Mali gets nothing for its grain
June 6, 2004 5:08 PM   Subscribe

The failure of biotech. "In June 1996, the University of California, Davis, began an unprecedented effort to help the West African nation of Mali, using the promising and controversial new tool of agricultural biotechnology... Eight years later, no help whatsoever has arrived... In the hopes that inspired the effort - and the missteps that stifled it - lies a drama larger than the sum of its parts, one that shows both the promise and pitfalls of the largest technological leap in American agriculture since the tractor: biotechnology." The start of a five-part series in the Sacramento Bee: long, but well worth it. (Via MonkeyFilter.)
posted by languagehat (17 comments total)
UC Davis Magazine, which I get as an alumnus, ran an interesting article on how UC Davis missed the boat on spinning off private Biotech companies, but that they intend to start doing so with a vengence. I'm still not clear how it's okay to privatize research discoveries that were made on the Federal dime, and then take your product to market, but it is. UCD seems convinced that the publicly funded research community (aka: universities) are ill-equipped to continue advancing science compared to, or at least without help from, commercial Biotech. I confess I still don't really grasp it, even after the UCDM article.

As far as using high technology to help the fucked up parts of the world, I think it's stupid to make promises. Most times, the real issues are social or economic, not a lack of technology. When people have peace, a stable economy, water, electricity, and education, they find a way to make rice grow.

Meanwhile, a new generation of science BAs are getting richer than any dotcommers ever did making better allergy medications and hard-on pills.
posted by scarabic at 6:24 PM on June 6, 2004

scarabic, the federal gov actually gives out (to small businesses, through the SBIR and STTR programs) research money specifically for the purpose of commercialization.
posted by shoos at 7:34 PM on June 6, 2004

scarabic: Most times, the real issues are social or economic, not a lack of technology. When people have peace, a stable economy, water, electricity, and education, they find a way to make rice grow.

Um, peace, stable economies, water, electricity and education are technologies. Technology isn't just something that was patented in the last 50 years you know.

But I agree that that the problems rely more in politics than in invention. The action of Monsanto in licensing the gene then sitting on it is telling.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:48 PM on June 6, 2004

Monsanto also has a predicament. Some years ago, the USDA paid Monsanto to produce hardier strains of grains to grow in less arable parts of the world. This was done to *prevent* the US, Canada and Argentina from becoming too dominant in world food production--and thus making the world dependant on them.
So Monsanto exported, for free, these new high-yield grains, hoping that expanding agricultural markets would also eventually want to buy Monsanto products.

But it didn't work out that way. Farmers who got Monsanto seed would re-use seed from their crops, rather than buy new seed, for as many as five or six generations. When they no longer could propagate, they wanted Monsanto to provide them with more *free* seed. Since the USDA was paying for it, Monsanto agreed for years.

Monsanto, however, saw that this could not continue, with their non-paying customers *competing* with their paying customers. So they developed the "terminator" line of seeds--which became sterile after the third generation.
The third and fourth world went nuts.
The publicity was so bad that Monsanto couldn't market its "terminator" line at all--many countries prohibited it.

So Monsantos latest effort evades the problem. It is in two parts: a superior pesticide, "Roundup", which everyone thinks is great, *and* they are willing to pay for. The second part of the equation is a new type of plant that is *immune* to Roundup, thus making weed-killing easier.

So farmers can either pay workers to carefully spray Roundup, avoiding their crops, or they can pay Monsanto and just spritz Roundup wherever, cheaply.

There are many twists and turns to this story.
posted by kablam at 8:14 PM on June 6, 2004

Um, peace, stable economies, water, electricity and education are technologies. Technology isn't just something that was patented in the last 50 years you know.

Yes, of course they are, they're just, as you point out, very old ones. The point is that the solution to the worlds' problems probably isn't going to be found in a lab.

I know the government subsidizes business, but it's a wee bit different for your average farm, restaurant, manufacturer, etc. Medical research is a high-risk venture, meaning, you don't know whether you'll find something valuable or not, necessarily, when you plunk down the money. Biotech companies, moreover, are developing patent-able technological advances that can cure diseases and save lives.

For both of these reasons, I see a major ethical dillema in privatizing the produce of the research. Some people argue that it's unethical for commercial AIDS drugs manufacturers to let people die in Africa simply because they can't afford the treatments. I'm not even going that far (right now) but I will say I think it's screwy to have to pay Big Commercial Pharma prices for something I paid tax dollars to help develop. Especially considering the huge profits many of these gone-public biotech firms enjoy.

I would hope that the relationships between Universities and spinoff companies are very profitable for both entities, in which case I'm a little more comfortable with it.
posted by scarabic at 10:27 PM on June 6, 2004

The Dawn of McScience
posted by homunculus at 10:50 PM on June 6, 2004

"...The challenge is not technical. It is social and political. It is finding simple solutions on the ground."

Americans have long been inclined to propose $100 solutions to 50 cent problems.
posted by troutfishing at 5:47 AM on June 7, 2004

West Africa would be better served by looking towards.....

posted by troutfishing at 5:52 AM on June 7, 2004

That's delightful, kablam, except for the eensy fact that Roundup Ready crops have been shelved. Because no one will buy it.
posted by darukaru at 6:36 AM on June 7, 2004

Um, peace, stable economies, water, electricity and education are technologies.

Horsefeathers. If peace is a technology, then so is anger. Technology is a way, not a thing; a means not an end. A new way to use water or to achieve peace could be technology, but neither, in and of themselves, are.
posted by ChasFile at 12:50 PM on June 7, 2004

Part 4: Scattered efforts

"California is home to the nation's most diverse and valuable agricultural industry and a center of organic farming. Its cornucopia of crops can be bound for biotech-wary markets in Japan or Europe. The smallest genetic mistake could send customers fleeing. Yet California takes almost no role in regulating genetically engineered crops or food."
posted by homunculus at 10:56 AM on June 9, 2004

Max of bad things writes me to say:
darukaru's comment on the MeFi thread you started is nonsensical: Roundup Ready corn, soy and canola are all quite popular. Monsanto merely announced that it was shelving its RR wheat for the time being.
homunculus: Thanks for the updates!
posted by languagehat at 8:32 AM on June 10, 2004

Here's the final one:

Part 5: Grocery quandary

"A decade since the debut of gene-spliced food, biotechnology is a dominant presence in world agriculture. But the distribution of biotech foods is uneven. Dancing around deeply divided opinions over the technology's health and environmental safety, and over its social and economic effects, the global food industry approaches genetic engineering with a double standard.
posted by homunculus at 11:44 AM on June 10, 2004

Here's another great series the SacBee did, this one on California's impact on the global environment:

State of Denial.
posted by homunculus at 11:53 AM on June 10, 2004

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