Transferring Expertise and Building Capacities in Agri-biotechnology:
The experience of CamBioTec
Javier Verástegui
Keywords:  Policies/Programmes; Canada; Latin America/Caribbean; Relation public-private sector; Technology transfer.
Correct citation: Verástegui, J. (1999), "Transferring Expertise and Building Capacities in Agri-biotechnology: The experience of CamBioTec." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 39, p. 2-7.

The Canada-Latin America Initiative on Biotechnology for Sustainable Development (CamBioTec) is an international collaboration to foster commercialization of modern biotechnologies in Latin America. Capacity building for this purpose is an important aspect of the programme and it goes beyond the export of specific technologies from Canada to Latin America.

Biotechnology has the potential to increase food production, reduce the dependency of agriculture on chemicals, lower the cost of raw materials, and reduce the negative environmental impacts associated with conventional production methods. However, the rapid development of commercial biotechnology might widen the technological and economic gap between industrialized nations and developing countries. If this is to be avoided, developing countries’ private and public sectors are confronted with a multitude of challenges:
•  how to establish suitable regulatory systems in order to participate as exporters/importers in the growing and competitive international trade of new agri-food biotechnology products; 
•  how to rapidly assimilate biotechnology skills in order to commercialize country-specific applications;
•  how to ensure that the potential risks to human health and the environment derived from the commercial use of agri-food bioproducts are duly assessed and managed;
•  how to increase the local level of public awareness and acceptance of these products;
For Latin America, several bottlenecks in achieving these goals have been identified, such as lack of special skills on bioindustry innovation management, lack of technical and market information, weak and unarticulated regulatory and promotional policies, and weak capacities to monitor and evaluate the costs, benefits and risks of biotechnology. Since the late 1980s, some of these issues have been addressed individually for several Latin American countries by research projects sponsored by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) of Canada.

CamBioTec’s objectives and capacity building activities
To build synergistic effects from the research results obtained so far, IDRC created CamBioTec in 1995 with a total grant of US$ 0.7 million for a duration of three years. In 1998, IDRC renewed its support for a second phase with a grant of US$ 0.35 million up to October 2000; up to then, the CamBioTec initiative has to become self-financed. This initiative is intended as a mechanism to facilitate the commercial introduction of biotechnology applications in the agricultural and environmental sectors of selected Latin American countries in a sustainable way. CamBioTec operates as a network of six focal-point institutions established in the participant countries (see box). Institutions were selected according to the links they had already established with the local biotechnology communities. CamBioTec’s strategy is to support the national efforts of Latin American countries by learning from Canadian biotechnology policy experiences.

CamBioTec’s collaborating institutions and companies

CamBioTec has established the following six focal points
•  Canada: BIOTECanada (formerly the Canadian Institute of Biotechnology-CIB);
•  Mexico: the Instituto de Ingeniería at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM);
•  Argentina: Foro Argentino de Biotecnología(FAB); 
•  Colombia: Fundación Andina para el Desarrollo Tecnológico y Social (TECNOS); 
•  Chile: Comisión Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (CONICYT);
•  Cuba: Centro de Ingeniería Genética y Biotecnología (CIGB).

CamBioTec has developed projects co-funded with Canadian public institutions, such as the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), Agriculture & Agri-food Canada, Industry Canada and Environment Canada. Likewise, CamBioTec has established partnerships with other international agencies or networks that are involved
in biotechnology capacity building, such as the Intermediary Biotechnology Service (IBS) at the International Service for National Agricultural Research (ISNAR); the Latin American Cooperation Network of Plant Biotechnology (REDBIO) sponsored by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO); the Ibero-American Network of Biotechnology Linking and Development (REVYDET), sponsored by Spain’s Ibero-American Cooperation Program in Science and Technology (CYTED); and the Canadian bureau of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation in Agriculture (IICA).
Finally, CamBioTec has also developed partnerships with private Canadian bioindustry firms and associations, such as Ag-West Biotech Inc., BioAtlantech, Ontario Agri-Food Technologies, AgrEvo Canada, Monsanto Life Sciences Canada, Advanta Seeds Canada (formerly Zeneca Seeds), which are willing to enter the Latin American markets.

Source: http://www.biotech.ca/

In Canada, knowledge exists in building a strong biotechnology community with collaborative links between industry, government and research institutions. In 1998, the country was ranked second in the world, after the USA, in terms of companies using modern biotechnology (282), numbers of employees (over 10,000), revenues (over US$ 800 million), and research and development (R&D) expenditures (almost US$ 400 million). Canada’s sales of agri-food biotechnology products almost equal its sales of biotechnology-based health care products.
CamBioTec’s objectives target strategic areas to foster commercial biotechnology development:
•  setting national R&D priorities in biotechnology;
•  strengthening public policies in biotechnology;
•  strengthening the management of innovation at the research and industry levels;
•  fostering strategic alliances between Canadian and Latin American firms/institutions;
The first three objectives involves general training activities such as seminars, courses, workshops, state-of-the-art publications and specific studies. The fourth objective involves brokering the direct transfer of expertise and technology from individual Canadian firms to Latin American ones, as well as between Latin American firms. For all these aims, capacities have to be built up.
For CamBioTec, the term ‘capacity building’ means improving the level of knowledge, expertise and skills of Latin American government officers, researchers and industry managers directly involved in the promotion, development, regulation, manufacturing and commercialization of biotechnology products. In order to implement capacity building activities, CamBioTec first identifies the specific experts, institutions and firms that have the required expertise; then it obtains financial support from local, Canadian and international sponsors; and finally it organizes and conducts the corresponding training events. Capacity building areas include:
•  methodologies for setting national priorities for R&D in biotechnology;
•  biosafety regulations of agri-food biotechnology products;
•  public perception and acceptance of agri-food biotechnology products;
•  management and commercialization of biotechnology innovations;
•  environmental biotechnology applications.
In many cases, the training events include a final session of partnering meetings, whereby the experts have an opportunity to establish links and explore alliances with their Latin American partners. This approach has been successful in involving the participation of experts from industry associations or from individual firms. In the biosafety area, private Canadian firms have provided support, such as training expertise and facilities, because they are interested in the rapid establishment of harmonized biosafety regulatory systems in selected Latin American countries.

South-South capacity building
Aside from commercial partnerships, CamBioTec is also engaged in the dissemination of knowledge and the building of capacity within the region. For instance, the Mexican focal point at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) developed a methodology to set R&D priorities for biotechnology, which was then transferred to the other focal points. The methodology involves the organization of national sectoral commissions, for instance on plant, animal, or food biotechnology, composed by qualified senior scientists, technologists, government managers, and industry experts, who are selected through consultation with public and private institutions. First, the commissions develop classified and ranked matrixes of potential sectoral applications of biotechnology to the particular conditions of the country. Then, impact matrixes are elaborated to identify and rank the required generic areas of knowledge. In a third step, gaps are identified to establish the sectoral matrixes with the priority technology objectives for the country. Finally, a national workshop is organized to discuss the reports of the commissions and to agree on the national priorities. In 1996, with the technical assistance of Mexican experts, the Argentinean focal point decided to implement the CamBioTec priority-setting methodology and organized a series of national exercises in three areas of biotechnology application: plant agriculture, animal agriculture, and agri-food processes. Representatives of Argentinean industry, academia and government participated in these exercises and discussions, the results of which were adopted in 1998 by Argentina’s Secretary of Science and Technology (SECYT). The R&D biotechnology priorities for the agriculture and agri-food sectors are now under implementation. Besides Argentina, the CamBioTec priority-setting methodology has also been applied in the state of Chihuahua in Mexico (1996), and in Colombia (1997).

Efforts on public policies and biosafety regulation
CamBioTec has contributed to training events on several issues of public policy, such as assessing impacts of agri-food biotechnologies, and legislation to access genetic resources. Furthermore, in 1998, the focal points of CamBioTec in Canada, Argentina and Chile implemented a capacity building programme in biosafety and public awareness of agri-food biotechnology products. This project, entitled ‘Biotechnology Development in the Southern Cone’ is in response to the needs of the local biosafety regulatory agencies and the bioindustry community in these countries. It is financially sponsored by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and it focuses on three capacity building areas:
•  biosafety information systems;
•  biosafety regulatory systems, and risk assessment and management skills;
•  public awareness of the benefits and risks of agri-food biotechnology products.
Besides the participation of the focal points of CamBioTec, the project involves the participation of national regulatory agencies from Canada, Argentina, and Chile. Furthermore, a number of Canadian national and regional bioindustry associations and individual bioindustry firms are collaborating with the project (see box), either hosting the trainees or providing experts for training events in the Southern Cone. The training is customized to the particular Argentinean and Chilean situations and needs. In Chile, biosafety regulation is limited to transgenic crops entering the country for seed multiplication and re-export. Thus, Chilean trainees acquire more general knowledge of the biosafety policies, regulations, guidelines and regulatory infrastructure, and learn about the procedures for field tests of transgenic plants.
On the other hand, in Argentina, biosafety regulations are already in place and several transgenic crops, especially herbicide-resistant soybean, have been approved for commercial applications. In this case, training focused on specific issues, such as resistance management for Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) transgenic crops by planting refugee plots. This concept is now being tested by the Argentinean trainees at the National Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA).

Strengthening skills in innovation management
To successfully convert an innovative idea or research results into a commercial product in the marketplace, researchers and entrepreneurs need to have certain innovation management skills. For example, they must be able to:
•  design R&D plans;
protect or license Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs);
•  build research-industry interface links;
•  access complementary expertise and technology by strategic alliances;
•  obtain financial resources for product development and commercialization;
•  market biotechnology products.
In Latin America, many researchers and entrepreneurs still lack these skills. To fill this gap, CamBioTec has organized several events, with the participation of Latin American, Canadian and international experts and entrepreneurs. As well as the topics mentioned above, special attention was drawn to the management of environmental biotechnology, which provides an important area of innovation opportunities in all productive sectors.

Promoting business opportunities in biotechnology
CamBioTec has promoted awareness of the business opportunities offered by biotechnology applications in Latin America, and has encouraged direct contacts between biotechnology entrepreneurs from Latin America and Canada. In this sense, capacity building means facilitating the development of strategic alliances, in which two individual firms agree to share technical or commercial knowledge to obtain economic benefits. CamBioTec has concluded that in Latin America the R&D capacities of public and private companies are not sufficient to develop the relevant biotechnologies on their own. Thus, strategic alliances with firms that have advanced or complementary biotechnologies or management skills are being actively promoted through brokering activities. CamBioTec identifies specific technological or commercial offers and demands from Canadian and Latin American firms and institutions. Towards this end, CamBioTec and BIOTECanada have joined forces with a variety of partners and sponsors, including federal departments (Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada, Industry Canada, Environment Canada), regional bioindustry associations and individual firms in order to ensure the participation of Canadian experts and entrepreneurs. The alliances involve Canadian and Latin American firms within a wide spectrum of:
•  biotechnology areas, such as aquaculture, plant agriculture, environmental remediation, human health care, human diagnostics;
•  types of agreements, such as technology transfer, joint R&D, specialized technical services, distribution of products, commercial sales;
•  types of organizations involved, such as industrial firms, clinical labs, research centres, universities.
Over 50 specific, firm-to-firm contacts have been initiated, about twelve of which have already been concluded with signed agreements. For instance, the Canadian company Philom Bios Inc. has signed a strategic alliance with PROQUISA (Mexico) to develop and commercialize a new organic bioactive compound that has the properties of PROQUISA’s plant growth promoter and of Philom Bios’ soil inoculant for pulse crops. In another cooperation, POS Corporation (Canada) provides analytical services to the Chilean company Gattavara-NORPOL to certify the quality of Dunaliella algae rich in beta-carotene for export to the USA and other countries. Furthermore, alliances have been signed between firms of different Latin American countries.

Evaluation of CamBioTec’s capacity building activities
In early 1998, CamBioTec was externally reviewed. According to this review, the programme has been successfully building communications and relations between Canadian and Latin American biotechnology industry firms. However, the programme was perceived to be biased towards helping more the general Canadian business interests in the region.
In terms of capacity building, CamBioTec is recognized as a valuable source of information and support to public policy in biotechnology. It has effectively contributed to biosafety oversight in Argentina and Chile. However, priority-setting exercises have had a direct impact only in Argentina, where the CamBioTec contribution is explicitly acknowledged in the national biotechnology plan. From a country perspective, the programme was therefore most successful in Argentina, because of the good relationship with policy making bodies, and the solid institutional basis.
The evaluation also highlighted some shortcomings of the programme, such as: a weak institutional basis in some countries; a certain dispersion of activities; insufficient socioeconomic research and direct applications of biotechnology; a lack of sustainable development activities; a lack of activities to enhance public awareness; and failure to provide sufficient information on CamBioTec to the media. These shortcomings are currently being addressed within the second phase of the programme.
As a final conclusion, CamBioTec has developed into a successful network of people with capabilities to promote biotechnology commercialization through capacity building for policy design and management, and also broker joint ventures between companies and governmental agencies. The Latin American biotechnology communities have benefited from CamBioTec’s capacity building activities, mainly in the areas of biosafety, policy development and brokerage of alliances. These commercialization activities have had a positive, catalytic impact at the research community level by creating awareness and windows of opportunity for the commercialization of biotechnology innovations. In the future, more efforts should be made to build capacities at the research level, particularly in socioeconomic impact studies. CamBioTec also needs to broaden the political basis of its focal points by incorporating more stakeholders from biotechnology industry associations; to exploit synergy of the network; to articulate and negotiate projects focused on capacity building; and to increase the importance of environmental issues and public awareness. Finally, CamBioTec has to become self-financing by the end of 2000.
Javier Verástegui

CamBioTec-Canada, BIOTECanada, 420-130 Albert St., Ottawa, ON, Canada K1P 5G4.
Phone (+1) 613 235 14 02;  Fax (+1) 613 233 75 41;
E-mail jverastegui@biotech.ca

CamBioTec (1997), Prioridades en investigación y desarrollo en biotecnología para los sectores agropecuario y agroalimentario. Buenos Aires, Argentina: FAB.

CamBioTec (1998), Logros 1995-1997, Report of Achievements. Mexico, D.F., Mexico: Instituto de Ingeniería-UNAM.

Groote, J., Hough P. and Walter R., (1999), Canadian Biotechnology’98: success from excellence. BIOTECanada’s First Report on the Canadian Biotechnology Industry. Ottawa, Canada: BIOTECanada Association.

Jaffé, W. (1998), CamBioTec as a vehicle to promote biotechnology in the Americas. Final Consultancy Report. Ottawa, Canada: IDRC.

Solleiro, J. (1994), Canada-Latin America Initiative of Biotechnology for the Sustainable Development. Proposal document. Ottawa, Canada: IDRC.

Contributions to the Biotechnology and Development Monitor are not covered by any copyright. Exerpts may be translated or reproduced without prior permission (with exception of parts reproduced from third sources), with  acknowledgement of source.


back to top
monitor homepage
index of this issue
contact us