Last week I participated in the 25th conference of the International Consortium of Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR). The ICABR is a network of scholars, mostly social scientists, who study the economic and social implications of modern biotechnology, the impacts of policies to accept it, and consumer acceptance of biotechnologies, especially in agriculture and natural resources. The ICABR meets annually, most often in beautiful Ravello on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. This year we had a hybrid conference; I had to get up early in the morning to join via Zoom while others were fortunate enough to be in Ravello. Next year I hope to be in Ravello myself.
I would like to present my personal perspective on the ICABR from its conception through its present, evolving agenda and toward its future. The ICABR is the story of academic entrepreneurship and adaptability and of how a research agenda and academic team can evolve. It is also a story of convictions, friendships, and attachment to a place.
The origins and evolution of the ICABR
The 1990s saw the emergence of agricultural biotechnologies and rising concerns about biodiversity. I was excited about the early experimentation with modern plant breeding at Berkeley; the concept of targeted genetic modification that swept medicine now was set to transform crop breeding. I was fascinated by the emergence of the educational industrial complex in California, where publicly supported university technologies gave rise to new industries and faculty-affiliated startups were taken over by or became major biotechnology companies. The Berkeley Novartis deal, where Novartis provided $25M to support research in return for preferential rights to intellectual property, suggested a new approach to finance academic research. It became obvious that agricultural biotechnology was becoming a major issue that would increasingly affect our planet. I also realized that enlightened policy was necessary to ensure that these new capacities of biology serve the public good.
I was fortunate to be asked by Joe Cooper, who was at the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN (FAO) located in Rome at the time, to join in a study on biotechnology and biodiversity. We held several small workshops in FAO and planned a major one in 1998. At the same time, a larger program on agricultural biotechnology was led by Bob Evenson, a visionary and leading scholar of agricultural technology, along with two professors at Tor Vergata University of Rome: Pasquale Scandizzo, a well-known agricultural economist and Berkeley alumnus, and Vittorio Santaniello, a charming scholar and academic entrepreneur. In 1998, Tor Vergata and the FAO held a joint conference which led to the formal establishment of the ICABR.
The basic premise was that the ICABR would hold annual meetings on the challenges of implementing biotechnology. The organization was based on voluntary efforts: participants would pay a registration fee and travel costs, speakers would not be paid, Tor Vergata would provide some administrative support, and the organizers would seek contributions for special speakers, junior scholars, and participants from developing countries. We strived for a rigorous academic program, while combining science with fun. In 1998 we sampled some of Rome’s best restaurants and enjoyed a dedicated tour of the fabulous Villa Borghese, we visited Capri and Pompei. In 2000 we received a grant to move the meeting to a bucket-list destination, Ravello, on the Amalfi coast. This enchanting region has become our base where we held more than 15 annual meetings. The consortium struggled for several years as founders Evenson and Santaniello faced health challenges. In 2008, after Santaniello’s passing, Carl Pray and Sara Savastano were elected president and secretary-general. Together they led the rebuilding of the conference, from 80 participants in 2008 to over 500 at the World Bank 10 years later. While we met mostly in Ravello, we ventured to other locations, partnering with organizations like the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, The Gates Foundation, and the World Bank. We held a successful conference in the Safari Park Hotel in Kenya, at UC Berkeley, and in The World Bank headquarters in Washington, DC. We established a partnership with the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA); we planned to hold the 2020 conference in Argentina, but it became a virtual conference because of the pandemic. In 2018, we formalized our governance structure, deciding that officers (President, Secretary, and Board of 10) would be elected for two years. Justus Wesseler and Stuart Smyth were elected president and secretary beginning in July 2021.
Evolution of the ICABR agenda
To be sustainable, the agenda of the research consortium has had to co-evolve with the economic and technological reality. In the early days (1997-2001), much of the emphasis was on yield and cost effects, intellectual property, biotechnology accessibility in developing countries, and the benefits that can accrue to developing countries from possessing the biodiversity key to biotechnology.
The presentations in those days developed a methodology and knowledge that were crucial for years to come. The results showed that GMO applications increased yields, reduced toxic pesticide use, and increased farmer profit, especially in developing countries. Studies found that approving GMOs led to their rapid adoption, reducing commodity prices and greenhouse emissions, with benefits shared among agribusiness, farmers, and consumers. Europe’s de facto ban on growing GMOs in the late 1990s revealed that regulation, rather than intellectual property, inhibits GMO adoption. Consequently, the agenda of the ICABR shifted towards emphasizing regulation and acceptance of biotechnology. Studies presented in the conference found:
1. Regulation should be based on outcomes rather than technology.
2. Africa lost substantially from banning GMOs in the face of European pressure.
3. GMO varieties have not posed health or environmental risks that differ from traditional varieties.
Studies on the acceptance of biotechnologies emphasized heterogeneity among consumers. A near majority was unwilling to pay as much for GMO food, and a significant minority was willing to pay a great deal to avoid GMOs. However, studies also found that people will pay extra for GM food if it enhances health and that people’s preferences are not static and change based on evidence and learning.
