Agricultural technologies and knowledge have, until recently, largely been created and disseminated by public institutions. But over the past two decades, biotechnology for agricultural production has developed rapidly, and the world economy has become more globalised and liberalised. This has boosted private investment in agricultural research and technology, exposing agriculture in developing countries to international markets and the influence of multinational corporations. But the public sector still has a role to play, particularly in managing the new knowledge, supporting research to fill any remaining gaps, promoting and regulating private companies, and ensuring their effects on the environment are adequately assessed.


Since the end of World War II, the public sector of developed countries has helped transfer agricultural technologies to developing countries. During this period, most developing countries in Latin America and Africa, as well as some countries in Asia (like India and Thailand), have depended heavily on agricultural production to support their economies. So general development activities were often aimed at modernising the agricultural sector.

Such activities relied on public institutions and universities since many of the agricultural technologies and much of the knowledge being created had little market value. Physical products were not being produced, and technologies were considered 'public goods', which anyone could use without diminishing the value. Examples include improved seeding rates, pasture management or crop rotation practices.

But since the late 1970s, all this has changed. Technologies have become embodied in physical products, like farm machinery or agrochemicals. Exponential growth in such industries has led to a rapid expansion of private firms that create, manufacture and sell technology. Private firms have also seen opportunities to profit by using complex seed improvement research to create and then distribute new crop hybrids. And so, the role of the public sector has also had to change.

Early technology transfer in agriculture: a public sector activity

After World War II, the United States began a number of initiatives to build up agricultural science in developing countries and help transfer technology. US universities offered training programmes, for example through scholarships for international students, managed by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA, the US Agency for International Development and some of the major US foundations, like Ford and Rockefeller, also supported university libraries in developing countries to help scientists access new research.

Many of these activities had enormous effects in the developing world. For example, a Ford Foundation programme in Argentina supported close to 40 PhD students, creating a cadre of professionals in the country and consolidating agricultural economic analysis in local institutions like the National Institute for Agricultural Technology.

In the early 1960s, the International Rice Research Institute and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) were formed in the Philippines and Mexico respectively. These two centres evolved into a network of independent research institutions in Columbia, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Italy, Kenya, Nigeria, Peru, Syria and the United States. In 1971, the association of donors that supported the research centres became the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), and the 15 institutions that exist today are known as the Future Harvest Agricultural Research Centres.

At the same time, developing countries created National Agricultural Research Institutes (NARIs) to do applied research. In Latin America, all countries, with the exception of El Salvador and Paraguay, have such an organisation. There are also similar organisations in Kenya and Uganda in Africa, and India and Pakistan in Asia. [1]

International research centres developed technologies for major global food crops such as rice, wheat, corn, cassava, potatoes, millets and beans. National research institutes used applied research to adjust these technologies to fit relevant ecological and production conditions. The national and international centres worked closely together, sharing training and frequently involving scientists from both sides in visits and seminars. National centres then provided advice and counselling to local farmers, diffusing the new knowledge into the country's production system.

This system worked especially well for disseminating improved crops and new production techniques. For example, plant breeding work at CIMMYT developed a new family of wheat varieties in the early 1970s that were being used by more than 80 per cent of all wheat areas by the late 1990s. [2] And the research institutes set up during the 1960s and 1970s in the developing world were largely responsible for substantially increasing yields. For example, global cereal yields doubled between 1960 and 1985. [3]

Technology is still transferred to developing countries this way, but recently, public funding for agricultural research has diminished, and science has grown more complex.

A changing role for the public sector

Over the last two decades, advances in sciences like molecular genetics have enabled rapid development of biotechnology for agricultural production. Meanwhile, economic globalisation and trade liberalisation has increasingly exposed agriculture in developing countries to international markets and multinational corporations. Technologies that exist as marketable products, like seeds, agrochemicals and agricultural machinery, have grown quickly.

This has, in turn, fuelled private investment in agricultural research and technology, particularly by international corporations that benefit from economies of scale, and have access to world markets. But research activities in the private sector have limited scope. For example, private research into seed improvement concentrates on just a few crops, like corn and soybeans, that are grown in temperate regions. Such specialisation is even greater in biotechnology, where over 70 per cent of the land planted with transgenic breeds grows just four crops — soybeans, corn, canola and cotton. [4] Because of this narrow focus, the private sector usually disseminates its advances to developing countries that practise commercial agriculture in temperate climates and have relatively large markets. Small-scale farmers in developing countries still largely rely on the public sector for technology transfer, especially if they cultivate crops that don't interest private firms.

