GENTECH archive


Promoting corporate profits in the name of the poor

On 1 Nov 2000, at 4:03, Biotech Activists wrote:

Biotech Activists (    Posted:

ISAAA in Asia
Promoting corporate profits in the name of the poor

October 2000


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The controversy surrounding genetic engineering is heating up in
as the transnational food and agriculture industry, worth over $700
billion a year1, moves to bring its patented biotechnologies into the
region’s farmlands. The companies are enlisting the support of a
number of international, non-profit, development organizations to
promote biotechnology and help to engineer the necessary political
legal landscape for its worldwide adoption. These organizations
include the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation, the US
Agency for International Development (USAID) and many others. The
International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications
(ISAAA) is one of the most focused promoters of gene technologies in
Asia. Through the formation and support of key local elites, ISAAA is
helping carry out an agenda set by transnational corporations (TNCs),
in the name of Asia’s rural poor.

1. ISAAA’s origins

In the 1980s, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund brought together several
other financiers to form the Resources Development Foundation in New
York. This Foundation subsequently established an International
Biotechnology Collaboration Program in cooperation with the Hitachi
Foundation, with a mission to transfer biotechnology to the developing
world. In 1991, under the guidance of Dr Clive James, former Deputy
Director-General of the International Center for Wheat and Maize
Improvement (CIMMYT), and with over a million dollars from an
anonymous donor, the programme was re-established as an independent
entity called the International Service for the Acquisition of
Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) under the direction of Dr James.
ISAAA’s sole purpose is to facilitate the delivery of proprietary
biotechnologies from the corporate labs of the industrialized world
into the food and farming systems of the South.2

The first ISAAA center, the AmeriCenter, opened in 1992 at Cornell
University in the US, where ISAAA’s most recent Executive Director,
Anatole Krattiger3, another former CIMMYT employee, was stationed.
ISAAA now has a EuroCenter at the John Innes Centre in the UK, an
AsiaCenter at Technova Inc in Japan, an AfriCenter at the regional
office of the International Potato Center on the campus of the
International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya, and a SEAsia
Center at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los
Baños, Laguna, the Philippines. A LatiCenter is also planned.

Besides the initial mysterious anonymous donor, ISAAA receives support
from a number of institutions and biotech companies, including the
Rockefeller Foundation, USAID, Novartis, Monsanto and AgrEvo. (See
Appendix for current list.) In 1997, ISAAA reported that it had raised
over $13 million for its programs.4 The big dollars are matched by
high-profile board members, past and present, such as: Robert Fraley,
head of Monsanto’s agbiotech program; Wally Beversdorf, head of
Novartis Seeds’ biotech program; William Padolina, former Secretary of
the Department of Science and Technology of the Philippines; and
Gabrielle Persley, Executive Director of AusBiotech Alliance and
advisor to the World Bank. (See Appendix for current list.)

ISAAA’s operations

ISAAA’s rationale is as follows. Since conventional agricultural
technologies cannot feed the growing population, the world needs
biotechnology, especially in the developing countries where
demographic pressures are most critical. However, because of the
enormous costs of biotech research and development (R&D), the
technology is almost entirely in the hands of private companies in the
North. The only way to get this technology to the South is to build
"global partnerships" between the private sector of the North and the
public sector of the South. Such partnerships require "honest
brokers", such as ISAAA, that can bring the sides together and help
ensure that the partnerships are carried out effectively.

ISAAA’s mandate and principal objective will continue to be the
transfer and delivery of biotechnology products to developing
countries, particularly to resource poor farmers, by building
partnerships between institutions from national programs in the South
and from the private sector in the North. ISAAA Board and Management
Response to the External Review, 1994

At present, ISAAA targets twelve countries where it aims to fulfill
its mission: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and
Vietnam in Asia; Kenya, Egypt, and Zimbabwe in Africa; and Argentina,
Brazil, Costa Rica, and Mexico in Latin America.

To create these partnerships, ISAAA sets up technology transfer
projects. They cover either tissue culture, diagnostics or transgenics
(genetic engineering). While tissue culture and diagnostics involve
simpler forms of modern biotechnology, they are seen as "stepping
stones" to the more advanced applications. The projects involving
transgenics focus on crops that are otherwise ignored by the private
sector but which offer "a high probability of success over a short
time frame" to demonstrate the effectiveness of these partnerships.5
In this manner, all ISAAA projects serve primarily to awaken interest
in and commitment to biotechnology within national agricultural
research systems (NARS) and to develop national capacity to conduct
biotechnology research and development (R&D).

For ISAAA, "capacity" refers to a country’s ability to adopt and
integrate patented technologies from the North into local production
systems. Its programmes, therefore, concentrate on field testing, gene
transfer into local varieties, biosafety, negotiating license
agreements and managing intellectual property rights. Since public
opinion can interfere with the transfer of biotechnology — as seen in
countries as diverse as Bolivia, Indonesia, Brazil, France, India or
Thailand — ISAAA’s programs are also directed at promoting public
acceptance of the technology. This is done through publications,
seminars, workshops, and, most importantly, its fellowship programs.
Through fellowships, scientists and policy makers from the South are
sent to corporate headquarters and regulatory authorities in the North
to learn about such things as food safety regulations and how to do
field trial applications, but also to establish personal

ISAAA in Asia

ISAAA’s involvement in Southeast Asia began in 1996 when IRRI hosted
ISAAA’s annual board meeting at its facilities in Los Baños, the
Philippines. A key participant at the meeting was the Philippines’
Secretary of Science and Technology, William Padolina. Dr Padolina
soon became the Deputy Director-General of IRRI, and not
coincidentally in January 1998, the SEAsiaCenter opened for business —
on IRRI’s grounds. The location not only strengthens ties between
ISAAA and one of the most influential agricultural research institutes
in Asia6, but it lends ISAAA an automatic veneer of credibility.

