Methodological and Technological Issues in Technology Transfer

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11.3.4 Current Limitations and Responses

Currently, there are five common limitations for technology transfer in agriculture:

  1. Impacts primarily driven by changing patterns of extreme weather events;
  2. 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 from now;
  3. The considerable time it will take to plan and implement a number of adaptation technologies
  4. Society's vulnerability to climate change, which largely depends on its economic, technical, institutional and socio-cultural capabilities to cope with adverse effects; and
  5. 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:

  1. 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;
  2. 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;
  3. Only a small fraction of accessions have been characterised; and
  4. 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 (Zohrabian, 1995).

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 to producers.

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 successful.

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.

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