Chapter 9, section 6

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Table of Contents, Chapter 9: Summary

Chapter 9 Justice and Development. section 6: Commons-Based Research for Food and Medicines


Chapter 9

Liberal Theories of Justice and the Networked Information Economy

Chapter 9, section 1

Commons-Based Strategies for Human Welfare and Development

Chapter 9, section 2

Information-Embedded Goods and Tools, Information, and Knowledge

Chapter 9, section 3

Industrial Organization of HDI-Related Information Industries

Chapter 9, section 4

Toward Adopting Commons-Based Strategies for Development

Chapter 9, section 5

Commons-Based Research for Food and Medicines

While computation and access to existing scientific research are important in the development of any nation, they still operate at a remove from the most basic needs of the world poor. On its face, it is far from obvious how the emergence of the networked information economy can grow rice to feed millions of malnourished children or deliver drugs to millions of HIV/AIDS patients. On closer observation, however, a tremendous proportion of the way modern societies grow food and develop medicines is based on scientific research and technical innovation. We have seen how the functions of mass media can be fulfilled by nonproprietary models of news and commentary. We have seen the potential of free and open source software and open-access publications to replace and redress some of the failures of proprietary software and scientific publication, respectively. These cases suggest that the basic choice between a system that depends on exclusive rights and business models that use exclusion to appropriate research outputs and a system that weaves together various actors-public and private, organized and individual-in a nonproprietary social network of innovation, has important implications for the direction of innovation and for access to its products. Public attention has focused mostly on the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa and the lack of access to existing drugs because of their high costs. However, that crisis is merely the tip of the iceberg. It is the most visible to many because of the presence of the disease in rich countries and its cultural and political salience in the United States and Europe. The exclusive rights system is a poor institutional mechanism for serving the needs of those who are worst off around the globe. Its weaknesses pervade the problems of food security and agricultural research aimed at increasing the supply of nourishing food throughout the developing world, and of access to medicines in general, and to medicines for developing-world diseases in particular. Each of these areas has seen a similar shift in national and international policy toward greater reliance on exclusive rights, most important of which are patents. Each area has also begun to see the emergence of commons-based models to alleviate the problems of patents. However, they differ from each other still. Agriculture offers more immediate opportunities for improvement because of the relatively larger role of public research-national, international, and academic-and of the long practices of farmer innovation in seed associations and local and regional frameworks. I explore it first in some detail, as it offers a template for what could be a path for development in medical research as well.

Food Security: Commons-Based Agricultural Innovation

Agricultural innovation over the past century has led to a vast increase in crop yields. Since the 1960s, innovation aimed at increasing yields and improving quality has been the centerpiece of efforts to secure the supply of food to the world's poor, to avoid famine and eliminate chronic malnutrition. These efforts have produced substantial increases in the production of food and decreases in its cost, but their benefits have varied widely in different regions of the world. Now, increases in productivity are not alone a sufficient condition to prevent famine. Sen's observations that democracies have no famines-that is, that good government and accountability will force public efforts to prevent famine-are widely accepted today. The contributions of the networked information economy to democratic participation and transparency are discussed in chapters 6-8, and to the extent that those chapters correctly characterize the changes in political discourse, should help alleviate human poverty through their effects on democracy. However, the cost and quality of food available to accountable governments of poor countries, or to international aid organizations or nongovernment organizations (NGOs) that step in to try to alleviate the misery caused by ineffective or malicious governments, affect how much can be done to avoid not only catastrophic famine, but also chronic malnutrition. Improvements in agriculture make it possible for anyone addressing food security to perform better than they could have if food production had lower yields, of less nutritious food, at higher prices. Despite its potential benefits, however, agricultural innovation has been subject to an unusual degree of sustained skepticism aimed at the very project of organized scientific and scientifically based innovation. Criticism combines biological-ecological concerns with social and economic concerns. Nowhere is this criticism more strident, or more successful at moving policy, than in current European resistance to genetically modified (GM) foods. The emergence of commons-based production strategies can go some way toward allaying the biological-ecological fears by locating much of the innovation at the local level. Its primary benefit, however, is likely to be in offering a path for agricultural and biological innovation that is sustainable and low cost, and that need not result in appropriation of the food production chain by a small number of multinational businesses, as many critics fear.

