Agricultural Biotechnology Support Program

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The Agricultural Biotechnology Support Program (ABSP) was managed originally by Michigan State University and more recently by Cornell (ABSP II). ABSP's private sector partners have included Asgrow, Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred and DNA Plant Technology (DNAP).

The following are excerpts taken from the GRAIN report USAID: Making the world hungry for GM crops:

In 1991 USAID launched the Agricultural Biotechnology for Sustainable Productivity project, later renamed as the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project (ABSP). The Project, run by a consortium of private companies and public research institutions under the direction of Michigan State University (MSU), was mainly interested in identifying more GM crop projects from amongst the ongoing research projects at US university and corporate labs. These could then be used as entry points for US companies to collaborate with public research institutions in the South and to promote US models of biosafety and IPR (intellectual Property Rights) legislation. During the anticipated six-year project life, the project was supposed to move its targeted GM crops from the research and development stage to field-tests.

As explained by former ABSP Director, Catherine Ives:

"We will be working with countries to assist them in developing biosafety regulatory systems and intellectual property management systems that will promote access to, and development of, agricultural biotechnology."

The ABSP projects were the early components of what has become a multi-pronged strategy to advance US interests with GM crops. Increasingly the US government uses multilateral and bilateral free trade agreements and high-level diplomatic pressure to push countries towards the adoption of many key bits of corporate-friendly regulations related to GM crops. But this external pressure must be complimented by internal pressure to be effective. You need people within the countries with strong connections to the levers of power making the same push and you need domestic structures that can bring the GM crops to farmers' fields and peoples' stomachs.

This is where the ABSP projects and their consortium partners are so important. Through the ABSP research and development projects they channel funds and support to domestic players, typically scientists close to or involved in policy-making, who serve as the basis for a domestic lobby that can articulate and indirectly push the US agenda and help open the doors to GM agriculture.

ABSP I ran for 12-years, from 1991 to 2003, at a cost to USAID of US$13 million. In the first phase of ABSP I (1991-1996), around a dozen projects were initiated, involving national research centres in at least seven developing countries. ABSP I's original objective was to bring these GM crops to farmers' fields by supporting its collaborators with the research and development and eventually the commercialisation, including support in regulatory and intellectual property issues. But few of these phase I projects produced potential commercial GM crops.

When ABSP moved into its phase II programme in 1998, all of the phase I projects except for two, Bt potato and virus-resistant cucurbits, were dropped, in order to focus the programme on "product development". Yet, as one retrospective study points out, in phase II:

"… no provision was made in the ABSP budget for contributing to the costs of complying with the necessary regulatory procedures for the risk assessment complex of the 'near market' technologies, even though the ABSP Annual Impact Report dated July 2000 acknowledged that '… depending on the stringency of the commercialization procedures, it will be difficult for a public-funded effort to meet the regulatory costs'."

With its private sector partners not showing any interest in seeing the projects through to market, ABSP eventually backed away from its last two remaining projects, leaving the IPR and regulatory issues unresolved.

During its two phases, ABSP I accomplished little in the way of "technology transfer". But through its projects and its many workshops and exchanges, scientists from the South learned how to collaborate with US companies. They learned how to respect material transfer agreements, how to breed GM traits into local varieties and how US companies perform field tests. All of this "training" and "capacity-building" helped pave the way for US corporations to bring in their patented GM varieties. Moreover, even though the ABSP crops never made it to farmers' fields, the projects went far enough to initiate and influence political processes, for both biosafety and IPRs...

During the 1990s, USAID's biotechnology activities mainly served to channel technical and financial support to national biotechnology scientists and officials within the Ministries of Agriculture. These people were likely to favour GM crops and were well placed to influence, if not determine, relevant political processes. But near the end of the decade, with phase I of the ABSP completed, it was clear that things were not going entirely as planned. USAID's activities were influencing the political processes but increasingly these were escaping its control, with growing public pressure, awareness and opposition. USAID was struggling to get its ABSP target countries to take the final steps onto the GM train, and some of these countries were even thinking of jumping off.

USAID took ABSP into phase II in 1998 and then, at the FAO's World Food Summit: Five Years' Later in 2002, it launched the Collaborative Biotechnology Initiative (CABIO), bringing in new programs, new money and a new structure.

CABIO splits the former ABSP program into two main components: ABSP II and the Program for Biosafety Systems (PBS). ABSP II is responsible for the research side of the old ABSP programme but its focus is now on clearly defined "product commercialisation packages" and it is no longer interested in long-term research and development projects of GM crops that risk not making it to the field trial stage. PBS, a five-year, US$15 million program, continues with and deepens USAID's work at the policy level, which was formerly handled through ABSP. Its goal is to set up "systems" in target countries that can bring GM crops to market. This means orchestrating public relations and crafting GM crop approval processes, regulations, and IPR regimes.

After many assessments, USAID decided that ABSP II and PBS would focus on a few target countries: the Philippines in Southeast Asia, Bangladesh and India in South Asia, Kenya and Uganda in East Africa and Mali and Nigeria in West Africa - a region where the former ABSP program was rarely active. These are countries where the USAID presence is strong or where the biotech lobby has already made some inroads - in the words of USAID where the process is "demand driven". As with the ABSP II's chosen crops, USAID is no longer interested in wasting its time on countries that may not toe the line. The idea is to work on a few countries, even if they are not the most critical markets, and build from there.

The activities of ABSP II and PBS compliment and reinforce each other. PBS puts in place the systems that facilitate ABSP II's GM crops, while ABSP II serves as a local reference point for the system that PBS advocates. Moreover, both PBS and ABSP will look to USAID partners with established local networks in order to help move their projects forward...

ABSP II is headquartered at Cornell University, USA. The project has been fine-tuned to operate much like one of its corporate consortium partners. It goes into target countries and looks for promising GM crops for commercialisation. Then it puts a scientific team together, works out the relevant IPR and regulatory issues and, in the meantime, invests heavily in public relations ("communications"). But, unlike Monsanto and Syngenta, it's not in these countries for the money, and this is its big advantage. ABSP II can position itself on the middle road, an organisation interested in making GM crops work for the poor, even as it builds up and finances networks of local scientists, policy-makers and spokespeople to ensure GM policies work for its US corporate consortium partners.

ABSP II does not implement its projects alone; it is a consortium that works through and with its various partners. One of its key consortium partners is ISAAA, a pro-GM outfit funded by the GM industry, ABSP II and USAID, which has become famous for its annual reports on global production of GM crops. ISAAA is very active in supporting GM crop projects for ABSP II and similar programmes:

·ISAAA brokers the IPR deals between US corporations and participating public research centres in the South.

· ISAAA offers fellowships to scientists in its target countries to train in GM techniques at US private and public labs.

· ISAAA carries out socio-economic impact assessments of the potential GM crops and, most importantly.

· ISAAA handles much of the "communication and outreach" work, through its network of Biotechnology Information Centres.

This makes for a lot of crossover between ABSP II, PBS and ISAAA.

In Southeast Asia, the relation between ABSP II and ISAAA is seamless. They organise joint workshops and work together on various projects including, late blight resistant potato, fruit and shoot borer resistant aubergine, ringspot virus resistant papaya... and multiple virus resistant tomato. All of these are being developed for the Philippines and Indonesia. Where ABSP II focuses on biotechnology research, ISAAA promotes "safe and effective" biosafety regulatory procedures in Southeast Asia and as such compliments both ABSP II and PBS.


SARB is a sub-unit of the much larger USAID-funded project, ABSP. USAID has said SARB's objective is to provide the 'regulatory foundation to support field testing of genetically engineered products' (emphasis in original).

SARB was launched in 2000. It promotes in-country 'biosafety capacity building' as part of a regional 'biosafety initiative'.

Mariam Mayet of the African Centre for Biosafety points to the influence of SARB on Malawi, a 'core target' country for SARB's programmes. Malawi has been amongst the least restrictive of southern African countries with regard to accepting GM food aid and at the height of the food aid debate in 2002 it introduced a controversial 'Biosafety Bill'. The Bill while referring to the issue of risks posed by GMOs to human health and the environment in its preamble, took no account of these issues in its operational provisions. Mayet, a lawyer who specialises in legislation on genetic engineering, describes the Bill as 'displaying a flagrant and contemptuous disregard for biosafety.'

Muffy Koch is a key biotech lobbyist working with SARB and ABSP.