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Module IV: Biotechnology and Biosafety
Approaches to Conservation
There are two basic ways to conserve genetic diversity: in situ (in the natural environment, as in national park lands or on farms) and ex situ (removed from the natural environment, as in genebanks). With in situ conservation, dynamic evolutionary processes continue to operate, including the possibility of mutation and the threat of extinction. With ex situ conservation, the long-term safety and integrity of genetic resources is maintained by collecting and preserving seeds, living plants, cuttings, and tissue cultures. If a plant becomes endangered in situ, it can be moved to a genebank for ex situ conservation.
The functions of a genebank include maintenance and expansion of germplasm collections, long-term conservation, including multiplication and regeneration, characterization and evaluation of samples, data management, exchange of germplasm among researchers, and the promotion of germplasm use to enhance crop productivity. Ex situ conservation in genebanks is a safe and cost-effective method of preserving the genetic diversity of crops and wild species of plants, as long as the seeds can tolerate desiccation and storage at low temperatures.
Biotechnology in this context refers to developing an understanding of crops and other plants at the genetic level to enhance their use and conservation. In the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), for example, the main applications of biotechnology are in vitro culture of seedlings and the study of genetic diversity using a range of molecular markers. Understanding of the genome of one crop can also yield useful clues about others. For example, there is great similarity among the genomes of wheat, rice, and maize. Isolating the gene responsible in one plant for a particular key trait, such as plant height, offers valuable clues to the same trait in the others.
Biotechnology and Ex Situ Conservation
The CBD is primarily concerned with in situ conservation and protecting the environment as a public good and for sustainable and traditional use. Ex situ conservation is quite a different matter, with its own set of issues and its own well-functioning system of cooperating research institutions that predates the CBD by many years. The research institutions comprising the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), for example, freely exchange germplasm among scientists and distribute seeds to farmers in addition to their conservation and internal research functions. The CGIAR system has the world’s largest collection of plant germplasm, with tens of thousands of accessions for each of the major world food crops, held as common "global property." The advent of biotechnology has enhanced research efforts, and has also contributed to an increase in concern over IPR and introduced certain constraints on the exchange of biological materials.
The multilateral agricultural genebank system is no longer free of legal and commercial concerns as it had been, for the most part, for so many years. Germplasm is still exchanged, but it goes out under material transfer agreements (MTAs) that specify how and by whom the material is used, reporting requirements, and conditions on subsequent development. Recipients of this public germplasm are not supposed to seek IPR protection on the materials. However, if in the course of subsequent research significant new developments are made, the new products may qualify for IPR protection. In that event, the enhanced material will not be contributed back to the international genebank and made freely available for further research purposes; it will be privately held and commercially developed. Private firms, in other words, are able to draw from the public genebanks without necessarily giving anything back to the system.
To the extent that private commercial development and IPR protection become dominant in agriculture, the open public research model for agriculture potentially becomes increasingly irrelevant. Genebanks could become more like museums than active research centers, and could ultimately become unsustainable. If the genebank system breaks down, the collections would be repatriated, with uncertain implications for the continued conservation of these genetic resources. There are also fears that biotechnology will reduce crop biodiversity, and that the increasing privatization of crop genetics will hurt poor farmers and exacerbate hunger among the world’s poor (see below under "Biotechnology and Food Security in Africa").
These potential negative outcomes are not the inevitable consequence of biotechnology or of IPR concerns. The situation is complex, with numerous factors coming into play and shaping the future direction of farming and agricultural research. The shift between public and private research is a trend being explored in all its various implications, as public international research institutions attempt to find their role in the changing system. Benefit-sharing, grant-back, and disclosure requirements, for example, are all negotiable terms that can be governed by contracts and MTAs. International research institutes and private firms may ultimately complement each other, researching different crops and breeding different traits for different clienteles. GM crops can be used in combination with traditional crops and traditional methods, so that "biotechnology versus agroecology" is something of a false dichotomy. Whether GM crops benefit poor farmers and enhance food security depends largely on what traits are being enhanced; storability, for example, is often more of a concern for poor farmers than herbicide resistance or even higher yields. Nutritional and medicinal value is being added to crops, enhancing health maintenance and disease prevention. Where the private firms may not find profitability, the public research system may still fill a valuable function.
Investing in Biotechnology
The use of biotechnology as part of a genebank conservation or food security strategy has cost implications that each research institution must evaluate on its own terms. The adoption (or non-adoption) of biotechnology should be shaped by the overall conservation goals and priorities. Pertinent questions include: Will biotechnology enhance access to or management, conservation, and use of genetic resources? What alternatives to biotechnology can be used in the genebank to accomplish similar ends? What are the resource implications (human, equipment, operating expenses) of sustaining a biotechnology program? What are the trade-offs for not making the biotechnology investment? How will investment in biotechnology affect the allocation of resources to other essential areas of genetic conservation?
Faculty recommend that any investment in biotechnology should be made at a level that is consistent with the overall resources and mandate of the particular genebank, i.e., the investment should be sustainable over the long term. The basic elements of a strong conservation program must be in place already before even considering an investment in developing biotechnology capabilities.
Discussion centered on the issue of training, capacity-building, and brain drain. There are several different models for capacity-building and training, including developing African centers of excellence, sending students abroad for training, or bringing instructors to Africa for limited time periods. One of the difficulties of capacity-building is that, once they are trained and have acquired marketable skills, people from developing countries can often find opportunities abroad that tempt them to leave their home countries in favor of more secure futures elsewhere. The likelihood of this kind of "brain drain" increases when students receive their training abroad, where more opportunities present themselves. While individuals have every right to pursue those opportunities that best protect themselves and their families, African policymakers must try to build training systems that provide incentives for people to stay in home countries.
Building centers of excellence is one way to make working in Africa more attractive. As a training model, bringing instructors to African universities or training centers can train more people for less money than it would cost to send those students abroad. In addition, training at home makes it less likely that people will leave.
Approaches to Conservation