Scientific plant improvement in the United States dates back to the establishment of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the land-grant universities, and later the state agricultural experiment stations during the Civil War and in the decades that followed. Public-sector investment dominated agricultural research at the time, and with the rediscovery of Mendel's work in 1900, took a turn toward systematic selective breeding. Through crop improvement associations, seed certification programs, and open-release policies allowing anyone to breed and sell the certified new seeds, farmers were provided access to the fruits of public research in a reasonably efficient and open market. The development of hybrid corn through this system was the first major modern success that vastly increased agricultural yields. It reshaped our understanding not only of agriculture, but also more generally of the value of innovation, by comparison to efficiency, to growth. Yields in the United States doubled between the mid-1930s and the mid-1950s, and by the mid-1980s, cornfields had a yield six times greater than they had fifty years before. Beginning in the early 1960s, with funding from the Rockefeller and Ford foundations, and continuing over the following forty years, agricultural research designed to increase the supply of agricultural production and lower its cost became a central component of international and national policies aimed at securing the supply of food to the world's poor populations, avoiding famines and, ultimately, eliminating chronic malnutrition. The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines was the first such institute, founded in the 1960s, followed by the International Center for Wheat and Maize Improvement (CIM-MYT) in Mexico (1966), and the two institutes for tropical agriculture in Colombia and Nigeria (1967). Together, these became the foundation for the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which now includes sixteen centers. Over the same period, National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) also were created around the world, focusing on research specific to local agroecological conditions. Research in these centers preceded the biotechnology revolution, and used various experimental breeding techniques to obtain high-yielding plants: for example, plants with shorter growing seasons, or more adapted to intensive fertilizer use. These efforts later introduced varieties that were resistant to local pests, diseases, and to various harsh environmental conditions.

The "Green Revolution," as the introduction of these new, scientific-research-based varieties has been called, indeed resulted in substantial increases in yields, initially in rice and wheat, in Asia and Latin America. The term "Green Revolution" is often limited to describing these changes in those regions in the 1960s and 1970s. A recent study shows, however, that the growth in yields has continued throughout the last forty years, and has, with varying degrees, occurred around the world./10 More than eight thousand modern varieties of rice, wheat, maize, other major cereals, and root and protein crops have been released over the course of this period by more than four hundred public breeding programs. One of the most interesting finds of this study was that fewer than 1 percent of these modern varieties had any crosses with public or private breeding programs in the developed world, and that private-sector contributions in general were limited to hybrid maize, sorghum, and millet. The effort, in other words, was almost entirely public sector, and almost entirely based in the developing world, with complementary efforts of the international and national programs. Yields in Asia increased sevenfold from 1961 to 2000, and fivefold in Latin America, the Middle East/North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa. More than 60 percent of the growth in Asia and Latin America occurred in the 1960s-1980s, while the primary growth in Sub-Saharan Africa began in the 1980s. In Latin America, most of the early-stage increases in yields came from increasing cultivated areas (~40 percent), and from other changes in cultivation-increased use of fertilizer, mechanization, and irrigation. About 15 percent of the growth in the early period was attributable to the use of modern varieties. In the latter twenty years, however, more than 40 percent of the total increase in yields was attributable to the use of new varieties. In Asia in the early period, about 19 percent of the increase came from modern varieties, but almost the entire rest of the increase came from increased use of fertilizer, mechanization, and irrigation, not from increased cultivated areas. It is trivial to see why changes of this sort would elicit both environmental and a social-economic critique of the industrialization of farm work. Again, though, in the latter twenty years, 46 percent of the increase in yields is attributable to the use of modern varieties. Modern varieties played a significantly less prominent role in the Green Revolution of the Middle East and Africa, contributing 5-6 percent of the growth in yields. In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, early efforts to introduce varieties from Asia and Latin America failed, and local developments only began to be adopted in the 1980s. In the latter twenty-year period, however, the Middle East and North Africa did see a substantial role for modern varieties-accounting for close to 40 percent of a more than doubling of yields. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the overwhelming majority of the tripling of yields came from increasing area of cultivation, and about 16 percent came from modern varieties. Over the past forty years, then, research-based improvements in plants have come to play a larger role in increasing agricultural yields in the developing world. Their success was, however, more limited in the complex and very difficult environments of Sub-Saharan Africa. Much of the benefit has to do with local independence, as opposed to heavier dependence on food imports. Evenson and Gollin, for example, conservatively estimate that higher prices and a greater reliance on imports in the developing world in the absence of the Green Revolution would have resulted in 13-14 percent lower caloric intake in the developing world, and in a 6-8 percent higher proportion of malnourished children. While these numbers may not seem eye-popping, for populations already living on marginal nutrition, they represent significant differences in quality of life and in physical and mental development for millions of children and adults.

