own clearly articulated strategy, given the rapid developments related to these issues in international fora.
The global trend toward limiting access to genetic resources and scientific knowledge, in contrast to former free availability, will have very significant implications for the CGIAR, as it continues to produce international public goods in an environment that is increasingly characterized by proprietary technology and access regulated information. It was felt to be critical that the CGIAR work to ensure the protection of international public goods, and to facilitate access to new technological products and techniques to benefit the poor in developing countries.
For the CGIAR to play a significant role in biotechnology research globally, stronger research alliances on biotechnology within the CGIAR and between centers and other institutions need to be developed. The CGIAR must explore opportunities for new partnerships, strategic alliances, and joint ventures with a variety of partners, including NARS, Advanced Research Institutions (ARIs), the private sector, and NGOs.
The CGIAR was urged to draw on the existing experiences and partnerships among the public and private sectors, NGOs, and producers currently working in the interest of the development and promotion of biotechnology. As well, a participatory, bottom-up approach involving all stakeholders, particularly NARS and farmers, was advocated for problem identification, priority setting, and the development of solutions for the problems of small scale farmers. The CGIAR should be a bridge builder between small scale farmers, especially women, and high-level, demand-driven research.
The CGIAR currently invests about $30 million in biotechnology research annually. An expanded CGIAR effort in biotechnology would necessitate that CGIAR investments in biotechnology research be increased by a significant amount, a multiple of the current allocation to be realized over a period of several years. Resource requirements must be carefully considered.
The CGIAR should build on existing capacity and expertise and prioritize to focus on those areas which will provide maximum benefits to stakeholders and in which the CGIAR can play effective partnership roles, without entering conflicts. Although modest compared to total spending globally on biotechnology research, the CGIAR's investments must be deployed creatively to leverage investments by others in the public and private sectors. Where specific projects can be contracted out, this should be done. Collaboration with universities or public research institutions may provide low cost options which minimize the perception of private sector interest conflicts. The CGIAR must look more creatively at collaboration with NARS, to draw on other public sector resources at the local level.
As biotechnology is one tool among many available for use by the centers, biotechnology applications should be integrated within the programs of the centers, rather than treated as a special initiative or program.
The CGIAR was urged to help to promote the establishment of appropriate regulatory mechanisms consistent with national biosafety requirements in developing countries. The CGIAR should develop its own biosafety protocol, while awaiting the development of an international protocol on biosafety by the Convention on Biological Diversity.
It was recommended that the CGIAR assemble portfolios of intellectual property across the system as a basis for enhancing the CGIAR's position in negotiating access to enabling technologies, many of which are held by the private sector. It was also noted that the CGIAR may need to consider the desirability of retaining or creating a legal facility to negotiate on behalf of the centers and partners with the private sector.
The Group welcomed recommendations calling for the establishment of two ad hoc expert panels under the auspices of the Technical Advisory Copmmittee (TAC) to address general issues in biotechnology and proprietary science and technology. It was agreed that TAC should play a key role in the panels and in the consultation process.
The importance of drawing on appropriate expertise for representation on the panels, both in terms of highly specialized scientific and legal expertise as well as representation from society at large, to enable the panels to distill and focus on the issues of greatest relevance to the CGIAR, was emphasized.
The process of how members of the two panels would be selected was raised. A recommendation was made that suggestions of suitable candidates for each panel should be provided, followed by a brief consultation with key stakeholders on the nominations received, and finally a broader consultation through the standing committees, prior to the appointment of the two panels. It was noted that the panels would be similar to other CGIAR strip reviews, which operate under the auspices of TAC, but have their own persona. The importance of having widespread ownership in the selection process and in the subsequent outputs of the panels was emphasized.
It was agreed that the panels should incorporate the results of the GRPC workshop on ethics and equity, and the Chairman's planned consultation on biosafety. The efforts should also draw on available expertise within the system, including the special unit in ISNAR which deals with the management, safety, and intellectual property aspects of biotechnology as they apply to NARS.
Given the importance of intellectual property issues to biotechnology, TAC was urged to organize the meetings of the two panels back-to-back, to enable interaction and each panel benefiting from the other panel's deliberations.
On the terms of reference for the proprietary science and technology panel, suggestion was made that the expert panel look at options for the CGIAR and its centers to access legal capability, rather than the CGIAR building a legal capability within the system.
The Private Sector Committee indicated its support of the terms of reference of each panel, yet cautioned that they were ambitious. The CGIAR was urged take a pragmatic approach, both related to the terms of reference of each panel, as well as in the selection of panel members.
The NGO Committee urged the CGIAR to include representation from society at large, in particular on the panel on proprietary science and technology that will be addressing ethical and equity questions, as these issues transcend scientific and technical dimensions. The CGIAR must ensure that key groups are not excluded, as they have a tremendous capability to mobilize public opinion and political support in a direction that might be counteractive to what the CGIAR wants to do.
The Group reached agreement on the following points: