Biotechnology in the Rockefeller Foundation’s new course of action

Interview with Gordon Conway and Gary Toenniessen

Keywords:  Genetic enginering, plant production, rice, added value plants, Non-governmental organizations, Foundations
Correct citation: Lehmann, V. (2001), "Biotechnology in the Rockefeller Foundation’s new course of action." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 44/45, p. 15-19.

The Rockefeller Foundation (RF) is a US philanthropic institution that was instrumental in shaping the Green Revolution. In 1998, the Foundation adopted a new programme strategy especially to target poor and marginalized people throughout the world. The Monitor spoke to the president, Gordon Conway, and the director of the food security programme, Gary Toenniessen, on the implications of this new course for agricultural research and biotechnology.

Monitor: Mr. Conway, your recent book calls for a doubly Green Revolution. What does this idea entail?
Conway: The idea of a doubly Green Revolution came about because we know we need to enhance food production over the next 30 years just as we did in previous decades to keep up with population increase. We also know that we are running out of land on which we can expand agriculture, so food production has to be expanded by increased yields. Essentially we need another Green Revolution. But we also know that the new Green Revolution has to be more environmentally sustainable. We have to avoid the problems of pesticides and the overuse of fertilizers. And we have to have a greater diversity of cropping systems. However, equally important is that a second Green Revolution should reach the poor. The previous Green Revolution did benefit the poor, in part, because prices for food were lowered, but it did not bring universal improvement. That is why we have 800 million people chronically undernourished now. The people by-passed, for instance, are those living in urban areas, poor people in the Green Revolution lands, and those groups who live on marginal lands. Therefore, the new Green Revolution is going to aim at these groups as well.
Monitor: Does this mean that your programme will no longer target farmers who have already profited from the first Green Revolution? Or just that it will no longer exclude marginalized farmers?
Toenniessen: There has been a shift away from tackling both groups of farmers. For instance, a lot of our rice biotechnology programme was concerned with further improvements for farmers on the Green Revolution lands. With Mr. Conway’s arrival in 1998, we have focused more on those farmers who have benefited very little so far from the Green Revolution.
Conway: Presently our priority is to tackle the big problems that poor farmers face, such as drought, salinity, or Striga weed in Africa.
Monitor: In dealing with these problems, what will be the role of biotechnology for the Foundation?
Conway: We have to distinguish between the different kinds of biotechnology, of which at least three are important. The first one is tissue culture to cross species that would only very rarely cross in nature. For instance, there are two different species of Oryza, the African and the Asian rice. The African rice grows vigorously in dry conditions and smothers weeds. By crossing two species the rice starts out as African rice and then becomes like Asian rice with high yields. The second is marker-aided selection. This technique helps to identify a gene in normal crossbreeding. For example breeding against rice blast, a rice disease common in Asia, would traditionally involve growing the plant and then infecting it with blast to see whether it is resistant. Using molecular markers the whole procedure is accelerated because this process detects whether the resistance gene is present in a new cross without actually going through the whole plant cycle. The third is genetic engineering, which is used if it is not possible to transfer certain genes by traditional means. This is the case with the beta-carotene enhanced or so-called Golden Rice. Pro-vitamin A or beta-carotene occurs in the entire rice plant except in the grain. However, it was not possible to enhance it in the rice grain using traditional means.
Monitor: Golden Rice has attracted a lot of attention. Critics contend that lack of vitamin A and micronutrient deficiency is a complex phenomenon, which is, to a large extent, caused by the decline in the diversity of food. In this view, vitamin-enhanced rice is just a technical fix.
Conway: I always want to reply to that by asking about HIV/AIDS. Are critics going to say we should not be producing a vaccine, because we could solve the whole AIDS problem by changing people’s sexual habits? Vaccines are not a magic bullet, and neither is Vitamin A enhanced rice. The argument about the range of crops of course is true. People in affluent societies do not suffer from vitamin A deficiency because they have a range of foods. This is not the case for many people living in urban settings in developing countries. For example, one of the problems is that mothers often take their babies off breast milk very early and wean them with rice gruel instead. And that is when the vitamin A deficiency starts to kick in. Furthermore, a great many developing countries are in semi-arid areas with little to grow in the dry season. People could have gardens around their houses if they dug wells and maybe this is the answer. However, this approach might take longer than providing rice that is storable in the dry season.
Monitor: Who is more in need of beta-carotene enhanced rice, poor people in developing countries or agrobiotechnology companies?
Toenniessen: Both need it, but vitamin A-deficient rice consumers clearly need it most. The companies are using it for public relations purposes even though they had nothing to do with its development. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  The result is too much publicity and controversy about a research product that is still in the development phase. Yet it would be a tragedy if the controversy thwarted the further development and distribution of Golden Rice by public sector institutions.
Monitor: At any rate, this new rice will not be at hand tomorrow.
Conway: True. In the meantime we are also supporting Vitamin A supplementation in schools, for example in Ghana. But the problem with that approach is that one has to make sure everybody goes to school. And of course we know that in poor areas children do not always go to school.
Monitor: These issues touch on the complexity of food systems and livelihood, as they combine agro-ecosystems, social, economic, and ecological considerations. Are you concerned that the hierarchy of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences is likely to be reinforced with the growing importance of genetic engineering?
Conway: I have nothing against hard science. As a matter of fact it can help soft science. What I am concerned about is hard science driving the agenda. For the Foundation’s application of genetic engineering and other biotechnologies, it is not the hard science that is driving the agenda, but the problems. After identification of the problems one has to look for the solutions; sometimes the solution to the problem may be genetic engineering, sometimes not.
Monitor: How can farmers take part in shaping technology, especially in the case of genetic engineering? Farmers might participate in selecting varieties, but in the end they will always depend on receiving technologies they cannot develop themselves.
Toenniessen: Farmers know very well which characteristics they prefer, so they do participate in the evaluation and the selection, and may even participate in making crosses. As far as genetic engineering is concerned, we need a feedback system that gathers information from the farmers and from the field researchers. For example, the farmers identified the need for a Striga-resistant maize. Such information goes back to an International Agricultural Research Centre (IARC) or it comes back to us and then we can identify an appropriate advanced laboratory. It may also be a company that is willing to make a commitment to try to use the most advanced science to generate the product that the farmers have indicated they need.
Monitor: Was that also the procedure that led to the development of beta-carotene enhanced rice?
Toenniessen: No, it did not start within a programme that was designed to solve Vitamin A deficiency. Beta-carotene enhanced rice goes back to the beginning of the Foundation’s rice biotechnology programme, when the objectives were different. Back then, the Foundation was concerned that new biotechnologies that could contribute to crop genetic improvement were not being applied to any of the crops or any of the traits that were important in developing countries. In both the private sector and the public sector in industrialized countries, these technologies were being employed for crops important in their own countries that were financially more attractive. Therefore, we started a programme to build capacity in Asia to use these new biotechnologies and, while we were doing so, we asked what were the most important traits that we could introduce into rice? One of the traits that were identified, by talking to breeders, sociologists and economists, was beta-carotene enhanced, yellow endosperm. It became one of two dozen traits for our programme, targeting particularly poor farmers and poor consumers.
Monitor: Which of your biotechnology projects do you expect to make the biggest difference within the next five or ten years?
Toenniessen: Probably drought tolerance. We are making a major effort to use marker-assisted selection to produce drought tolerant rice and maize. And if this is possible for rice and maize, it will probably be feasible for all the cereals because of the similarities that exist between the grasses. This could have the biggest impact on those who were bypassed by the Green Revolution because they did not have access to irrigation.
Monitor: Would that be a combination of all the three biotechnologies you mentioned earlier?
Toenniessen: Marker-assisted breeding will be of primary importance. We are talking about multiple traits, each of which is governed by multiple genes. Transferring a single gene is not going to contribute much to drought-tolerance. In general, we think that marker-aided selection is going to have a lot more positive impact on the traits and on the people we are interested in than genetic engineering.
Conway: Another important trait would be Striga weed resistance. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), by 2000 Striga had caused damage worth US$ 7 billion. That is an extraordinary figure, especially since it hits basically poor farmers. The answer is going to be an integrated answer, which includes cultivation, use of legumes and some form of biotechnology, which may or may not be genetic engineering.