The agricultural research that went into much of the Green Revolution did not involve biotechnology-that is, manipulation of plant varieties at the genetic level through recombinant DNA techniques. Rather, it occurred at the level of experimental breeding. In the developed world, however, much of the research over the past twenty-five years has been focused on the use of biotechnology to achieve more targeted results than breeding can, has been more heavily based on private-sector investment, and has resulted in more private-sector ownership over the innovations. The promise of biotechnology, and particularly of genetically engineered or modified foods, has been that they could provide significant improvements in yields as well as in health effects, quality of the foods grown, and environmental effects. Plants engineered to be pest resistant could decrease the need to use pesticides, resulting in environmental benefits and health benefits to farmers. Plants engineered for ever-higher yields without increasing tilled acreage could limit the pressure for deforestation. Plants could be engineered to carry specific nutritional supplements, like golden rice with beta-carotene, so as to introduce necessarily nutritional requirements into subsistence diets. Beyond the hypothetically optimistic possibilities, there is little question that genetic engineering has already produced crops that lower the cost of production for farmers by increasing herbicide and pest tolerance. As of 2002, more than 50 percent of the world's soybean acreage was covered with genetically modified (GM) soybeans, and 20 percent with cotton. Twenty-seven percent of acreage covered with GM crops is in the developing world. This number will grow significantly now that Brazil has decided to permit the introduction of GM crops, given its growing agricultural role, and now that India, as the world's largest cotton producer, has approved the use of Bt cotton-a GM form of cotton that improves its resistance to a common pest. There are, then, substantial advantages to farmers, at least, and widespread adoption of GM crops both in the developed world outside of Europe and in the developing world.

This largely benign story of increasing yields, resistance, and quality has not been without critics, to put it mildly. The criticism predates biotechnology and the development of transgenic varieties. Its roots are in criticism of experimental breeding programs of the American agricultural sectors and the Green Revolution. However, the greatest public visibility and political success of these criticisms has been in the context of GM foods. The critique brings together odd intellectual and political bedfellows, because it includes five distinct components: social and economic critique of the industrialization of agriculture, environmental and health effects, consumer preference for "natural" or artisan production of foodstuffs, and, perhaps to a more limited extent, protectionism of domestic farm sectors.

Perhaps the oldest component of the critique is the social-economic critique. One arm of the critique focuses on how mechanization, increased use of chemicals, and ultimately the use of nonreproducing proprietary seed led to incorporation of the agricultural sector into the capitalist form of production. In the United States, even with its large "family farm" sector, purchased inputs now greatly exceed nonpurchased inputs, production is highly capital intensive, and large-scale production accounts for the majority of land tilled and the majority of revenue captured from farming./11 In 2003, 56 percent of farms had sales of less than $10,000 a year. Roughly 85 percent of farms had less than $100,000 in sales./12 These farms account for only 42 percent of the farmland. By comparison, 3.4 percent of farms have sales of more than $500,000 a year, and account for more than 21 percent of land. In the aggregate, the 7.5 percent of farms with sales over $250,000 account for 37 percent of land cultivated. Of all principal owners of farms in the United States in 2002, 42.5 percent reported something other than farming as their principal occupation, and many reported spending two hundred or more days off-farm, or even no work days at all on the farm. The growth of large-scale "agribusiness," that is, mechanized, rationalized industrial-scale production of agricultural products, and more important, of agricultural inputs, is seen as replacing the family farm and the small-scale, self-sufficient farm, and bringing farm labor into the capitalist mode of production. As scientific development of seeds and chemical applications increases, the seed as input becomes separated from the grain as output, making farmers dependent on the purchase of industrially produced seed. This further removes farmwork from traditional modes of self-sufficiency and craftlike production to an industrial mode. This basic dynamic is repeated in the critique of the Green Revolution, with the added overlay that the industrial producers of seed are seen to be multinational corporations, and the industrialization of agriculture is seen as creating dependencies in the periphery on the industrial-scientific core of the global economy.

The social-economic critique has been enmeshed, as a political matter, with environmental, health, and consumer-oriented critiques as well. The environmental critiques focus on describing the products of science as monocultures, which, lacking the genetic diversity of locally used varieties, are more susceptible to catastrophic failure. Critics also fear contamination of existing varieties, unpredictable interactions with pests, and negative effects on indigenous species. The health effects concern focused initially on how breeding for yield may have decreased nutritional content, and in the more recent GM food debates, the concern that genetically altered foods will have some unanticipated negative health reactions that would only become apparent many years from now. The consumer concerns have to do with quality and an aesthetic attraction to artisan-mode agricultural products and aversion to eating industrial outputs. These social-economic and environmental-health-consumer concerns tend also to be aligned with protectionist lobbies, not only for economic purposes, but also reflecting a strong cultural attachment to the farming landscape and human ecology, particularly in Europe.

This combination of social-economic and postcolonial critique, environmentalism, public-health concerns, consumer advocacy, and farm-sector protectionism against the relatively industrialized American agricultural sector reached a height of success in the 1999 five-year ban imposed by the European Union on all GM food sales. A recent study of a governmental Science Review Board in the United Kingdom, however, found that there was no evidence for any of the environmental or health critiques of GM foods./13 Indeed, as Peter Pringle masterfully chronicled in Food, Inc., both sides of the political debate could be described as having buffed their cases significantly. The successes and potential benefits have undoubtedly been overstated by enamored scientists and avaricious vendors. There is little doubt, too, that the near-hysterical pitch at which the failures and risks of GM foods have been trumpeted has little science to back it, and the debate has degenerated to a state that makes reasoned, evidence-based consideration difficult. In Europe in general, however, there is wide acceptance of what is called a "precautionary principle." One way of putting it is that absence of evidence of harm is not evidence of absence of harm, and caution counsels against adoption of the new and at least theoretically dangerous. It was this precautionary principle rather than evidence of harm that was at the base of the European ban. This ban has recently been lifted, in the wake of a WTO trade dispute with the United States and other major producers who challenged the ban as a trade barrier. However, the European Union retained strict labeling requirements. This battle among wealthy countries, between the conservative "Fortress Europe" mentality and the growing reliance of American agriculture on biotechnological innovation, would have little moral valence if it did not affect funding for, and availability of, biotechnological research for the populations of the developing world. Partly as a consequence of the strong European resistance to GM foods, the international agricultural research centers that led the way in the development of the Green Revolution varieties, and that released their developments freely for anyone to sell and use without proprietary constraint, were slow to develop capacity in genetic engineering and biotechnological research more generally. Rather than the public national and international efforts leading the way, a study of GM use in developing nations concluded that practically all GM acreage is sown with seed obtained in the finished form from a developed-world supplier, for a price premium or technology licensing fee./14 The seed, and its improvements, is proprietary to the vendor in this model. It is not supplied in a form or with the rights to further improve locally and independently. Because of the critique of innovation in agriculture as part of the process of globalization and industrialization, of environmental degradation, and of consumer exploitation, the political forces that would have been most likely to support public-sector investment in agricultural innovation are in opposition to such investments. The result has not been retardation of biotechnological innovation in agriculture, but its increasing privatization: primarily in the United States and now increasingly in Latin America, whose role in global agricultural production is growing.

Private-sector investment, in turn, operates within a system of patents and other breeders' exclusive rights, whose general theoretical limitations are discussed in chapter 2. In agriculture, this has two distinct but mutually reinforcing implications. The first is that, while private-sector innovation has indeed accounted for most genetically engineered crops in the developing world, research aimed at improving agricultural production in the neediest places has not been significantly pursued by the major private-sector firms. A sector based on expectation of sales of products embedding its patents will not focus its research where human welfare will be most enhanced. It will focus where human welfare can best be expressed in monetary terms. The poor are systematically underserved by such a system. It is intended to elicit investments in research in directions that investors believe will result in outputs that serve the needs of those with the highest willingness and ability to pay for their outputs. The second is that even where the products of innovation can, as a matter of biological characteristics, be taken as inputs into local research and development-by farmers or by national agricultural research systems-the international system of patents and plant breeders' rights enforcement makes it illegal to do so without a license. This again retards the ability of poor countries and their farmers and research institutes to conduct research into local adaptations of improved crops.

The central question raised by the increasing privatization of agricultural biotechnology over the past twenty years is: What can be done to employ commons-based strategies to provide a foundation for research that will be focused on the food security of developing world populations? Is there a way of managing innovation in this sector so that it will not be heavily weighted in favor of populations with a higher ability to pay, and so that its outputs allow farmers and national research efforts to improve and adapt to highly variable local agroecological environments? The continued presence of the public-sector research infrastructure-including the international and national research centers, universities, and NGOs dedicated to the problem of food security-and the potential of harnessing individual farmers and scientists to cooperative development of open biological innovation for agriculture suggest that commons-based paths for development in the area of food security and agricultural innovation are indeed feasible.

First, some of the largest and most rapidly developing nations that still have large poor populations-most prominently, China, India, and Brazil-can achieve significant advances through their own national agricultural research systems. Their research can, in turn, provide a platform for further innovation and adaptation by projects in poorer national systems, as well as in nongovernmental public and peer-production efforts. In this regard, China seems to be leading the way. The first rice genome to be sequenced was japonica, apparently sequenced in 2000 by scientists at Monsanto, but not published. The second, an independent and published sequence of japonica, was sequenced by scientists at Syngenta, and published as the first published rice genome sequence in Science in April 2002. To protect its proprietary interests, Syngenta entered a special agreement with Science, which permitted the authors not to deposit the genomic information into the public Genbank maintained by the National Institutes of Health in the United States./15 Depositing the information in GenBank makes it immediately available for other scientists to work with freely. All the major scientific publications require that such information be deposited and made publicly available as a standard condition of publication, but Science waved this requirement for the Syngenta japonica sequence. The same issue of Science, however, carried a similar publication, the sequence of Oryza sativa L.ssp. indica, the most widely cultivated subspecies in China. This was sequenced by a public Chinese effort, and its outputs were immediately deposited in GenBank. The simultaneous publication of the rice genome by a major private firm and a Chinese public effort was the first public exposure to the enormous advances that China's public sector has made in agricultural biotechnology, and its focus first and foremost on improving Chinese agriculture. While its investments are still an order of magnitude smaller than those of public and private sectors in the developed countries, China has been reported as the source of more than half of all expenditures in the developing world./16 China's longest experience with GM agriculture is with Bt cotton, which was introduced in 1997. By 2000, 20 percent of China's cotton acreage was sown to Bt cotton. One study showed that the average acreage of a farm was less than 0.5 hectare of cotton, and the trait that was most valuable to them was Bt cotton's reduced pesticide needs. Those who adopted Bt cotton used less pesticide, reducing labor for pest control and the pesticide cost per kilogram of cotton produced. This allowed an average cost savings of 28 percent. Another effect suggested by survey data-which, if confirmed over time, would be very important as a matter of public health, but also to the political economy of the agricultural biotechnology debate-is that farmers who do not use Bt cotton are four times as likely to report symptoms of a degree of toxic exposure following application of pesticides than farmers who did adopt Bt cotton./17 The point is not, of course, to sing the praises of GM cotton or the Chinese research system. China's efforts offer an example of how the larger national research systems can provide an anchor for agricultural research, providing solutions both for their own populations, and, by making the products of their research publicly and freely available, offer a foundation for the work of others.

