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Having fun while doing good: 20 years of bioeconomy conferences in Ravello

David Zilberman, professor, agriculture and resource economics | June 13, 2016

The discovery of DNA in 1955 opened new opportunities for utilizing biological knowledge for practical applications. The medical biotechnology industry emerged in the late 1970s with the patenting of the human growth hormone, the Cohen-Boyer patent for genetic recombination, and the creation of Genentech. Scientists were also looking for agricultural applications of these emerging technologies. First applications included enzymes for breads and cheeses and a vaccine against swine diarrhea. In 1987 the ice-minus bacteria that targeted frost damage in strawberries was first applied in open fields in Berkeley, after the US government established a regulatory framework for the introduction of GMOs in agriculture. At the same time, Jeremy Rifkin and other activists started legal actions to halt the new technology, and new companies, like Agracetus were established.thumb_2013-06-18 17.42.23_1024
Agricultural economists realized that the fledgling biotechnology industry held the potential to change agriculture and would raise significant policy challenges. In 1993, Richard Just and Darrell Hueth, predicted that agricultural biotechnology would destabilize the pesticide sector, lead to significant losses for existing pesticide companies, and introduce new players and conflicts to the industry. In the same year, Postlewait, Parker and Zilberman suggested that agricultural biotechnology would develop faster in the U.S. due to the strength of its educational industrial complex, rapid technology transfer from universities to industry, and the future of the industry would be affected by regulation and intellectual property rights considerations.

Robert Evenson, Doug Gollin and Vittoria Santaniello believed that the introduction of agricultural biotechnology would enhance the value of plant genetic resources and highlight the need for effective policies to enhance such resources and IP to enhance overall efficiency and the potential benefits in developing countries from the existing technologies. They organized a symposium at the University of Rome Tor Vergata with the sponsorship of FAO, entitled the Economics of Valuation and Conservation of Genetic Resources for Agriculture.

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In 1997, the first conference of what would become the International Consortium on Applied Bioeconomy Research (ICABR) was held at Tor Vergata organized by Santaniello with his friends from North Carolina State Jerry Carlson and Michelle Mara, Robert Evenson, and Bill Lesser with Pasquale L. Scandizzo in the background. It gained support from Joseph Cooper at FAO and the emphasis was on biotechnology and biodiversity as well as early studies of the impact of GMOs on yield and costs and the future of the agricultural biotechnology industry.

This conference was followed by a larger conference that was supported by the FAO and others. At the end of this conference, the working group had a discussion of how to proceed and decided to establish the ICABR as a consortium of individuals and universities modeled after the water consortium (IWREC). The leadership was Santaniello, Evenson, Zilberman, and Scandizzo.

The key principles guiding the ICABR’s design were that membership would be on a voluntary basis, regular members would pay their way to the conferences as well as registration fees, and that we would seek support from Tor Vergata, Yale, UC Berkeley, and other institutions to cover the costs of the consortium and pay for invited speakers, hoping that they would become members later on. We also decided to seek support to attract scholars from developing countries and to develop an agenda that evolved with the changing agricultural biotechnology sector.

From the beginning, the beauty of Rome was a key to success of the consortium. After long days, the members feasted on the cuisine and reveled at the beauty of Italian treasures, including special visits to the Borghese and other museums and a midnight tour around town. The consortium featured a wonderful website and announcements of the conferences emphasized the content as well as the attractiveness of the venue.


In 2000, the annual meeting of the ICABR moved to Ravello. While Rome provided many attractions, the traffic and noise of city life were a distraction. The Italian government provided modest support to ventures that enhanced economic activities in the south, and after a visit to Ravello, we fell in love with the place. During the first few years, the meetings were held at the magnificent Villa Rufolo. More recently, the meetings moved to the modern auditorium designed by Oscar Niemeyer.

As part of the meeting, we had a nightly concert as well as tours of the attractions around the area. We still remember the amazing tour to Pompeii, a fascinating visit to the Naples museum, and great tours to Positano, Capri, and Amalfi. We have been in Ravello for 15 years now and we continuously discover new cultural and gastronomic gems. While the consortium has a group of regulars, the list of participants change each year, reflecting the changing agenda. What we realize is that once people join us in Ravello, they love to return.

In 2007, the ICABR entered a new era as we, and the scientific community, lost Bob Evenson (and here) and Vittorio Santaniello. In 2008 we established the annual Vittorio Santaniello Memorial Lecture, and in the first lecture, Justus Wesseler presented “The Santaniello Theorem of Irreversible Benefits”. Many lectures followed with renowned scientists.[1] We were fortunate that Sara Savastano, a professor at Tor Vergata, took over as the secretary and the engine behind ICABR, and Carl Pray of Rutgers University became our president. Carl established a broader leadership team that is responsible to organize the programs for the conferences and manage publications coming out of our work.

