UN launches biotech network for developing countries

With a bit of help, developing countries could get more biotech products onto the international market. Copyright: Flickr/CIAT

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Developing countries wanting to make more of their biotechnology resources are the target of a network launched by the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO).

The International Industrial Biotechnology Network (IIBN) will help local universities and small-to-medium enterprises to develop and improve existing biotechnology products. It will also encourage further bio-prospecting.

George Tzotzos, IIBN programme co-ordinator, told SciDev.Net that the network would provide biotechnology support and access to high-level technologies for developing countries wanting to make better use of their existing biological resources.

"In Bahia [Brazil] this could mean taking a fresh look at a plant like the castor bean, which is used for medicinal and industrial purposes and is being considered as a potential source of bio-fuel for local use," he said.

Tzotzos added that a major hurdle for developing countries that wish to sell biotechnology products in Europe is meeting the European Union’s stringent safety standards and maintaining a high product quality.

"Many products from the developing world are produced using low grade technology and, because of this, their full potential [in market share] is never realised," he said. "Often quality is not maintained between shipments of a product, and consumers eventually lose confidence in the product.

"It is at this point that we can help, by making connections and establishing mutually beneficial partnerships.

"This programme will help the developing world access existing markets and build [capacity] to ensure maximum return for their effort," he added.

Ivan Ingelbrecht, project manager for the IIBN and based at Ghent University, Belgium, said the network would serve as a catalyst for establishing North–South and South–South partnerships.

"There is a biotechnology skills base in Flanders [Belgium] that we can tap into immediately. The role of the network is match-making and, if needed, co-ordination," he said.

The IIBN — launched in Austria last month (29 March) — is funded by the Flemish Ministry for Innovation, Public Investment, Media and Poverty Reduction, in Belgium. The ministry is providing core funding of US$1.66 million (EUR 1.25 million) over the next five years, but network members will be asked to contribute as well.  Already, Brazil’s Bahia state has pledged to donate a further US$3.5 million.

The network will be co-ordinated by the Institute of Plant Biotechnology for Developing Countries, Belgium, and supervised by a scientific and technological advisory panel and a steering committee.

Initial members include organisations from Belgium, Brazil and Israel. China and Peru are still discussing their partnerships with the network, and IIBN plans to target Africa for collaborations later this year.

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