Bridging the World’s Genetic Divide

Debates over genetically modified (GM) foods engulf every corner of the globe. While many concerns about GM foods are legitimate, these debates mostly reflect the interests of developed countries. But countries facing constant threats to their food supply consider access to new biotechnological techniques as essential to their development. Their hopes of using these technologies safely and responsibly are threatened by environmental and consumer activism in industrialized countries. Because most biotech products are produced and consumed in a few countries - the United States, Canada, Argentina and China - a “genetic divide” has opened up between rich and poor countries. This gap will likely pose serious problems due to the growing importance of biotechnology in agricultural production, health care and environmental management. Prospects for closing the gap will be determined by at least three interconnected factors: · how debates over the safety of genetically�modified (GM) foods are resolved; · developing countries taking responsibility for constructing the basis for engaging in international cooperation in biotechnology research; · industrialized countries sharing technology and expertise with a wider circle of developing countries. At present, these prospects do not look good. A number of industrialized countries are reducing support for international biotechnology research programs to meet the needs of developing countries. Other industrial countries fear approving international biotechnology cooperation programs in fear of a domestic political backlash from environmental and consumer groups. Complicating matters further, international organization such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) – created expressly to promote global food security – cannot provide leadership on this issue because of conflicting signals from governments. So the messages coming from these bodies are confused; their actions paralyzed. But blame is not all on one side. Although most developing countries are interested in using biotechnology to meet their food, health and environmental needs, their policies and resources, are not matched to these desires. Only a handful of developing countries (including China, India, Brazil and Argentina) have clear policies on biotechnology. More needs to be done almost everywhere to bring government policies into line with the best global practice. In addition, most developing countries lack adequate regulatory arrangements to guarantee safety, protect foreign investment, and promote international cooperation through strengthened local research. The absence of domestic safety regulations leaves countries vulnerable to external influences, particularly to forces that want to limit the use of biotechnology. Even more significant is the weak institutional and scientific base within developing countries. The time has come for developing countries to review their research infrastructure and re�design universities to serve economic goals. Many universities in developing countries are still geared to primarily producing civil service functionaries even though government employment is in decline. Because there is a worldwide shortage of scientific and technical expertise in a range of fields, developing countries must redirect their universities towards scientific and technical fields. Better use of human resources is also needed. Developing countries bemoan the migration of scientists to the industrialized countries but do little to ensure that these scientists can contribute from wherever they are located. Old ideas about a “brain drain” must give way to more creative approaches to tapping skills in a globalized world. Advances in communication technology, indeed, make it possible to utilize human resources efficiently irrespective of their geographical location. Back home, developing country inventors will soon start to demand that the fruits of intellectual labor be accorded the same level of respect and protection their counterparts in other parts of the world receive. But developing country governments must also ensure that international standards, such as intellectual property protection reflect wider social values as already acknowledged by the World Trade Organization's Agreement on Trade�related Intellectual Property (TRIPS). That may be a tricky circle to square, but the attempt must be made. These attempts can be fulfilled if science is allowed to find its proper, central place in society. Countries that facilitate the flow of knowledge between various sectors in society will be in a better position to make use of advances in biotechnology. Those that fail to reinvent their social institutions will be marginalized from new and important fields. Even if undertaken heartily, all the efforts of developing countries will lead nowhere unless industrialized countries broaden their cooperation with developing countries through building scientific capacity in universities and research institutions in the developing world. Recent decisions by Monsanto to place the rice sequence data in the public domain must be only the beginning of a wider partnership program involving more developing countries. Bridging the “genetic divide” will take a lot of effort among countries. The key starting point is for developing countries to make their policy goals clear and seek to engage in international partnerships with the industrialized countries from a more informed policy position. Any measure that fall short of this basic requirement will only widen the divide.