Examining the ‘pro-poor consensus’ on biotechnology: a moveable boundary between public and private is the subject for the final STEPS panel session. (Photo: Glover, Brooks, Ely)

The three STEPS members taking part in the panel this morning span several aspects of Centre’s work: STEPS Research Officer and IDS DPhil student Sally Brooks, STEPS Research Fellow at SPRU Adrian Ely and IDS DPhil and STEPS post-doctoral fellow Dominic Glover.

Development studies has elaborated a number of critiques and deconstructions of cardinal myths about agricultural biotechnology, especially GM crops, as an indispensable technology for solving world hunger and poverty. But this panel wants to challenge these critiques to see if they add up to a substantial alternative.

Glover kicks off with a series of claims about GM crops that have been discredited by research including that GM tech is scale-neutral and accessible to the floor because the technology is in the seed; that GM seeds are expensive but increase yields; that more production of GM crops will prevent more marginal land being taken into production; and that small farmers’ choice of GM technology demonstrates its suitability and effectiveness – in effect it is a vote of confidence, claims Monsanto and others.

But “We want to ask question the notion of a pro-poor biotechnology and ask if the public-private dichotomy is helpful or harmful?” says Glover. “We see an almost a happy assumption that best of public and the best of private is the end of the discussion and we can move on to the delivery of technology.”

His PhD has focussed on the Monsanto Smallholder programme which ran between 1999 and 2002 in Mexico, South Africa, India, Indonesia and Kenya, which he says was a company’s attempt to grapple with the idea of sustainability. A possibly surprising view, he says. Glover explored why a big company like this would engage in this kind of research and how they went about it.

The top line of why they did is was partly in response to backlash agasint biotech among consumer dev campaigners and anti-globa active, partly about learning how to enage with smallholders and also about market development, about MOnsabnto’s competitive positioning and about managerial control in St Louis, the Monsanto HQ. It was not merely cynical PR – it did include a genuine philanthropic desire, says Glover.

How the company went about it – a small staff working on the programme relied on sale and marketing colleague to implement it on the ground and this gradually changed what the project was about. It as supposed to be about meeting farmers needs, it shifted towards the promotion of Monsanto products and as financial pressure came to bear on Monsanto, it increasingly began to revolve around meeting sales targets.

The gap between the philanthropy and the sale targets created a tension and meant the programme had to be reconceptualised. It became to be seen as a strand of its business between core operations and pure philanthropy – as development as transition. And through that concept Monsanto came to see market expansion for the company as harmonious with farmers’ needs.

But Glover concludes that we need more than a trickle-down critique of responsiveness and accountability. We need to look at who calls the shots, set s the agenda and who is accountable. Monsanto’s programme assumed and constructed what the smallholders needs were, the farmers were mobilised to undermine opposition to GM technology. It overlooked participatory processes to agricultural technology development. The quasi-development and philanthropic notions of the programme proved not to be very robust because it was integrated in to the business side of Monsanto.

Sally Brooks now steps up to talk about her PhD research and will continue to explore the public-private distinction, asking ‘are we moving towards public-private partnerships for international public goods?’ Her research focuses on biofortification research about rice.

Biofortification R&D moved from small scale, decentralised efforts in the 1990s to a global programme by 2003. The ways in which a convergence of language is happening within the public and private sectors and big philanthropists like Gates, which means the public/private distinction is probably not helpful any more, says Brooks.

First, some history: Golden Rice – rice fortified with beta-carotene – began as a public sector research project at ETH in Switzerland with Rockerfeller, EU and Swiss government funding. When they succeeded in getting the beta-carotene into rice they discovered a number of conflicts over the use of some privately-owned technology that had been used. So the technology was handed over to Zeneca (Syngenta) and licensed back to the inventors, which was heralded as a breakthrough in pub-private partnerships.

But at this time, around 2000, the efficacy and appropriateness of Golden Rice, and the ownership that had been transferred to Syngenta, began to be called in to question. But by narrowing the debate to proof of concept – that Golden Rice could be done – pushed out the questions over appropriateness and ownership, which was then transferred to IRRI.

Brooks says the Golden Rice project is an example of a ‘shift upstream’ – a reassertion of research outputs as international public goods and that CG centres have moved from being the ‘do-ers’ of research to the ‘brokers’ in international research networks.

Emerging themes include a convergence of language, frames ad style between public and private organisations and the assumption that their agendas and cultures are reconcilable within ‘win-win’ partnerships, she says.

The implications include a loss of accountability as hierarchies are obscured and a centralisation of responsiveness as pressure to simplify and decontextualise comes to bear.

Now Adrian Ely very briefly talks about his research on Bt maize in Africa and the IRMA – Insect Resistant Maize for Africa – public-private partnership project funded (indirectly) by Syngenta, which, unlike Glover’s Monsanto example, was not aiming to deliver its own technology. The programme has delivered insect resistance traits in maize (both storage and crop pests), but it has not yet delivered anything that can be described as ‘pro-poor’ transgenic technology.

And, something of a first for this conference in my experience, the panel gets delegates involved at the sharp end of the session by splitting them in to two groups and asking them to discuss a new rubric for assessing the GM crop agenda and its impacts on farmers and consumers. Well done for mounting some on-the-spot participatory research rather than just talking about it Sally, Dominic and Adrian. And it certainly works in terms of getting a good debate going. It’s actually hard to get the delegate to stop debating and start listening to some of the ideas thrown out.