Public institutions are slowly adapting to these new circumstances by redefining their positions and priorities. CGIAR has emphasised its role in developing and transferring technologies that are adapted to small and poorer farms. The organisation is also beginning to consider work on non-food crops. Similarly, national research institutions, like the National Institute for Agricultural Technology in Argentina and the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, are concentrating on crops and ecological conditions relevant to small farms. They also research techniques that complement private sector developments, for example by developing production systems and conservation methods that make using new technological products (such as agrochemicals, farm machinery and improved crops) more efficient.

A new way to approach technology transfer

The new economic and scientific context requires a new, more complex, model for transferring technology. The evolving model has four main components: knowledge management, gap filling research, promotion and regulation of the private sector, and environmental impact analysis (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. A multidimensional model of agricultural technology transfer for the public sector

Knowledge management

The public sector continues to be largely responsible for knowledge management — that is, articulating national needs, matching them to scientific opportunities, mobilising available technology, and adjusting them to farmers' needs.

NARIs and universities undertake this role in many developing countries. They help develop both new and orphan crops, promote successful agriculture in poor ecological conditions and tackle small-scale technological problems, none of which greatly interest the private sector. Such work accounts for much of the research done by local institutions, and needs to be strengthened. Local institutions should provide incentives for their staff to collaborate with international researchers and seek synergies with research done elsewhere. In many ways the CGIAR centres are important in helping integrate local efforts with the knowledge available worldwide.

Gap-filling research

National public research institutions also have a major responsibility for research in areas ignored by the private sector. This 'gap filling research' is particularly relevant to technologies that are not embodied in physical products — for example, forage management, animal health, soil management and conservation and irrigation practices.

Public research into agriculture in developing countries represents about a quarter of worldwide expenditure in agricultural research. But it needs to be managed effectively if it is to produce high quality research to complement internationally available technologies and help developing countries acquire and use them. Some countries, like Brazil, China, India and Vietnam, have already taken action, using careful planning and working with research institutions in developed countries' research institutions to help focus research.

Promoting and regulating the private sector

The public sector should also both promote private investment and regulate private companies. Several policies can help encourage the private sector to invest in technologies that are relevant to farmers in developing countries.

First, adequate intellectual property rights legislation can be put in place. This allows private companies to protect profits from their research, helping attract investors and promoting research.

Second, tax and credit facilities can provide indirect economic incentives to investment.

Third, setting up frameworks for turning new technologies, like seeds or agrochemicals, into commercial realities — for example consistent biosafety regulations, royalty agreements, profit sharing and reinvestment — can be used to encourage interactions between private firms and public institutions, supporting joint activities and, thereby, encouraging technology transfer.

Environmental impact analyses

Meanwhile, policymakers must be considering the environmental consequences of agricultural research. New agricultural technologies often use natural resources intensively, potentially damaging the environment, for example through land degradation or water contamination. This is especially true if the new technology is imported without being tested in local conditions. Genetically modified crops are a good example. Developing countries like Argentina largely rely on industrialised nations to provide genetically modified breeds. Close to 90 per cent of Argentina's soybean crop is transgenic, and this has proved highly profitable in the past ten years. But the full environmental effects of expanding to marginal areas, displacing other crops and livestock, and using crop rotations are still unknown.

Policymakers can help by developing regulatory measures, like mandatory environmental impact assessments, to minimise potential environmental damage and to protect consumers.


If the public sector focuses on these four topics, it will continue to support relevant transfers of agricultural technology. In particular, public sector organisations need to join forces with the private sector to provide reliable funding and sources of trained personnel to improve agricultural technology policy in developing countries.

This should occur in cooperation with international mechanisms, like CGIAR, and research institutions in the developed world. Agricultural innovation has always come from collaborations between public institutions, the scientific community and agriculturalists themselves. Now, with the private sector's growing importance in the innovation process, the challenge facing the public sector is to bridge the gap and work with these new players.

Related websites

Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research

International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center

United States Department of Agriculture

National Institute for Agricultural Technology

Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation

Martín Piñeiro is director of GrupoCeo (Consultants in Economics and Organization) in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He has been director general of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture, chair of the board of the International Food Policy Research Institute and a consultant to the World Bank, Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Fund for Agricultural Development, among others.([email protected])


[1] Pineiro, M. Agricultural Innovation Systems: Situation, Prospects and Research Needs. International Service for National Agricultural Research (2005)
[2] Evenson, R. E. and Gollin, D. Crop Variety Improvement and its Effect on Productivity. CABI, Wallingford (2003)
[3] Conway, G. The Doubly Green Revolution. Penguin Books, London (1997)
[4] James, C. Global status of commercialized biotech/GM crops: 2004 International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech. Applications. Brief No. 32 (2004)