The agenda of ICABR was expanded beginning in 2009, and the ‘B’ in the name of the Consortium was modified from Biotechnology to Bioeconomy. The bioeconomy relies on the use of modern tools of biotechnology to produce food, fuel, chemicals, and other products and services. A key feature of the bioeconomy is circularity, where production systems are designed to reuse residues while aiming to eliminate waste. The traditional bioeconomy relied on fermentation to produce alcohol, bread, and cheese. In addition to developing new crop varieties, the modern bioeconomy uses recent advances in biology to convert biological resources into a wide range of products, including food and feed products but also biochemicals, bioplastics, biofuels, and more.
With the new emphasis on the bioeconomy, more attention was given to the economics of biofuels and the food vs. fuel tradeoffs. We have had fascinating sessions on the economics of wine and beer, including a wonderful tour of a winery in Italy. In addition, there were sessions on the role of biological carbon sequestration as part of a solution to climate change. Because the bioeconomy is evolving, the ICABR has held sessions on the economics of supply chains, especially supply chains that transform biotechnologies into new products. The growth of the bioeconomy and its ability to fulfill its potential will depend on the effective deployment of new biotechnologies. Within the bioeconomy, we hope to see complementary utilization of modern biotechnologies with sustainable ecological practices and effective utilization of information technologies. Our sessions have documented the progress of the bioeconomy while identifying gaps in knowledge and the unmet potential of the bioeconomy.
The Impact of the ICABR
The ICABR has provided a forum for discussing some of the challenging issues associated with the bioeconomy. It also provided opportunities to build a community of scholars with expertise on important topics and has published several books and special issues of journals. It has also collaborated with other groups to shape the research agendas of major organizations and contributed to the emergence of new institutions. For example, research presented in the ICABR contributed to shaping the FAO agenda on Biodiversity and Biotechnology in the early 2000s and Climate Smart Agriculture later that decade. The University of Bonn asked the ICABR to contribute to a major international conference on agricultural biotechnology in developing countries in 1999. The Bonn conference showcased some of the ideas emerging from the ICABR conference, such as a Clearing House for intellectual property. The Clearing House obtains rights to biotechnology that belongs to universities and provides these to crop breeders and other scientists in developing countries. The Rockefeller Foundation found these ideas attractive, which led to their support for the Clearing House for intellectual property in agriculture biotechnology, PIPRA, in Davis, and the establishment of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF).
The ICABR sponsored a joint conference on regulation of agricultural biotechnology with the Farm Foundation in Arlington near Washington D.C. in 2005, resulting in an award-winning book, and members of the consortium were asked frequently to testify about agricultural biotechnology policy in the US, EU, and multilateral institutions (World Bank, FAO, OECD). In 2011, the ICABR held a joint session with the European Association of Environmental Resource Economists at Rome that led to a special issue in Environmental Resource Economics on the economics of GMOs, emphasizing the tragic cost of delaying the approval of Golden Rice, a rice variety with enriched vitamin A with the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives of those suffering from Vitamin A deficiency. The article contributed to the increased awareness of the importance of utilizing Golden Rice, reflected by the Nobel Laureates’ letter urging governments to approve this innovation.
The recent emphasis by the ICABR on the crucial role of the bioeconomy in addressing climate change and food security was important to establishing government agendas on these topics. ICABR members have contributed to much of the emerging thinking about the bioeconomy, leading to increased support for bioeconomy research and investment. The OECD and the Joint Research Center for the European Commission have advocated measuring the impacts of the bioeconomy, and indeed the European Commission has supported the BioMonitor project. The project’s ultimate goal is to get a clearer picture of how the bioeconomy affects our lives. Several joint events with the ICABR have been organized to communicate and disseminate project results.
Towards the Future
The ICABR is an initiative by researchers with common interests in the economics and impacts of the bioeconomy. The ICABR, to a large extent, has been supported by its members, and its agenda has evolved with the bioeconomy. One test of an organization is its ability to survive beyond its founders. The ICABR has overcome the loss of Santaniell, Evenson, and other major contributors, including Hans Binswanger, Wally Huffman and Wally Tyner, scholars who established a tradition of intellectual curiosity and excellence. Furthermore, the ICABR has undergone two changes in leadership, and its operations are now more formalized. The ICABR is likely to survive and thrive as the bioeconomy grows and tools of modern biology spread throughout the economy.
The ICABR will benefit from growing interest in the resilience and transparency of value chains. As climate change and food security become more pressing issues, it will become increasingly important to understand the bioeconomy, including its global governance and its growth in developing countries.
We envision the ICABR stepping up its activities with training and workshops throughout the year, leveraging improvements in communication technologies. The ICABR will benefit from partnerships with research and training organizations, both in the North and in the South, enhancing its research agenda and impacts. The ICABR is challenged to develop fundraising strategies and engage donors to expand its mission. Thanks to its ingenuity and the importance of its research, I believe that the ICABR is financially sustainable. The ICABR has already fostered the emergence of a new generation of scholars and experts dedicated to advance policy and meet the multidisciplinary challenges of the bioeconomy, and I believe it will only improve and expand its contributions with time.