Theme 3: The role of the private sector and corporate control

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This section includes a number of studies of biotechnology business in action, including detailed analyses of the role of the corporate sector – and particularly Monsanto – in India. Case studies from China look at the cross-over between state and private sectors, while the Latin American cases, particularly from Argentina, examine the changing nature of corporate agriculture.

Key findings include:

  • Private sector companies are driven by the profit motive, and are accountable to their shareholders. Business models derive from these starting points, including those aimed at developing markets for new seeds and technologies in the developing world. Relatively prosperous developing-country farmers may thrive as a result of private agribusinesses developing the emerging markets in the global south, but the poorest and most vulnerable farmers remain of marginal interest to the big biotech firms. Claims of ‘corporate social responsibility’ and ‘business for development’ must be interpreted in this light.
  • Biotechnology corporations come in all shapes and sizes. Not all of them are large, global conglomerates like Monsanto, Syngenta or DuPont. Any assessment of the biotech sector must look at the mix of private sector enterprises, from the small start-up to the large multinational, and their interactions. Across the world, the seed sector has changed dramatically in recent years, with a pattern of consolidation and monopolisation often evident. This has frequently resulted in a limiting of seed varieties available, and an increase in profit-taking. Yet the structure and ownership of the seed sector varies too. The relationship between a private seed sector – with or without GM technologies – and state provision of seeds is an important factor influencing the degree to which a ‘pro-poor’ developmental orientation exists.
  • Biotechnology is seen as a new ‘sunrise’ industry, following in the footsteps of the IT sector: a key investment area, and a potential source of GDP growth. Health, agriculture and energy applications abound, and much of the activity is focused on out-sourcing particular expertise to large companies based in the US or Europe. While such business activity may bring some jobs and boost company profits and overall growth statistics, the impacts on wider poverty reduction and development objectives are limited.
  • The relationships between the private sector and the state are crucial to understanding the politics of biotechnology policy processes. The role of biotechnology industry advocates in lobbying for state support, tax breaks etc. is an important feature in many countries. The close relationship between public and private biotechnology R and D is especially apparent in China.
  • Public-private partnerships (around intellectual property sharing, for example) are often highly one-sided, with public resources subsidising private sector activity in return for limited public gain. The dynamics of, and interests behind, such relationships deserve careful scrutiny.

Theme 3 Archive


Glover, D. (2008) Made by Monsanto: The corporate shaping of GM crops as a technology for the poor, STEPS Working Paper 11, Brighton, UK: The STEPS Centre.

Newell, P. (2008), Debating Biotechnology, BioRes: Trade and Environment Review Geneva: International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development, Issue 4 May pp.7-9.

Glover, D. (2007) Monsanto and smallholder farmers: a case study in corporate social responsibility, Third World Quarterly 28(4): 851-867.

Glover, D. (2007) Monsanto and smallholder farmers: a case-study on corporate accountability, IDS Working Paper 277, Brighton: Institute of Development Studies.

Glover, D. (2007) The Role of the Private Sector in Modern Biotechnology and Rural Development: The Case of the Monsanto Smallholder Programme, DPhil thesis, September, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK.

Newell, P. (2007): ‘Corporate power and bounded autonomy in the global politics of biotechnology’ in Falkner, R. (Eds) The International Politics of Genetically Modified Food Basingstoke: Palgrave. pp. 67-85.

Scoones, I. (2004): Debating GM crops, ID21 Insights

Newell, P. and Glover, D. (2004), ‘Business and biotechnology: Regulation of GM crops and the Politics of Influence’ in K. Jansen and S. Vellema, (eds), Agribusiness and Society: Corporate Responses to Environmentalism, Market Opportunities and Public Regulation London: Zed Books, pp. 200-231.

Glover, D. (2003) GMOs and the politics of international trade. Democratising Biotechnology: Genetically Modified Crops in Developing Countries Briefing Series, Briefing 5. Brighton, UK: IDS

Glover, D. (2003), Corporate dominance and agricultural biotechnology: implications for development Democratising Biotechnology: Genetically Modified Crops in Developing Countries Briefing Series, Briefing 3. Brighton, UK: IDS

Glover, D. and Newell, P. (2003), Business and Biotechnology: Regulation and the Politics of Influence IDS Working Paper 192, Biotechnology Policy Series 17. Brighton, UK: IDS

Yamin, F. (2003), Intellectual property rights, biotechnology and food security, IDS Working Paper 203, Biotechnology Policy Series 22. Brighton, UK: IDS

Glover, D. (2002) Transnational Corporate Science and the Regulation of Biotechnology, Economic and Political Weekly [India] 37 (27) (Review of Science Studies), 6-12 July: 2734-40


Keeley, J. and Scoones, I. (2003), Seeds in a Globalised World: Agricultural Biotechnology in Zimbabwe, IDS Working Paper 189, Biotechnology Policy Series 8. Brighton, UK: IDS

Odame, H., Kameri-Mbote, P., and Wafula, D. (2003), Globalisation and the international governance of modern biotechnology: implications for food security in Kenya, IDS Working Paper 199, Biotechnology Policy Series 20. Brighton, UK: IDS


Newell, P. (2007), ‘Biotech Firms, Biotech Politics: Negotiating GMOs in India’, Journal of Environment and Development June, Vol. 16 No.2, pp. 183-206.

Scoones, I (2007) Biotechnology in Bangalore: the politics of innovation. Towards Pro Poor Innovation, ID21 Insights, 68.

Scoones, I (2007) The contested politics of biotechnology: biotech in Bangalore. Science and Public Policy, 34: 261-271

Scoones, I (2006) Science, Agriculture and the Politics of Policy: the case of biotechnology in India. Orient Longman: Delhi

Newell, P. (2003), Biotech firms, biotech politics: negotiating GMOs in India, IDS Working Paper 201, Biotechnology Policy Series 11. Brighton, UK: IDS

Scoones, I. (2003), Making policy in the ‘New Economy’: the case of Karnataka’s biotechnology policy, IDS Working Paper 196, Biotechnology Policy Series 13. Brighton, UK: IDS

Scoones, I. (2002), Biotech Science, Biotech Business: Current Challenges and Future Prospects in India, Economic and Political Weekly [India] 37 (27) (Review of Science Studies), 6-12 July: 2725-33

Latin America

Newell, P. (2009): ‘Technology, Food, Power: Governing GMOs in Argentina’ in Clapp, J & D. Fuchs (eds) Agro-Food Corporations, Global Governance, and Sustainability, Cambridge: MIT press.

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To browse the other themes, visit the Biotechnology Research Archive homepage.


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