Under this new leadership, we hosted editions of the conference jointly with other international associations, among others a joint conference with the European Association of Agriculture Economist – the 128th EAAE Seminar in 2012, together with a Joint AAWE-ICABR Workshop on Technology and Innovation in the Wine Industry in Feudi di San Gregorio,  one of the most spectacular winery in Southern Italy (Atripalda – Avellino), a Pre-Conference Workshop on The Economics, Technology, and Sustainability of the Wine and Beer Economy in 2011 in Villa Mondragone (Monteporzio Catone – Rome) a patrician villa that belongs to the University of Rome Tor Vergata, and a joint-workshop in 2011 during the annual meeting of the EAERE, the European Association of Environmental Economists held at the University of Rome Tor Vergata . Finally, in 2014, thanks to a grant from the Gates Foundation, we ventured out of Ravello and Italy to hold our conference in Kenya, and we were able to involve many African Scholars.

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The agenda of ICABR has evolved over the years. In the beginning, we emphasized prediction of the magnitude and extent of the impact of biotechnology in agriculture. After empirical data on various impacts were available, ICABR presenters used it to show that adoption of GMOs tended to increase yields (especially in developing countries), reduce pesticides, reduce poverty and in some cases have environmental and worker health benefits. Another area of emphasis was to study the extent to which access to IPR by researchers and companies was a barrier to developing new GMO technologies, especially in developing new foods for the poor.

Ideas that were presented at ICABR were later used to develop arrangements that transfer the right to use IPR to developers of new technologies in developing countries. Multiple sessions of ICABR meetings investigated the distribution of benefits from GMOs in agriculture. Some results appeared in a US National Research Council study and suggested that while the developers of the technologies (Monsanto) made substantial gain, much of the benefits went to farmers and especially consumers. Consumers gained from lower prices of corn, soybeans, and other crops that translated in lower prices of food, especially meat.

Over the years, it became clear that the main constraint to the introduction of GMOs was regulation, and the political economy and politics of GMOs has become a major of emphasis. The regulatory systems have reached an equilibrium where GMOs are more acceptable for feed and fiber, but less for food. The GMO technology was introduced in the U.S., but was less favored in Europe.

The larger European influence in Africa has contributed to the tougher barriers on the introduction of GMOs there. The cost of heavy regulation of GMOs has negatively affected the poor, as the case of Golden Rice illustrates. The regulatory system is quite costly and confusing and there were presentations exploring the implications of different rules that allow co-existence between GMO and non-GMO technologies and ideas of how to improve them.

A driving force for GMO regulations in different locations is consumer perception, which emphasize that attitudes are shaped by the way that GMO choices are presented and that while some consumers would pay a premium to avoid GMOs, there is a large constituency that considers price and availability and not GMO, per se.


The agenda of the ICABR has gradually expanded to go beyond the study of agricultural biotechnology to the study of the bioeconomy, which include the parts of the economy that use bio-resources to produce commercial products – including agriculture, biofuels, fine chemicals, and even agrotourism. The ICABR has become a major forum to understand the impact of biofuels on food prices and availability, to debate the merits of many biofuel policies, and to assess the potential and impact of second-generation biofuels.

The bioeconomy embodies a vision where biotechnologies are augmenting farming practices to expand the efficiency and range of products produced by agriculture. That will enable replacement of non-renewable resources on which we depend on today with renewable sources and reduce GHG emissions and the footprint of agriculture. One of the major areas of research is the supply chain and the transition of innovation to commercial products. We have found that the older sectors of the bioeconomy, that are based on fermentation, like beer and alcohol, provide several lessons for the new bioeconomy.


This year we celebrate the 20th anniversary of ICABR and we are optimistic for its future. New developments, like gene editing (in particular CRISPR), hold a lot of promise, but their implications will depend on policy and regulations, and thus provide us new avenues of research. The bioeconomy is growing and evolving in response to changing economic and political conditions, along with climate change. The growing use of big data, and the introduction of new analytical tools, provide ICABR with even more opportunities to pursue its research agenda.

Happy 20th!

David Zilberman, University of California, Berkeley

[1] Including Odin Knudsen (Real Option International), Prabhu Pingali (Cornell University), Carlo Carraro (university of Venice), Abhaya Dandekar (UC Davis), Luuk van der Wielen (TU Delft), David Zilberman (UC Berkeley), Giuseppe Novelli (University of Rome Tor Vergata),  Erwin Bulte (Wageningen) and Partha Dasgupta (University of Cambridge).

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