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A study lead by by IFPRI and the Inter American Development Bank, documents the status of agricultural biotechnology in 18 countries in Latin America up to 2008. Although there have been some notable changes including the increasingly innovative leadership role and capacity (both technical and regulatory) that Brazil has shown over the last few years, most of these conclusions remain valid to date.

In the paper, we conducted an analysis of the state of agricultural biotechnology R & D in 18 Latin America and the Caribbean countries in the context of the sector’s international development situation. The information presented and the analysis aims to provide assessments (present and future) of the different national and international investment of public and private sector R &D focused on agricultural biotechnology in the region. The study is the result of extensive field analysis and synthesis of primary and secondary data and information, carried out under the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) and IFPRI project “Agricultural Biotechnology in Latin America.”

When analyzing the current global economic situation, the need arises to identify and develop technological innovations that can cope with new global challenges that society faces, or is likely to face in the near future. Today the world and Latin America in particular, face the challenge of finding ways to increase production to meet new global demand introduced by population growth, production of bio-energy, incorporation of new countries in the international market and others, while protecting the environment in terms of land use and water, releasing carbon dioxide, amongst other considerations.

Framed in these and other issues of a global nature, there is significant agreement on the need to design innovative mechanisms and processes in which new technologies are constantly being created and adapting to new uses and situations.  A process that has been named in some circles the “evergreen revolution”. As part of these processes, the development of agricultural biotechnology is of transcendental importance, mainly in those countries with comparative advantages in terms of resources availability.

In line with this conceptual foundation and on the basis of information obtained through individual firms or organization surveys in 18 countries in Latin America, we present a detailed description of the state of biotechnology in each country. Information on human and financial resources and its comparative analysis concluded in general, that the levels of investment in most countries of the region are poor. Countries with more advanced research system such as Brazil, Mexico and Argentina, in regional terms spent significant amounts of human and financial resources for research in biotechnology, nevertheless these investments do not seem to be of the magnitude required to ensure results.

For biotechnological techniques used in each country, we can say that all countries in Latin America apply biotechnological techniques, but most of these are conventional. Finally, from the standpoint of the product development there is a clear contrast between on those activities required to generate knowledge and those required to deploy products to market. Activities such as patenting activity, which is relatively low to very low in the region, with a few exceptions, can be an indirect indicator of the innovative potential of national systems in the region to develop products internally compared vis-à-vis its ability to use externally generated technologies.

One the one hand, the observed situation of many LAC countries,where they depend on externally-generated biotechnologies seems to reflect weak systems. Weak systems which would be characterized to be moving away gradually from the “frontier of knowledge” in biotechnology. This situation is not surprising given the relatively low levels of investment observed, even in the more developed countries in the region such as Brazil, Argentina or Mexico. On the other hand, we could understand the current situation rather as an opportunity to move forward. Taking advantage of technologies and expertise developed elsewhere, may provide a stepping stone by which countries can gain experience in the use of GE crops, especially those technologies that are being developed in the region. It is evident that the region is the most important in the developing world in terms of exploiting technological spillovers in relation to what are, until now the “flagship” of the agricultural biotechnology sector, that is, genetically modified crops. In fact, several countries in the region are among the most dynamic in the world using GE crops.

Based on the information collected in the project – as well as available secondary information – and in order to provide a basis for identifying strategies for action in a more proactive development of agricultural biotechnology in the countries concerned, the paper proposes a country classification based on their scientific and technological capabilities and the size of domestic technology markets. The proposed classification scheme identifies three general “policy situations” which frame the different national contexts while allowing the development of a regional status report, and the enabling of a deeper discussion of specific strategies for each case.

The paper differentiates three policy situations in-country including (i) developing a framework for increased use of biotechnology products, (ii) improving the efficiency of agricultural research products, by increasing the use of biotechnology tools, (iii) consolidating and building-on the development of biotechnology applications innovation. On the basis of this analysis, the paper provides countries guidance by suggesting different objectives and policy tools to improve the use of biotechnology in each case.

According to the results of the analysis of the regional capacity map would consist of the following countries in each of the policy situation groups proposed

  • Stage (i) Bolivia, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama
  • Stage (ii) Venezuela, Paraguay and Peru
  • Stage (iii) Colombia, Chile, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Argentina, Mexico and Brazil.

Note that this classification includes different capacity gradients and possibilities for future development that can be markedly different even within a stage. Note also that national market size can be a significant constraint for developing biotechnology capacity which opens the question of developing capacity at the regional level.

The analysis of the policy situations in the different countries is then supplemented by a qualitative assessment of six policy areas considered strategic for the development of agricultural biotechnology sector including: (i) research policies and public investment, (ii) mechanisms for joint scientific technology development (i.e. public –private, public-public and private-private partnerships), (iii) intellectual property systems, (iv) the biosafety systems, (v) food safety and consumer protection, and (vi) technology transfer and the private sector.

Based on the information collected for teach of the six policy areas, available qualitative and quantitative information, the paper then classifies the types of overall policies applied in each country as promotional, preventive or neutral. From this analysis, we conclude that in practice there is little   connection between the policies that could be considered “optimal” for the development of biotechnology capacity in each country and actions that are effectively being implemented in each area in the countries studies. This suggests a dis-coordination between needs, capacities, opportunities and investments.

As a general conclusion, one can say that the agricultural biotechnology situation in the region in terms of capacities, use and possibilities is quite mixed.  Breakthrough R&D and technology use situations coexist with very early stages of development, in some cases, within the same country and application area in question. These contrasts also apply to the policies being implemented, even in countries with higher levels of relative progress.

The policy situation in the different countries is perhaps the most important question from the standpoint of science, technology and innovation policy. Policies analyzed ultimately reflect the ways that countries are choosing to move in relation to start building the infrastructure and institutional frameworks needed to take full advantage of what biotechnology offers -and could offer – to the region.

In fact, the co-existence of multiple capacities and policy situations within Latin America and the Caribbean, probably offers the best opportunities to move forward in terms of promoting a more proactive regional framework for the development of appropriate agricultural biotechnologies of value to the region, especially those that may contribute to improvement in production and productivity, economic development, environmental protection, and by supporting poverty alleviation efforts. A first step in this direction should be to start taking advantage of the opportunities for exchange and learning between countries arising from the diversity of situations and stages of development that is in the region.

To view the full report:

Status of Agricultural Biotechnology in Latin America (in Spanish)