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Points of View
Public-private partnerships in agricultural research

Publicly-funded agricultural research institutions struggle to find enough money to continue their research programmes. Commercial companies, or their associated charitable foundations, are a potential source. But should taxpayers' money be used for R&D that will ultimately benefit company shareholders? Furthermore, multinational companies signing deals with publicly funded research bodies will surely dictate the direction of research - possibly to the detriment of small scale farmers unable to purchase the commercial company's products.

On the other hand, if taxpayers have contributed huge amounts of money over many years to agricultural research, what is wrong with using commercial companies to transfer the technology to farmers? What are the practical difficulties of combining the slower, more bureaucratic procedures of a publicly-funded, government body - that has a very different agenda and political constraints - with commercial company philosophy and interests?. What safeguards can be put in place to ensure that all partners, including farmers, get a fair deal?

Where we are now

"Industrial countries have benefited from agricultural research and development investments by both public and private sectors, whereas developing countries, by and large, have relied on less than adequate funding, principally from the public sector. In the future it is imperative that developing countries invest significantly more public sector funding in agricultural R&D and also encourage more private sector investments."
Progressing Public-Private Sector Partnerships in International Agricultural Research and Development. by Clive James, Chair, ISAAA Board of Directorsback to top

"A whole new way of doing agricultural research has emerged - doing it in partnerships between the public and private sectors. Partnering is about creating more value together than can be created alone. Public service agents often argue that private companies react only on profit motivations and are unconcerned with addressing social goals. On the other side, the private sector often criticises the bureaucracy and inefficiency of the public sector, which is seen as unable to respond to the demands of industrial development."
ISNAR to top

Responsibility and resources

"No single organisation is capable, single-handedly, of meeting the challenge of feeding the planet's 840 million hungry. Public and private sectors must join forces with national and international organizations. We must be willing to share responsibilities, risk and resources to achieve shared objectives. There is now both a moral imperative and an economic obligation to build a joint coalition, where international organizations, governments and the private sector work side by side to span the divide between rich and poor."
Jacques Diouf, Director-General of FAO. Press release June 2003back to top

"The taxpayer has put a lot of money into research into biocontrol, and crop protection generally, throughout East Africa. And we think that the best return for our money is to work with those companies who appreciate the need to control these pests and who are willing to take some risks in developing some of the technologies that we are putting forward. Of course they will have the long term hope that it will pay off. But that is what we want to see. We want to see them put their money where their mouths are, so to speak."
Simon Gowen, University of Reading, UKback to top

"Donors, if I have understood it properly, want technologies to be used in developing countries which are beneficial to the nation as well as to the farmers. The only route to do that is through commercial companies. Forgive me for saying it, but NGOs have their own agenda and it is not commercial. They go around preaching their own... whatever. And farmers don't like to be preached at. They are the most conscious economists anywhere in the world. They do their arithmetic and what sounds to them economically right - they will adopt it. Not because an NGO is telling them or a commercial organisation is telling them."
Sarwar Ahmed, Managing Director of Syngenta-Bangladeshback to top

"It is not helpful to always portray smallholder farmers as victims who are too poor to pay for goods and services. There are undoubtedly some very poor smallholders, but many would welcome the chance to purchase, for example, improved seed of new varieties if these were made available on time and in appropriate sized packs."
Richard B Jones, ICRISAT, East Africa.back to top

"By participating in national and international bodies and collaboration with research institutes, we are trying to help shape international agricultural policy in an innovative way. We bring a different perspective by contributing ideas and assessment criteria relating to the private sector when seeking solutions to problems. We do this in the conviction that various agents in society have different types of knowledge and skills at their disposal, and that it is only by bringing together all the available knowledge in collaborative work based on trust that a lasting improvement in food security for the poor can be made possible."
Syngenta Foundation to top

"This scientific advance (the completion of the rice genome map) was achieved by The Torrey Mesa Research Institute - the genomics research centre of Syngenta - and by Myrian Genetics Inc. Equally significant from the perspective of poor farmers and scientists, was the companies' announcement that the rice genomics information will be made available to the academic and scientific communities through collaborative agreements." to top

"It will be several years before the solutions scientists are working on today are in the hands of small-scale farmers. Nevertheless, an international public-private collaboration on mapping the rice genome, like that proposed by Syngenta, could dramatically reduce the time needed to get this technology to the farmers who need it, accelerating efforts to fight hunger and poverty." to top

Mandate and motives

The concept of public-private partnerships is often touted, but in reality there are few examples of true partnerships. Partnerships have been defined as "Two or more organizations with complementary areas of expertise committing resources and working together to achieve a mutually beneficial outcome that would have been difficult for each to reach alone" (Gormley, 2001). Too often publicly funded institutions look on partnerships as a means to attract funding rather than as a way to bring about some mutually beneficial goal."
Richard B Jones, ICRISAT, Nairobiback to top

"If the sale of research products is feasible and profitable, why should the public sector be involved in the first place?"
ODI NR Perspective 57back to top

"CG research institutions have been the target of biotech companies for years but, until now, escaped infiltration. Critics (of Syngenta Foundation's membership of CGIAR and seat on board) are appalled. CGIAR has unabashedly adopted the corporate research agenda, thereby accepting that it ceases to follow the original mandate of conducting agricultural research for 'public good'... If the CGIAR is to take on board Syngenta Foundation, we would like to know the relevance of the public exchequer funding international agricultural research? Why should the taxpayers' money go to support the research agenda of the multinational corporations? If that be so, why can't we dismantle CGIAR and hand over the research centres to the host governments? Why should we pay the CGIAR for following the private industry's research agenda?"
Norfolk Genetic Information Network http://ngin.tripod.comback to top

"Selling public varieties to the private seed industry can divert attention from the needs of farmers with few resources. There is evidence from breeding programmes (such as in China) that producing commercially attractive germplasm has diverted attention in the research service from the problems of farmers in marginal areas, and has upset the balance in research programmes by emphasizing plant breeding over agronomy (where it is difficult to capture royalties). Although the private sector might often be willing to pay for research by public institutes, any cost recovery proposal for public research should be scrutinised in terms of efficiency, incentives and mandate."
ODI NR Perspective 57back to top

"There appear to be advantages to private delivery of research and extension in terms of value for money and also in terms of efficiency in the short to medium term but, on the other hand, a disadvantage is that there could be less corporate or institutional learning, particularly learning that is available within the public domain. And it may also be that there is less continuity of effort on particular subjects that are of long term. So, where there is private delivery of research or extension there are dangers of the public institution losing touch with the grass roots."
Barry Pound, Natural Resources Institute - working with Linking Demand and Supply of Agricultural Information, Ugandaback to top

Managing the partnership...

"Public sector institutions need to learn how to interact with commercial companies and to articulate their respective roles and responsibilities clearly. If there is a commercial incentive for private investment, then there is little justification for the public- sector to duplicate roles."
Richard B Jones, ICRISAT, Nairobiback to top

"It is argued by some that incentives, for example in the form of tax concessions, should be offered to induce private sector participation."
World agriculture: towards 2015/2030 An FAO Perspective (see In Print)back to top

"Private research investment is more likely where particular products or techniques can be utilised over a range of environments and where future demand for the technology will ensure increasing market size. Although private investment in the manufacture of agricultural chemicals, machinery and equipment can be expected to grow, investment in the research required to adapt those products to specific farming environments is likely to be less evident. Similarly, private investment in research to generate crop or resource management information (which cannot be protected) is likely to be low, even when this information may be utilised in highly commercialised farming."
ODI NR Perspective 57back to top

"In the last ten years, we have been developing new partnerships and some of these have been with the private sector, ranging from Syngenta, Bangladesh and smaller to medium enterprises in Kenya. They have a common mission of developing socially acceptable, benign pest management technologies which is exactly our mission and the collaboration works well. But they are few and far between. We only have a few public-private linkages but it has largely been a common interest for a common goal and they do work well."
Frances Kimmins, Manager of DFID's Crop Protection Programmeback to top

"There needs to be a legislative framework that accompanies the introduction of public private partnerships. One of the big problems is that there can be exclusion of groups of society. In terms of the example from Uganda, the Plan for the Modernisation of Agriculture emphasises very much the commercialisation of agriculture. And there are those who are able to join that agenda, and there are those who are not. And at the moment we are finding that about 10% of farmers are joining the group forum for the private delivery of extension services in Uganda which of course means that 90% are not. And it's those 90% who, under the new private delivery of extension services are potentially being left behind and one needs processes to make sure that there are reviews built into the system that allow you to look at the disadvantages and the problems as they arise and of course to have the flexibility to make adjustments as necessary."
Barry Pound, Natural Resources Institute - working with a project called Linking Demand and Supply of Agricultural Information in Ugandaback to top

"The African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) is a not-for-profit African company set up to facilitate the transfer, adaptation and uptake of agricultural technologies by smallholders. The company will have a particular role to play in licensing technology from the OECD private sector and contracting with African and other organizations to ensure that licensed technology is appropriately adapted and reaches farmers." to top

"The AATF is receiving funding from a number of donors including USAID and Rockefeller. It will involve five large agribusiness companies to try and draw them in to develop technologies that are appropriate for Africa. I think that's quite an exciting opportunity. And I think people have to be round the table to try and influence the agenda, to make sure the technologies which are developed are pro poor and that they think about dissemination all the way down to the end user."
Frances Kimmins, Manager of DFID's Crop Protection Programmeback to top

. . . and intellectual property

"I think we are going to have to look at a number of issues, including intellectual property rights. At the moment, public good research is freely available for development but private sector works under different conditions where a degree of exclusivity is needed. When we were developing our guidelines for engagement with the private sector, we had to make it quite clear to the companies that they did not have exclusive rights over the technologies."
Frances Kimmins, Manager of DFID's Crop Protection Programmeback to top

"For sound public-private partnerships, public breeding programmes must formulate clear policies for managing intellectual property. Strategies to generate funds through the sale of public varieties will require some form of plant variety protection, especially for self-pollinated crops. Most countries are moving to establish a system of plant variety protection, motivated in large part by the requirements of the WTO and TRIPS agreement."
ODI NR Perspective 57back to top

"Efforts to establish PVP for public varieties and generate income from royalties face an additional dilemma with respect to the open exchange of germplasm with other countries. Much of this exchange is mediated by the IARCs and the rest is a product of regional or bilateral networks and agreements. There is a growing temptation for national programmes to close their doors, to charge collaborators for what used to be freely exchanged or to deny national or regional partners access to material for fear that they will gain a commercial advantage. The dilemma extends to the use of international germplasm and there have already been cases where national breeding programmes have protected and charged for IARC varieties. As the IARCS broaden their scope and devote more attention to private seed companies, the problems of defining access intensify. However the overwhelming preponderance of evidence to date suggests that the benefits to society of freely exchanging germplasm outweigh any revenue gains generated by restricting access to the products of public breeding programmes."
ODI NR Perspective 57back to top

1st July 2003