11.3.4 Current Limitations and Responses
Currently, there are five common limitations for technology transfer in agriculture:
- Impacts primarily driven by changing patterns of extreme weather events;
- Opportunities and risks associated with incorporation of climate-change
projections in large infrastructure projects that are currently being planned
and implemented, and which will still be in place fifty to one hundred years
- The considerable time it will take to plan and implement a number of adaptation
- Society's vulnerability to climate change, which largely depends on its
economic, technical, institutional and socio-cultural capabilities to cope
with adverse effects; and
- The uncertainty of the impact of future climate change.
This section is concerned with institutional and technical limitations on the
global system of agricultural research to develop and supply new technologies.
Barriers to farm-level adoption are discussed in Section 11.4.1.
Problems of gene bank management
Thus far, the international system of plant genetic resource exchange and research
has succeeded at maintaining steady crop yield, while controlling yield variability.
There is growing concern that this may not be sustainable in the longer term
given current funding levels (United States Congress, Office of Technology Assessment,
1987; NRC, 1993; UN/FAO, 1997). Funding problems arise, in part because individual
nations do not capture the full gains from improved crop yields (Frisvold, 1997).
This implies that national governments will underfund germ plasm storage (NRC,
1991). The US National Research Council has noted that many public gene banks
are not effectively preventing genetic erosion within their collections (NRC,
1993). Public gene banks have even been characterised as "gene morgues"
(Goodman, 1990). Multilateral funding of international crop research facilities
overcomes this problem partly. Yet, "free-rider" problems (see
9.4.2) imply that funding for international centres will also be difficult.
New technologies that are freely available to those who do not pay for their
development, may discourage potential funding sources.
A recent comprehensive study shows that:
- The number of gene banks has increased dramatically since 1970. While much
of the emphasis has been placed on collecting materials, less has been given
to maintaining the long-term viability of accessions;
- While representation of many major crops in gene banks is relatively good,
coverage of many others (such as root crops, fruits and vegetables) is poor;
- Only a small fraction of accessions have been characterised; and
- Many countries have reported that funding has been too unstable and uncertain
year to year, hampering investment and planning decisions.
Thus, while plant breeders appear confident that the current germ plasm stock,
if properly maintained, is adequate to produce steady yield growth over the
next 20-50 years (Knudson, 1999; Frisvold and Condon, 1998), there is widespread
concern that this genetic stock is depreciating. Of particular concern is the
status of the collections of the Vavilov Institute in Russia, one of the largest
collections in the world. It is facing critical financial and structural problems
Limitations on the CGIAR system
As the new seed-fertiliser technology generated at the CGIAR centres, particularly
for rice and wheat, began to become available, some donors assumed that the
CGIAR centres could bypass the more difficult and often frustrating efforts
to strengthen national agricultural research systems. Strong national research
centres are essential if the prototype technology that might be developed at
the international centres is to be broadly transferred, adopted and made available
Problems have not only been financial. A number of the CGIAR centres are experiencing
the difficulties associated with organisational maturity. There is a natural
"life cycle" sequence in the history of research organisations and
research programmes (Ruttan, 1992). Certainly, the needs of technology transfer
in climate change would encourage the vigor of the system. On the other hand,
efforts to strengthen national research institutes have been only partially
Growing role of the private sector
Many studies have considered the public good aspects of genetic resources. Naturally
occurring plants are not considered patentable inventions. Genetic resources
are easily transported and replicated, making it difficult for a country or
individual to exclude others from their use. This discourages private actors
from making investments to preserve and collect genetic resources and to screen
them for their potential usefulness. Intellectual property protection historically
has been weak for biological inventions. While patents on mechanical processes
date back hundreds of years, intellectual property rights (IPRs) for commercially
developed seed varieties began only this century, and remain considerably weaker
than other forms of IPR protection (see also Section 3.5
in Chapter 3 on IPRs).
Historically, there have been two major institutional responses to the private
sector's inability to gain from and invest in plant breeding. The first, as
described above, has been the extensive public funding of an international network
of public research facilities and institutions. The second response, has been
the evolution of increasingly strict IPRs for biological inventions. Both stricter
IPRs and advances in hybridisation have stimulated private R&D in plant
breeding. The progeny of hybrids have substantially lower yields. This naturally
deters purchasers of seed from regenerating new seed for their own use or for
resale. The requirement that farmers repurchase seed annually greatly increases
returns to private plant (seed) breeders. While public R&D investment has
slowed considerably in recent years, private R&D has grown substantially.
For example, private plant breeding research in the United States more than
quadrupled in real terms between 1970 and 1990.