Alongside the national efforts in developing nations, there are two major paths for commons-based research and development in agriculture that could serve the developing world more generally. The first is based on existing research institutes and programs cooperating to build a commons-based system, cleared of the barriers of patents and breeders' rights, outside and alongside the proprietary system. The second is based on the kind of loose affiliation of university scientists, nongovernmental organizations, and individuals that we saw play such a significant role in the development of free and open-source software. The most promising current efforts in the former vein are the PIPRA (Public Intellectual Property for Agriculture) coalition of public-sector universities in the United States, and, if it delivers on its theoretical promises, the Generation Challenge Program led by CGIAR (the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research). The most promising model of the latter, and probably the most ambitious commons-based project for biological innovation currently contemplated, is BIOS (Biological Innovation for an Open Society).

PIPRA is a collaboration effort among public-sector universities and agricultural research institutes in the United States, aimed at managing their rights portfolio in a way that will give their own and other researchers freedom to operate in an institutional ecology increasingly populated by patents and other rights that make work difficult. The basic thesis and underlying problem that led to PIPRA's founding were expressed in an article in Science coauthored by fourteen university presidents./18 They underscored the centrality of public-sector, land-grant university-based research to American agriculture, and the shift over the last twenty-five years toward increased use of intellectual property rules to cover basic discoveries and tools necessary for agricultural innovation. These strategies have been adopted by both commercial firms and, increasingly, by public-sector universities as the primary mechanism for technology transfer from the scientific institute to the commercializing firms. The problem they saw was that in agricultural research, innovation was incremental. It relies on access to existing germplasm and crop varieties that, with each generation of innovation, brought with them an ever-increasing set of intellectual property claims that had to be licensed in order to obtain permission to innovate further. The universities decided to use the power that ownership over roughly 24 percent of the patents in agricultural biotechnology innovations provides them as a lever with which to unravel the patent thickets and to reduce the barriers to research that they increasingly found themselves dealing with. The main story, one might say the "founding myth" of PIPRA, was the story of golden rice. Golden rice is a variety of rice that was engineered to provide dietary vitamin A. It was developed with the hope that it could introduce vitamin A supplement to populations in which vitamin A deficiency causes roughly 500,000 cases of blindness a year and contributes to more than 2 million deaths a year. However, when it came to translating the research into deliverable plants, the developers encountered more than seventy patents in a number of countries and six materials transfer agreements that restricted the work and delayed it substantially. PIPRA was launched as an effort of public-sector universities to cooperate in achieving two core goals that would respond to this type of barrier-preserving the right to pursue applications to subsistence crops and other developing-world-related crops, and preserving their own freedom to operate vis-à-vis each other's patent portfolios.

The basic insight of PIPRA, which can serve as a model for university alliances in the context of the development of medicines as well as agriculture, is that universities are not profit-seeking enterprises, and university scientists are not primarily driven by a profit motive. In a system that offers opportunities for academic and business tracks for people with similar basic skills, academia tends to attract those who are more driven by nonmonetary motivations. While universities have invested a good deal of time and money since the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 permitted and indeed encouraged them to patent innovations developed with public funding, patent and other exclusive-rights-based revenues have not generally emerged as an important part of the revenue scheme of universities.

Table 9.2: Selected University Gross Revenues and Patent Licensing Revenues

Total Revenues

Licensing and Royalties

Government Grants