Monitor: Mr. Conway, you were engaged in the public discussion regarding the so-called terminator technologies that render seeds sterile. Companies such as Monsanto (USA) and AstraZeneca (Sweden/UK) have officially declared that they will not commercialize such technologies. On the other hand, we see that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), as well as other corporations continues with the development. What do you expect for the future?
Conway: Our concern in the Foundation has been to ensure that new varieties are freely available to poor farmers. And in particular that poor farmers can keep varieties from year to year, and swap them with other farmers, because that was how new varieties were distributed during the Green Revolution. We are not interested in discussing whether such genes are good or bad for industrialized countries. However, I think the fact that Monsanto and AstraZeneca have forsworn them is a major step. It would be very difficult for a major biotechnology company to put seed sterility genes into a crop in a developing country now. The opposition would be too great.
Monitor: The ‘terminator’ genes are only the technical solution to the broader issue of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR). Is this a necessity or an evil that you have to deal with?
Conway: We are in favour of the old Plant Variety Protection System as opposed to patents. This means that plant breeders could market their seed, but another plant breeder could work with it and then market a new variety himself. But I think we have to be realistic, it is very difficult to go back to that old system. What we are interested in is a step forward towards public-private partnerships to make advanced techniques available to our target group.
Monitor: The development of beta-carotene enhanced rice is accompanied by complicated IPR issues. Did the Rockefeller Foundation, therefore, suggest that the inventors at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology should enter a partnership for commercialization with AstraZeneca, a private company?
Toenniessen: No, the partnership was achieved without us, but we advised that it would be a good arrangement as far as intellectual property was concerned and also to facilitate the biosafety and nutritional testing. We are continuing to fund the inventors. If we did not like the agreement we could have terminated the funding.
Conway: We think that the cooperation can make this rice freely available to farmers in developing countries. In the end we achieve what we want, and probably more quickly and easily than through the public system.
Monitor: Philanthropic organizations are very specific actors. Like governments from industrialized countries, they provide financial resources. On the other hand, they are not democratically endowed. What will be the future role of the Rockefeller Foundation?
Conway: If you think of modern society as a three-legged stool, with government, the private sector, and the not-for-profit sector as the three equal legs of a modern society, we have a facilitating role in bringing them together at all levels. We do it by linking up United Nations bodies such as the World Health Organization with pharmaceutical companies and we also do it at the village or town level. However, because of our size and history it remains a peculiarly American philanthropic role.
Monitor: New philanthropies, such as the Gates Foundation (USA), have more money to spend. Will this lead to competition?
Conway: No, rather cooperation. They might have greater financial resources, but they do not necessarily have the infrastructure. For instance, our organization is already established in Africa, and when we created the International AIDS Vaccination Initiative (IAVI), which is now an independent NGO, the Gates Foundation also contributed.
Monitor: What is the rationale behind the IAVI?
Conway: The basic premise is that although some of the big pharmaceutical companies were interested in vaccines, they neglected vaccines for the African or the Asian market, where the HIV strains are different. We believed that with a certain financial inducement we could get pharmaceutical companies, in particular small biotech companies, to work on producing new vaccines. At present IAVI has four vaccines in the works at very early stages, for which the first safety trials are now being conducted in Kenya. This initiative is a good example of what is now called venture philanthropy.
Monitor: Do you think this could become an example for the agricultural sector as well?
Conway: It is possible, although in a way we have already got that with the institutes of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).
Toenniessen: Within the agricultural area we do not yet have a mechanism for linking the private and public sectors together in a common task, like developing a vaccine. Furthermore, there is one important difference. In the health area we are dependent upon the private sector to develop the final product. There is no public sector capacity to do all the clinical trials and actually produce and deliver a vaccine at the end. In agriculture we still have public sector institutions that are able to breed and to produce a final variety and to distribute the seeds to the farmers. We do not want to lose this capacity, especially not in developing countries, because it is the best way to deliver the product to poor farmers at minimal costs. 

The interview was conducted by Volker Lehmann
Editor Biotechnology and Development Monitor

Conway, G. (1998), The Doubly Green Revolution. Ithaca, NY, USA: Cornell University Press.

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