The Director of the SEAsiaCenter is Dr Randy Hautea, former head of
the Philippines’ Institute of Plant Breeding. The Center targets
Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam because
"they all have the political will to pursue and adopt biotechnology

Table 1: ISAAA’s partnership projects in Southeast Asia8

 Partners in the South
 Partners in the North

Papaya Biotechnology Network • Research Institute for Fruits
(Indonesia) • MARDI (Malaysia)

• BIOTEC (Thailand)

• Institute of Biotechnology (Vietnam)

• Institute of Plant Breeding (Philippines)
 • Monsanto (USA)
• Nottingham University (UK)

• University of Hawaii (USA)

• Zeneca Agrochemicals (UK)

Tomato Virus Diagnostics • Central Research Institute for Horticulture
Crops (Indonesia) • Novartis Seeds (Switzerland) • Wageningen
University (Netherlands)

Black Rot Diagnostics • Asian Vegetable Research and Development
Center (Taiwan) • Washington State University (USA) Bt Sweet Potato •
Agriculture Science Institute (Vietnam) • Novartis Seeds (Switzerland)
Bt Soybean • Indonesia (?) • AgrEvo (Germany) Bt Corn • Institute of
Plant Breeding (Philippines) • Asgrow Seeds (Monsanto) Vitamin A Rice
9 • International Rice Research Institute (Philippines) • Rockefeller
Foundation (USA) • Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Switzerland)

These technology transfer projects start with the identification of
potential biotech applications in local farming and move on to
removing hurdles to the full-scale deployment of transgenic crops. The
major impediment to this end goal, at present, is "the lack of
effective biosafety regulations and an uninformed public sometimes
skeptical about transgenic crops."10 These are key concerns for ISAAA.

A bedfellow brokerage

One of the most important functions of ISAAA’s projects is fostering
the kind of personal relationships that will ensure the critical
impetus to the adoption of biotechnology. In its own words, "By
arranging for senior policymakers from developing countries to share
views with business leaders of private corporations, ISAAA helps to
generate the trust, confidence, and cooperation that will integrate
developing countries into the agri-biotech revolution."11 In essence,
ISAAA is building up an advocacy elite to create the regulatory
environment for the successful introduction of corporate biotechnology
from the North. In the process, these experts are expected to dampen
social concerns and public dissent emerging at the local, national or
regional level.

The strategy seems to work. After visiting Monsanto’s Life Sciences
Research Center, Dr. Chan Ying Kwok, a papaya breeder with the
Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute, said,
"Walking through the greenhouses there I realized I was seeing
agriculture’s future. It was exciting and inspiring."12 Dr Parichart
Burns, a researcher with Thailand’s National Center of Genetic
Engineering and Biotechnology (BIOTEC) had similar feelings when she
visited Zeneca’s facilities in the UK: "We were able to see what the
future holds for biotechnology . . . You realize that this technology
is going to change everything."13

Going through a fellowship with ISAAA can have significant downstream
implications. In September 1999, Dr Ruben Villareal, the Director of
the South East Asia Regional Center for Research and Graduate
Education in Agriculture (SEARCA), participated in an ISAAA study tour
to Europe and North America.14 Soon after, his institute — which is
mandated by the governments of Southeast Asia to develop sustainable
agriculture in the region — announced that biotechnology was now a
"priority theme" in its new five-year plan. According to Villareal,
"Our interest lies in ethics and policy implications of biosafety
standards set by each country, and how these can be harmonized."15
ISAAA and SEARCA have just announced they will jointly establish a
Biotech Center in Los Baños, the Philippines, where both are

Since ISAAA’s activities involve high-level policy-makers, they can
have immediate impacts. For instance, ISAAA held an ASEAN (and China)
workshop on biosafety in cooperation with Indonesia’s Central Research
Institute for Food Crops (CRIFC) in 1993. According to Dr. Sumarno,
the Director of CRIFC, the meeting "triggered the development of our
biosafety guidelines." After the workshop a small group drew up a
draft based on Australian guidelines which were released by
ministerial decree "because of the pressing need for guidelines."17

The "team feeling" established by ISAAA’s personal approach spreads
the sentiment of "us" (the pro-biotech camp) versus "them" (the
anti-biotech camp) and as a consequence shatters the basis for real
analysis of the issues and opportunities from a national development
perspective. The full social, economic, and political implications of
"the agri-biotech revolution" for the different countries and sectors
in Asia are, in ISAAA’s agenda, simply not considered.

2. Biotech as a cure for poverty?

ISAAA’s mission is an ambitious one: "to contribute to poverty
alleviation in developing countries by increasing crop productivity
and incomes, particularly among resource-poor farmers, and to bring
about more sustainable agricultural development in a safer global
environment."18 However it is constrained from the start by a very
narrow framework: all of ISAAA’s activities must encourage and deploy
biotechnology in the target country. This will only work if
biotechnology is the appropriate and effective way to address the
needs of the resource-poor farmers. Since poverty is rooted in
structural social, political, and economic problems — not a lack of
technology — ISAAA’s projects inevitably suffer from the same
limitations as the Green Revolution. In both instances, the poverty of
small farmers is used to justify the intrusion of an external
technology, but the technology itself cannot address their fundamental
problems. As Linda Cayanan, a farmer in Pampanga in the Philippines,
points out:

I don't even have land. I am renting some land together with my
husband where we are planting rice. Sometimes, I work as a farm worker
for other farmers. What can I do with these new seeds? I'm sure they
are expensive and they will also require expensive pesticides. Who
will pay for them? We cannot. And even if we would be able to plant
them, any surplus they would create would go to the landlord and to
the traders. We would still be as poor as ever. Poor farmers need land
in the first place so they can reap the fruits of their own work.

The Mexican potato project

Off the map of Asia but essential for understanding ISAAA is the
Mexican potato project. In 1991, ISAAA initiated its first biotech
transfer scheme. This involved a deal between Monsanto and Mexico’s
Center for Research and Advanced Studies (CINVESTAV) for the transfer
of coat protein genes for Potato Virus X (PVX) and Potato Virus Y
(PVY) resistance. It was followed by another deal, in 1997, for a
replicase gene for resistance to Potato Leafroll Virus (PLRV). The
Rockefeller Foundation kicked in $350,000 to finance the project. 19

ISAAA states that "the project regards resource-poor small-scale
farmers as the main target group." From the outset, this makes the
project a non-starter because small-scale farmers have little interest
in the technology. In Mexico, potatoes are predominantly grown by
large- and medium-scale farmers. For small farmers that do grow
potatoes, "PVX and PVY are not the most pressing problems in Mexican
potato production. Resistance to these two viruses alone is beneficial
for farmers only if it is not associated with an extra cost."20 Not
surprisingly, only large-scale farmers have expressed an interest in
the PVX/PVY resistant potatoes.21 PLRV is a more significant problem,
but it too is of relatively minor importance when compared with leaf
blight and other structural problems. The virus-resistant potatoes
cannot even be expected to reduce pesticides since pesticides are not
used specifically against the disease. 22

Potato production in Mexico is firmly split according to landholding
size, crop varieties and geography. Large-scale farmers (with over 20
ha) are responsible for 64% of the overall potato production.23 These
farmers plant exclusively white varieties, derived from imported
germplasm, while small scale farmers grow local red varieties, which
fetch a lower price in the market but are resistant to blight — by far
the most serious disease affecting potato production in Mexico. The
ISAAA project involves the development of both red and white
virus-resistant potatoes. According to the licensing agreements
brokered by ISAAA, CINVESTAV can transform local varieties with the
PVX and PVY genes but it cannot transform imported varieties "suitable
for processing." The agreement for PLRV involves more stringent
conditions of use, and CINVESTAV is not allowed to transform the Alpha
variety with the PLRV gene. Alpha is a white variety that accounts for
60% of the total production volume.24 Furthermore, Monsanto stipulates
that, while CINVESTAV can share the transformed material with other
developing countries, no transformed material (including potato
exports) can be transported to the USA or other countries where
Monsanto has patented the technology. These restrictions on the PLRV
technology significantly weaken the project’s potential benefits to
large-scale and medium-scale farmers, who plant mostly Alpha

Even should small farmers be drawn to the technology, the potential
for it to benefit them is even more remote. ISAAA has secured a
licensing agreement for the red varieties grown by small farmers, but
there are currently no mechanisms to get these varieties out to small
growers. As stated in one of ISAAA’s reports: "The existence of a
formal seed market for a certain variety is the precondition for the
introduction of the technology into this variety. Under the current
seed distribution system, therefore, transgenic virus resistance will
not be disseminated in red varieties."25 Had ISAAA examined the
situation from the outset, it would have seen that small potato
farmers are completely cut off from all agricultural support. They
have no access to credit even though potato production is extremely
expensive. Public technological assistance vanished with the
implementation of Structural Adjustment Programs during the last two
decades, which sharply reduced the national budget for extension
services.26 And, to compound the problem, small farmers have little
capacity to demand changes, as they are not represented in the
national potato growers associations. 27

Seven years into the project, ISAAA admits that: "Strategies to
disseminate the technology and place it in the hands of small scale
farmers have not yet been identified."28 Now it claims to be working
with the government to bring small farmers within the seed
distribution network by subsidizing private seed production. Under the
plan, the state would buy genetically-engineered red seeds from
commercial seed breeders at a promised price and then distribute them
at a lower, more affordable price to small-scale farmers. But there is
no clear assurance that the Mexican government will take this U-turn
to rescue its small potato growers. And even if it does, the project
will likely still fail because of the crisis potato growers are facing
because of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Currently,
local potato production is sustained by tariffs of around 272%. Under
NAFTA, the tariff must be reduced to zero by 2004. This is bad news
for Mexican growers, since US production costs are much lower. The
cost for Mexican small-scale farmers is $1165 million/ton (M/t), while
for American farmers in Idaho it is only $863M/t and in North Dakota
it is $838M/t.29

Monsanto, meanwhile, is confident that the project will create the
conditions for its seed interests. According to Rob Horsch of
Monsanto, "The smaller benefit of the virus resistance will be the
catalyst to . . . the development of an infrastructure to supply clean
certified seed of the best germplasm with improved traits."30

The Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus project in Indonesia

ISAAA’s emphasis on "capacity building" and, in particular, the
determination to build partnerships between industry and public
institutions can make the stated objective of assisting poor farmers
meaningless. This is what has happened with ISAAA’s Tomato Spotted
Wilt Virus (TSWV) project in Indonesia.

In 1997, ISAAA initiated a collaborative project between Indonesia’s
Central Research Institute for Horticulture Crops (CRIH), Novartis
Seeds and Wageningen Agricultural University (Netherlands). Two CRIH
scientists were sent on a five-week "intensive" fellowship to learn
how to use techniques developed by Novartis. For ISAAA, the project,
like all diagnostic projects, is considered a "stepping-stone" to more
advanced applications of biotechnology. Perhaps the project will
improve CRIH’s capacity to manage the disease, but more significantly,
it opens the door in Indonesia for the deployment of crops genetically
engineered for resistance to TSWV, particularly those developed by
Novartis and Wageningen. Wageningen has a patent for
genetically-engineered TSWV-resistant plants31 and Novartis Seeds has
already filed an application to test its genetically engineered
TSWV-resistant tomatoes in the US. But how will the technology benefit
small farmers? ISAAA can only say that the "training also strengthens
Indonesia’s national agriculture program by establishing a solid
biotechnology infrastructure."32 But the intrusion of a seed giant
such as Novartis is no help — and almost certainly a disbenefit — to
small farmers in the region.

The Papaya Biotechnology Network

According to ISAAA:

The [Papaya Biotechnology] Network was formally launched in March
1998, with the primary mission of contributing to improved quality of
life for rural and urban families in Southeast Asia ... The Network
seeks to positively impact the lives of resource-poor and small-scale
farmers in Southeast Asia by increasing the availability of papaya for
both food and — through the sale of surplus fruit in local market —
modest incomes.33

The only means that the project considers for accomplishing this
objective is the development and introduction of papayas genetically
engineered for resistance to the papaya ringspot virus (PRSV).
Although, the transgenic papayas have yet to be released to farmers,
Dr. Hautea champions the Papaya Biotechnology Network as "a model that
proves biotechnology works in developing countries."34 But who is it
working for?

The transgenic papayas were originally developed for the export
industry in Hawaii, where papaya is grown on relatively large farms.
It is logical, then, that Malaysia, with a million dollar papaya
export industry, is most interested in the technology transfer.
Malaysia’s industry took off at the beginning of the 1990s, when the
Malaysia Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI)
introduced its two Eksotika varieties.35 , 36 Before their
introduction, papaya was grown in backyards or as a cash crop during
the early establishment of rubber or oil palm plantations. With
Eksotika, permanent papaya farms were established to cater to the new
export markets, ranging in size from 1-2 ha monoculture farms to
large-scale plantations of 500 ha. Since the Eksotika varieties are
extremely susceptible to PRSV, and disease pressure is enhanced by
monoculture cultivation practices, problems with PRSV rapidly emerged.
The disease devastated papaya production in 1991 — the first year it
was detected in Malaysia.37 According to scientists at MARDI, PRSV "is
the most important constraint that has curbed the development of the
papaya industry in ASEAN countries."38

The project is more likely to reach small farmers in Thailand than in
Malaysia, since papaya remains a backyard crop, with 100,000 families
engaged in production and only 0.6% of papaya production exported.
PRSV is a major problem for papaya production in the North of the
country and Thai researchers and farmers have had moderate success
with a number of strategies to combat the disease, including resistant
varieties and cultural practices.

Thailand has worked on biotechnology applications for PRSV since 1995,
when the Plant Genetic Engineering Unit of Kasetsart University
participated in a project with Queensland University of Technology
with support from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural
Research. ISAAA helps with biosafety and intellectual property rights
issues. It brokered a deal with Monsanto, which owns the 35s promoter
gene used in the gene construct, and other patent owners to permit
Thai scientists to use the technology for research and development
purposes alone. So far, ISAAA has made no attempts to broker a deal
for the commercialization of the papaya. In Hawaii, where the
technology was donated for free, the Papaya Administrative Committee
incurred at least $100,000 in legal expenses trying to secure the
patent licenses. 39

The mire of license agreements is not the only problem with the
transgenic varieties. The technology itself may be a dud, as growers
in Hawaii are already suggesting. According to the Hawaii
Tribune-Herald, the papayas have a short shelf-life before turning
mushy and they tend to be oversized, making them more expensive to
ship. Growers say they get three times the price for older varieties
and that the important Japanese market has banned
genetically-engineered varieties.40 Fruit producers in Southeast Asia
voice similar concerns. At a meeting in June 2000 with Thailand's
Ministry of Agriculture, Mrs. Pranee Srisomboon, the general manager
of the Thai Food Processor’s Association, argued that growing
genetically-engineered papayas would have negative effects on the
industry's exports of canned fruit salad to Japan, USA and Europe.41

The transgenic papayas also raise important biosafety concerns.
According to Dr Peter Palukaitis of the Scottish Crop Research
Institute, the genetically-engineered virus gene inserted in the
papaya "may end up mixing with DNA from other viruses that infect
these papaya plants, possibly resulting in the creation of new,
potentially more virulent disease-causing viruses." Other risks
include what is known as "synergy," in which the mere presence of the
genetically engineered virus in the plant’s DNA makes it sicker than
it would otherwise be when infected by another plant virus.42 In
Hawaii, the widespread use of the transgenic papaya has created
considerable virus pressure and there are already signs that the
papaya is "less disease-resistant than advertised." 43

For whom does the biotech bell toll?

Without having produced tangible benefits for small farmers, the
connection between ISAAA’s technology transfer projects and the
well-being of small farmers is a leap of faith. It is based on the
assumption that biotechnology per se is good for small farmers.
According to Dr Krattiger, "Feeding the world’s rapidly growing
population and stopping environmental degradation will require
agri-biotechnology."44 Yet many small farmers in Asia, such as those
consulted about ISAAA’s work for the purpose of this paper,45 do not
share this perspective at all (see box). Orly Marcellana, a farmer
from Quezon, the Philippines, echoes the cynicism that many farmers

Nobody from the government, nor from these companies, ever asked us
what our problems are. I'm sure they don't even care. All they want is
to make profit. For us farmers, it's a never ending story with these
improved seeds. Every time they are introducing a new "miracle"
variety, after some time it turns out to be not so miraculous after
all. And then, there they are with yet another "miracle" and again,
they promise us that we will be the first to benefit. But after all
these "miracles" our conditions are still the same. We are poor as
ever. Do they really think that the farmers still believe in these

The examples above illustrate ISAAA’s most critical failing: it has
never stopped to ask small farmers — its target group — what they
think the problems and solutions are, and what role, if any,
biotechnology can play. This raises fundamental questions about
ISAAA’s accountability and legitimacy.

A farmer’s eye view
Shaban Ali, Shekher Dair, Ishwardi, Pabna, Bangladesh

"Tell me, if I can do very well with my existing seeds, why should I
need laboratory seeds or the altered seeds (GMOs)? If I can conserve
my own seed, why would I be so stupid as to purchase seed from the
company? The problem is that farmers are helpless because government
and the scientists are collaborating with the companies to destroy us.
This is not science; it is politics. Science should start with the
knowledge of the farmers; what the present seeds are doing, and what
is possible to do in the future. It is not the task of science to
mutilate the generative capacity of seed, or to make a variety that is
a bizarre combination of characteristics. No sensible person will find
any justification in such act."

Pak Siawang, Jene'berang Village, Gowa, Indonesia:

"All technologies have some negative impacts and can marginalise
people, creating inequality. This is the same with genetic
engineering, of which we don't know and we are not being informed
properly about how it was produced, but it must have negative impacts,
just like the high-yielding variety seeds. We will be forced to buy
chemical fertilizers and pesticides, for which the prices always

Mr. Witoon Boonchado, President of Tung Kula Ronghai Farmers
Association, Roi Ed, Thailand

"The GE crops are happening because of the greed of TNCs. This cannot
give us any benefit. TNCs are the sole beneficiaries. There are many
alternatives and sustainable ways to solve farmers’ problems. By using
only organic fertilizer and traditional varieties we can improve both
yield and quality."

Rekha Begum, Village Kandapara, Delduar, Tangail, Bangladesh

''We lost our own seeds when company people and government officers
told us that Irri dhan (HYV rice variety) was good. Believing them we
not only lost our seeds, but we lost our fish because of pesticide,
lost our livestock because the fodder was reduced and the quality was
bad, and most importantly we lost our health. It took more than 10
years of hard work to reintroduce our varieties and we are far better
than before. Now the companies are talking about new types of seed
produced by bizarre manipulation (biotechnology) to cheat us again."

Jahanara Begum, Badarkhali, Chokoria, Bangladesh

Who needs these seeds? Do not [claim] that seeds produced in some
laboratory can feed the hungry. We want paradise on earth, not hell
created by seed companies, because we care for where we dwell with our
children and our extended family that includes our animals, birds,
plants and everything that is our life. We do not want more paddy by
destroying our dwelling and our community relation of love and
sharing. Companies should leave us alone; farmers know how to take
care of themselves and live happily.

Mrs. Nuan Namkiang, Roi Ed, Thailand

"I do not want to repeat the mistake made when farmers embraced the
Green Revolution some 20 years ago."

3. The business of charity

ISAAA’s projects aim to bring the benefits of biotechnology to where
they are purportedly needed most — developing countries. "Need", in
ISAAA’s logic, refers at once to poverty, which biotechnology is
supposed to help alleviate, and a lack of access to biotechnology,
which ISAAA will rectify by "contribut[ing] to self-reliance and
sustainability through national capacity building for the long
term."46 Despite the rhetoric, ISAAA’s projects show a remarkable lack
of concern for either the needs of the poor, as it would define them,
or national self-reliance and sustainability. ISAAA is all about a big
business agenda — the integration of Third World economies into a
biotechnology-driven market controlled by the North. This is best seen
at work in the way ISAAA handles the intellectual property hurdle of
technology transfer.

Under its intellectual property rights (IPR) program, ISAAA has a
straightforward agenda that follows a simple rationale: biotechnology
is largely the subject of private intellectual property rights in the
industrialized countries and therefore developing countries need to
honor these ownership rights if they want to access the technology.
ISAAA cannot succeed in its mission in Asia unless governments adopt
stronger intellectual property laws and unless scientists are willing
to negotiate licenses. So the task for ISAAA is to stimulate policy
reform and teach research administrators how to manage IPR in its
target countries.

The private sector owns the majority of the pieces required for any of
the biotechnological applications that hold so much promise for
farmers, particularly in the poorer areas of the developing world.
This is irrespective of Monsanto's announcement on April 3, 2000 that
it will make its rice genomics information freely available to
scientists. R David Kryder, P Kowalski and Anatole G Krattiger, ISAAA,

This is not an easy task. The issue of IPRs in relation to plant,
animal and human genes is becoming a minefield for policy makers. In
Europe, such debates have the highest level policymakers in a quandary
and political commitments frozen in their tracks.47 Meanwhile,
developing countries are fighting to reframe global IPR obligations in
relation to genetic resources under the World Trade Organization’s
agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights
(TRIPS). For Northern governments and the biotech industry that ISAAA
works with, the TRIPs agreement means — as a minimum — granting
patents on microorganisms and microbiological processes, as well as
some kind of legal protection over new plant varieties. Few developing
countries at WTO have fully implemented TRIPS because they see it as a
threat to food security and biodiversity.

In the absence of what it sees as adequate legislation, ISAAA focuses
on licensing strategies to facilitate access to proprietary technology
outside of the IPR system. This means that until the intellectual
property systems are in place in the poor countries, to protect the
rights of biotechnology patent holders in the rich countries, contract
law will have to prevail. In the words of Dr Krattiger:

ISAAA dedicates much of its resources to . . . brokering agreements
that fall outside the traditional IPR framework. The reason is . . .
that a large percentage of developing countries do not permit patents
on plants and animals. As a consequence, in order to develop new
channels of technology transfer, it is imperative to develop new
systems initially based on trust and with time ISAAA believes that
such agreements will become modus operandi. Considering the private
sector’s understandable reluctance to donate expensive technologies
for free, ISAAA invests much of its resources to building trust in the
private sector by gradually increasing the complexity of transfer

The complexity of moving proprietary technology around the life
industry is mind-boggling. The infamous pro-Vitamin A rice which is
being promoted as salvation for millions of malnourished women and
children across the Third World purportedly carries no less than 70
patents on it.49 By the time it moves from Switzerland, where it was
developed, to a country like Bangladesh, where it is supposed to be
commercialized for free, a huge number of licenses and agreements must
be negotiated, according to ISAAA, to prevent Bangladeshi farmers from
having to pay all the costs of research that went into it. Quite apart
from the headaches a process like this entails, no one involved in
promoting this technology is asking the farmers if they want it in the
first place, and few are questioning whether this kind of intellectual
property tangle is legitimate at all. More fundamentally, there is a
profound mismatch between the privatization of agricultural research
and the pursuit of the public good. Achieving one through the other is
essentially impossible. But ISAAA is attempting it anyway. It trains
people how to buckle up, face the music of the TNCs who demand the
kind of market control afforded to them through IPR, and tries to
support them in the IPR quagmire. In so doing, ISAAA actively promotes
the expansion of the patent system to the life sciences.

ISAAA has gone a step further than simply dealing with licenses and
transfer agreements. It is also taking it upon itself to secure its
own intellectual property rights over technologies it deems relevant
for Asia’s poor in the name of Asia’s poor. In April and August of
this year, ISAAA filed two separate US trademark applications on the
words "Golden Rice". It claims to have done this "to ensure that the
name GoldenRiceä remains in the public domain for the benefit of
resource-poor farmers."50 Who in the community of nations authorized
an entity like ISAAA to secure private rights over the Golden Rice
name for the purpose of ensuring its public domain status — if that
makes sense — is a mystery. How resource-poor farmers will benefit
from this operation is even more obscure.


ISAAA appears to be successfully influencing the development of
biotechnology in Asia. It has brought together a large number of
scientists and officials, generated enthusiasm among them for
biotechnology by sending them to cutting-edge US facilities, and then
trained them to be excellent spokespersons for the needs of this
industry. This advocacy network is active in science, government,
business, education and media throughout the region. ISAAA is
influencing the course of public policy development related to genetic
engineering in the region, encouraging US-style biosafety and
intellectual property regimes.

ISAAA is a valuable tool for the biotech industry. On the one hand, it
supports a constant stream of public relations exercises to propagate
hype about humanitarian motives behind biotechnology. On the other
hand, it concentrates on generating the proper business climate for
the biotech industry’s market expansion in important developing
countries. It is not surprising, then, that the industry provides
funding and other resources to ISAAA and plays an important role in
directly governing the institution.

>From the standpoint of farmers in the region however, ISAAA’s
operation suffers from numerous drawbacks. Too many of ISAAA’s
premises are based on vested interests. If the problem ISAAA seeks to
address is poverty in Asia’s farming sector, biotechnology is not the
right starting point. Many farmers do not believe that biotech will
improve their conditions at all. ISAAA’s suggestion that North and
South, private and public can be treated as "equal partners"51 is
strategically erroneous. As Perfecto Vicente, a farmer from Davao del
Norte in the southern Philippines, explains:

Since farmers are not involved in the development of biotechnology, it
will always lead to the control of resources and control of benefits
by the companies. When it comes to planting GMOs, it will seem like
the farmer is the co-producer but when it comes to equity, the farmer
is at the losing end since corporations have carefully computed their
earnings from such a venture and they will make money even if the
farmer’s crop fails. Farmers will be mere suppliers of raw materials
while the companies will be the processors because they hold the
technology and they have capital.

ISAAA’s agenda will only make conditions worse for small farmers.
Biotechnology is controlled by foreign agribusiness whose interests
are diametrically opposed to the needs of small farmers. Small farmers
need sustainable, inexpensive technologies that do not come with high
risks, or generate dependency on foreign companies. ISAAA’s technology
projects, despite their modest nature and especially because of their
larger intent, offer no practical help to small farmers.

Finally, there is a very serious problem of accountability permeating
ISAAA’s operations. ISAAA uses the poverty of small farmers in Asia to
pursue its own agenda. The institution is not transparent and cannot
be since it carries responsibility for corporate security, both in its
constitution and in the deals it brokers. What it boils down to is
that, through ISAAA, industry is using local people — from illustrious
scientists to anonymous small farmers — across Asia to promote
biotechnology and expand markets for its own benefit. Unfortunately,
more than just being used by ISAAA, small farmers are also being put
at risk. Biotechnology comes packed with both environmental and
socioeconomic threats that will be borne primarily by the farmers.
They are the ones who will feel any negative health or ecological
impacts most acutely and they are the ones who will face the
consequences if the crops fail or promised markets disappear.

ISAAA is pushing a much broader agenda than the donation of private
technology — one that benefits industry from the North while offering
no clear benefits to the South. Rather than accept the gifts of
high-tech papayas, people of all walks in Asia should filter out the
hype and make a much more critical assessment of what biotechnology,
and its agents like ISAAA, really have to do with "development".

------ ----


ISAAA Donors

AgrEvo, Germany
Agricultural Biotechnology for Sustainable Productivity (ABSP), USA
Anonymous Donor Australian Centre for International Research (ACIAR)
Australian International Development Assistance Bureau (ADAB)
Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), UK
Bundesministerium fur wirtschaftliche Zusamnarbelt (BMZ), Germany
Cargill Seeds, USA Conselho Nacional de Desencolcimento Cientifico a
tecnologic (CNPQ), Brazil Danish International Development Agency
(DANIDA) Dow AgroSciences, USA East-West Seed Co., Thailand Gatsby
Charitable Foundation, UK Gemeinschaft fur technische Zusamenarbeit
(GTZ), Germany Hitachi Foundation, Japan/USA International Development
Research Centre (IDRC), Canada KWS, Germany McKnight Foundation, USA
Monsanto Company, USA Novartis Seeds, Switzerland Pioneer Hi-Bred
International, USA Rockefeller Foundation, USA Schering AG, Germany
Stockholm Environment Institute, Sweden Swedish International
Development Agency (SIDA), Sweden Swiss Agency for Development and
Cooperation (SDC), Switzerland United Nations Environment Programme
(UNEP) United States Agency for International Development (USAID)
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) William Brown Resources
Development Foundation, USA

ISAAA Current Board of Directors

Clive James (Chair)
Jasper E. Van Zanten (Vice-Chair)
Ronnie Coffman, Associate Dean of Research, Cornell University, USA
Wally Beversdorf, Head of Biotechnology R&D, Novartis Seeds R.N. (Sam)
Dryden, Jr., Big Stone Partners, Private-sector Committee of the
CGIAR, USA Richard B. Flavell, Chief Scientist, CERES USA Robert D.
Havener, Emeritus President of Winrock International and Board of
Directors of ICARDA Cyrus Ndirirtu, Director, Kenya Agricultural
Research Institute (KARI), Kenya Gabrielle Persley, Executive
Director, AusBiotech, Australia Vo-Tung Xuan, Professor of Agronomy,
CanTho University, Vietnam

Former Directors

Robert T. Fraley, Head of Biotechnology, Monsanto
William Padolina, Deputy Director-General, IRRI
Eduardo Trigo, President ArgenInta Foundation, Argentina


Norman Borlaug, USA
Gordon Goodman, UK
Jiro Kondo, Japan
Thomas Odhiambo, Kenya
M. S. Swaminathan, India

Participants from Southeast Asia Involved in ISAAA’s activities


Joko Budianto (Agency of Agriculture R&D)
Diani Damayanti (CRIH)
Sudarmadi Purnomo (Research Institute for Fruits)
Lilik Setyobudi (Research Institute for Fruits)
Eri Sofiari (CRIH)
Sumarno (CRIFC)


Umi Kalsom Abu Bakar (MARDI)
Chan Ying Kwok (MARDI)
Lam Peng Fatt (MARDI)
Low Fee Chon (Rubber Research Institute)
Hassan Bin Mat Daud (MARDI)
Ong Ching Ang (MARDI)
Vilasini Pillai (MARDI)
Raveendranathan P. (MARDI)
Vijaysegaran a/I Shanmugam (MARDI)

The Philippines:

Vermando M Aquino (IPB)
Emerenciana Duran (Philippine Nuclear Research Institute)
Eduardo Fernandez (IPB)
Rogelio A. Panlasigui (DOST and Chairman of NCBP)
Lolita Valencia (IPB)
Ruben L. Villareal (UPLB)
Violeta N. Villegas (IPB)
Agnes F. Zamora (UPLB)


Supat Attathom (BIOTEC)
Chalongchai Babpraset (Kasetsart University)
Sakarindr Bhumiratana (BIOTEC)
Parichart Burns (BIOTEC)
Watchareewan Jamboonsri (BIOTEC)
Wichai Kositratana (Kasetsart University)
Chatree Pitakpaivan (Ag. Consultant)
Sutat Sriwatanapongse (BIOTEC)
Thira Sutabutra (Kasetsart University)
Wichar Thitiprasert (DOA)


Lam Dai Nhan (Institute of Plant Breeding)
Le TranhBinh (Institute of Biotechnology)
Nguyen Huy Hoang (Institute of Plant Breeding)
Pham Xuan Liem (Nat Centre for Variety Evaluation and Seed Cert.) Tran
Thi Oahn Yen (Southern Fruit Research Institute) Truong Dinh Khang
(Ministry of Science, Tech., and Enviro.) Vo Tong Xuan (CanTho

ISAAA in Asia

Promoting corporate profits in the name of the poor

was researched by Devlin Kuyek for a group of organizations and
individuals cooperating in a joint project on current trends in
agricultural R&D which will affect small farmers in Asia. The
organizations participating in this research project are Biothai
(Thailand), GRAIN, KMP (Philippines), MASIPAG (Philippines), PAN
Indonesia, Philippine Greens and UBINIG (Bangladesh). Also
participating in their individual capacities are Drs. Romeo Quijano
(UP Manila, College of Medicine, Philippines) and Oscar B. Zamora (UP
Los Baños, College of Agriculture, Philippines).

The many people who gave time and information to the preparation of
this paper are gratefully acknowledged.

Published jointly in October 2000.
This material, in full or in part, may be reproduced freely.

