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 Editorial: The unpredictability of biotechnology
 
Keywords:  Substitution; Socio-economic impact.
Correct citation: nn. (1995), "Editorial: The unpredictability of biotechnology." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 23, p. 2-3.

In recent years, it appears that the expected positive impact of biotechnology for developing countries has been at the centre of the international debate far more than the possible negative impact. However, until a few years ago, biotechnology was clearly perceived as a double­edged sword: increasing productivity and creating business opportunities on the one hand and causing substitution, increasing competition and dependence on Northern technology on the other. During this period, a whole range of studies appeared, such as those of different United Nations organizations.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, for example, conducted several technology assessment studies. The main conclusions were that although the (export) opportunities created by biotechnology are of great importance, this potential may not be realized due to secrecy and confidentiality characterizing private and also, increasingly, public institutions. Furthermore, the ability of developing countries to realize the potential of biotechnology depends on the size and quality of their investment in adaptive research and development. At the same time, the studies indicated that due to substitution, among other factors, there is less demand for raw materials on the world market. In this Monitor issue, the impact of biotechnology in the context of both the domestic and the international environment will be illustrated by the case of the Philippines coconut sector.

The question is why attention for the possible negative impact has decreased. First of all, it is often stated that substitution is not a new phenomenon. In the past, substitution of, for instance, cotton by synthetic material, took place without biotechnology. Additionally, the current low world market prices for raw materials make substitution through biotechnology less profitable. Nevertheless, the availability of biotechnological alternatives might create a pressure on the world market prices.

Biotechnology might add a new chapter to the history of substitution since countries are much more integrated in and dependent on the world economy: once commercialized, biotechnology can facilitate a much faster switch to a new raw material base than in other historical periods, while alternatives for earning foreign exchange look more limited now than in the past.

The effects of substitution may in fact be aggravated by the increasing competition as a result of biotechnology, which takes place not only between Northern and Southern countries, but also within the South. The diffusion of biotechnology does not take place at the same speed in all countries and results in an unequal distribution of new production processes. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, only about ten developing countries have major biotechnology research programmes. Countries that are able to introduce the new technologies at a faster pace will consequently have a chance to increase their market share, thereby displacing others as exporters.

A second reason for the decreased attention for the potential negative impact are methodological problems which are encountered when assessing the long­term effects of biotechnology. An example is how to take into account all the different domestic and international political and economic factors that influence the research direction and application of biotechnology. Strangely enough, although critical assessments of both positive and negative impacts are affected equally by the same methodological limitations, in practise this does seem to hinder the studies on negative impacts more than those on positive impacts. In an attempt to overcome some of the methodological problems, scenarios are used in this and the next Monitor in order to analyze the future developments of biotechnology in the vegetable oils and fats sector.



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