Comments on the paper may be addressed to Devlin Kuyek at


1. Based on the sales (within the respective sectors) of the top 100
food and beverage companies, the top 10 agrochemical companies, and
the top 10 seed companies in the world. Sources: Seymour Cooke Food
Research International, "The World’s 100 Food and Beverage
Corporations", 2000; Agrow, World Crop Protection News, April 16, 1999
and September 17, 1999; and RAFI. 2. While some of the information
below comes from personal communication with ISAAA representatives and
individuals associated with ISAAA, the researcher for this paper
regrets that ISAAA, and particularly its SEAsia Center, did not or
would not respond to many of his inquiries. 3. On August 31, 2000,
Anatole Krattiger resigned as Executive Director of ISAAA. The
position of Executive Director has now been abolished and split into
two: David Alvarez of Cornell University has become the Director of
Administration and Gabrielle Persley, an advisor to the World Bank,
has become the Director of Programs. Dr Krattiger continues to work in
Ithaca, New York, where he now runs his own consultancy firm,
bioDevelopments LLC. 4. Clive James, "Progressing Public-Private
Sector Partnerships in International Agricultural Research and
Development. ISAAA Briefs, No. 4, ISAAA, Ithaca, New York, 1997, p.
19. 5. ISAAA, "Three Year External Review," 1994. Accessed from the
World Wide Web at on July 4, 2000. 6.
IRRI and ISAAA collaborate in several activities. While IRRI
scientists participate in ISAAA seminars, Dr Hautea is a resource
person for IRRI’s Asia Rice Biotechnology Network. Dr Hautea is even
on IRRI’s staff list at its website. 7. ISAAA, This is ISAAA, April
2000, ISAAA, Ithaca, New York, p. 3. 8. Except where indicated, the
information is sourced from ISAAA publications. 9. Personal
communication from Duncan Macintosh, Head of Public Awareness at IRRI,
October 2, 2000. 10. R. Hautea, Y.K. Chan, S. Attathom, and A.F.
Krattiger, "The Papaya Biotechnology Network of Southeast Asia:
Biosafety Considerations and Papaya Background Information," ISAAA
Briefs, No. 11, ISAAA, Ithaca, New York, 1999, p. 2. 11. ISAAA, ISAAA
Biennial Report 1997-1999, ISAAA, Ithaca, New York, 1999, p. 7. 12.
D.P. Alvarez, "Connecting People to the Promise of Biotech: Update of
the ISAAA Fellowship Program in Africa and Southeast Asia," ISAAA
Briefs, No. 15, ISAAA, New York, 2000, p. 1. 13. D.P. Alvarez,
"Connecting People to the Promise of Biotech: Update of the ISAAA
Fellowship Program in Africa and Southeast Asia," ISAAA Briefs, No.
15, ISAAA, New York, 2000, p. 4. 14. Dr Villareal is a member of the
IRRI-Asian Development Bank Asia Rice Biotechnology Network. 15. Dr
Ruben L Villareal, "Closing Remarks", D.L. Umali Memorial Lecture
(Biotechnology Forum), Ortigas, 10 March 2000. Retrieved from on
October 2, 2000. 16. Duncan Macintosh, IRRI, personal communication,
October 8, 2000. 17. R. Hautea, Y.K. Chan, S. Attathom, and A.F.
Krattiger, op. cit., pp. 58-59. 18. ISAAA, This is ISAAA, op. cit., p.
2. 19. Peter Commandeur, "Private-Public Cooperation in Transgenic
Virus-resistant Potatoes: Monsanto, USA-Cinestav, Mexico,"
Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 28, September 1996, p. 15.
20. M. Qaim, "Transgenic Virus Resistant Potatoes in Mexico: Potential
Socioeconomic Implications of North-South Biotechnology Transfer,"
ISAAA Briefs, No. 7, Ithaca, New York, 1998, p. 28. 21. Peter
Commandeur, op. cit., p. 18. 22. M. Qaim, op. cit., p. 8 and p. 23.
23. Ibid., p. 10. 24. Ibid., p. 7. 25. Ibid., p. 26. 26. Ibid., p. 13.
27. Idem. 28. Ibid., p. 1. 29. Ibid, p. 18. 30. Peter Commandeur, op.
cit., p. 18. 31. US 5939600 32. ISAAA, ISAAA Biennial Report
1997-1999, ISAAA, Ithaca, New York, 1999, p. 36. 33. R. Hautea, Y.K.
Chan, S. Attathom, and A.F. Krattiger, op. cit., p. 2. 34. ISAAA,
ISAAA Biennial Report 1997-1999, op. cit, p. 17. 35. R. Hautea, Y.K.
Chan, S. Attathom, and A.F. Krattiger, op. cit., p. 92. 36. Eksotika I
sells for RM 1,000 (US$ 263) per kilo and Eksotika II, a hybrid, sells
for RM 3,000 (US$ 790) per kilo. 37. R. Hautea, Y.K. Chan, S.
Attathom, and A.F. Krattiger, op. cit., pp. 24-26. 38. Ibid., p. 89.
39. Press Release from the State of Hawai’i, Office of Governor
Benjamin Cayetano, October 28, 1998. Retrieved from on August 17, 2000. 40. "Big
Isle papaya crops tainted", Hawaii Tribune-Herald, April 7, 2000,
Front Page. 41. Witoon Lianchamroon, personal communication, October
10, 2000. 42. Carol Kaesuk Yoon, "Stalked by deadly virus, papaya
lives to breed again," New York Times, July 20, 1999. For further
information see: A. Greene, R.F. Allison, "Recombination between viral
RNA and transgenic plant transcripts," Science 263, 1994, pp.
1423-1425, and H. Lecoq, et al., "Aphid transmission of a non-aphid
transmissible strain of zucchini yellow potyvirus from transgenic
plants expressing the capsid protein of plum pox potyvirus," Molecular
Plant-Microbe Interactions 6, 1993, p. 403. 43. "Big Isle papaya crops
tainted", op. cit. 44. ISAAA, ISAAA Biennial Report 1997-1999, op.
cit., p. 9. Emphasis added. 45. The quotes from the farmers were
gathered by the participants in this research project. 46. ISAAA,
"Three Year External Review," op. cit. 47. After twelve arduous years
of debate, the European Union was supposed to implement its directive
on biotechnology patenting by mid-2000. Only three countries of the 15
did so. Two are trying to get the directive scrapped at the European
Court of Justice and at least two others are suggesting renegotiation.
48. A. Krattiger, "Insect Resistance in Crops: A case study of Bt and
its transfer to developing countries," ISAAA Briefs, No. 2, ISAAA,
Ithaca, New York, 1997, pp. 24-25. 49. See R. David Kryder, Stanley P.
Kowalski and Anatole F. Krattiger, "The Intellectual and Technical
Property Components of pro-Vitamin A Rice: A Preliminary
Freedom-To-Operate Review", ISAAA Briefs, No. 20, ISAAA, Ithaca NY,
2000. 50. Ibid, p. x. 51. Anatole F. Krattiger, "An Overview of ISAAA
from 1992 to 2000", ISAAA Briefs, No. 19, ISAAA, Ithaca NY, 2000, p.

Mark Ritchie, President
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
2105 First Ave. South
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55404  USA
612-870-3400 (phone) 612-870-4846 (fax)

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