Genetically Modified Organisms as Public Goods: Plant Biotechnology Transfer in Colombia



This paper presents an exploration of biotechnology transfer and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as “public goods” for Colombia. Plant biotechnology tenders the promise of providing “public goods” in the form of increased agricultural productivity, economic development, and food security. However, these each have the potential to benefit different groups of people. Colombian scientists recognize this when discussing the uses of genetic modification. We examine the goals for which Colombian scientists suggest plant genetic engineering has promise as well as the barriers they encounter using the technology. Research using genetic engineering is difficult due to a lack of resources, the need to negotiate intellectual property rights, and regulatory hurdles. Nevertheless, Colombian scientists suggested that genetic modification by Colombians is important, as transnational companies would not necessarily develop crops to meet Colombian needs. We argue that interpretive complexity is necessary to understand the desire of Colombian scientists to engage with biotechnology.

Plant genetic engineering is most often described as driven by the scientific interests and resources of developed countries. In this account, we present the concerns and hopes surrounding the transfer of plant biotechnology to Colombia from the perspectives of Colombian scientists who use these technologies. Drawing from discussions with Colombian scientists, we will explore their perceptions of the challenges associated with the direct transfer of genetic modification1 technology to a developing country2 context, as well as their reasons for employing genetic engineering.

We detail how justifications for genetically modified organisms (GMO) articulate with the concept of creating scientific “public goods.” In the context of science and technology, public goods denote items that benefit the “public” in the sense that they stimulate national economies, improve food security, or in the sense that they are commonly owned. Claims for GMOs are being made for all three of these meanings of “public” at once, despite contradictions between them. The deconstruction of the idea of public goods is useful in considering the benefits of GMOs given the fact that a “public” good that stimulates a national economy may not correspond to the provision of a common resource for the citizens of a nation. The variety of ways in which scientific “public goods” are interpreted and aligned highlights the question of whose interests are being served by “public” benefits surrounding a technology. We therefore suggest that critical attention to how emerging agricultural technologies serve the “public” is called for. This is of particular importance in the case of GMOs given the claims regarding their contribution to food security.

Colombian scientists who use genetic engineering are attentive to the nuances surrounding who benefits from GMOs; they negotiate between the tensions surrounding this topic, the barriers they encounter, and their hope for the technology. Barriers include the lack of research funding, intellectual property rights, and regulation which are set against the technical benefits of speed and accuracy that the technology provides and the desire to provide varieties that serve the Colombian agricultural context (including both small subsistence farmers and large agricultural producers) by advancing research on neglected tropical crops and local Colombian varieties. National economic interests are intermeshed with concerns over food security within individual researcher's projects.

Multiple and intertwining interpretations are needed for understanding individual actor's motives for their engagement with GMOs. We illustrate this by viewing Colombian scientists' perspectives through two conceptual fields, that of medical anthropology and that of development studies. In the medical anthropology context, Farmer (2001) critiques the idea that expensive technologies are not “appropriate” for resource-poor contexts on the grounds that making a distinction between the two merely entrenched inequalities. A development studies perspective, on the other hand, such as that proposed by Escobar (1995) suggests that the role of technology in development is symbolically important, but overstated in terms of the material “progress” it provides to populations in poorer areas. Neither of these two perspectives, the drive for equality within agricultural science, nor the false promises of technology to provide progress, are sufficient on their own for understanding Colombian scientists' engagement with GMOs within international science and the global economy. We therefore conclude by arguing that interpretive complexity is needed to understand scientific practices in this area, as well as calling for more detailed attention to the kinds of “public goods” that genetic engineering can provide and who benefits from them.

We will therefore describe the perspectives of Colombian scientists surrounding genetic modification, and the barriers and hopes that they see surrounding the transfer of the technology to Colombia, as well as detailing two possible interpretations for understanding these perspectives. However, it is necessary to first provide background on the ways in which the concept of public goods applies to science and technology and the current place of GMOs within the global economy in order to contextualize these scientific perspectives.


This study was part of a wider ethnographic project to understand the emergence of new genetic technologies and biologics within a web of sociotechnical relations that engage regulation, policy and industry, as well as science (Bibeau et al. 2007; Graham 2005). This approach reflects the considerable overlap in the global emergence of biotechnologies in fields such as health, agriculture, and the life sciences, providing the substance for what is now being called “convergent technology” (Patton 2006). The global political economy affecting biotechnological platforms is similar across these domains and includes the predominance of multinational corporations (in what appears to be a dynamic of perpetual amalgamations), the increase in private research funding, and ensuing conflicts of interest (Atkinson-Grosjean 2006; Bibeau et al. 2007; Mirowski and Sent 2008). By examining the perspectives of scientists working with plant biotechnology, rather than the farmers who may ultimately use GMOs, this project followed the anthropological tradition of “studying up” (Nader 1972), in an effort to understand how structural processes and elite groups (such as agricultural scientists) shape the options from which citizens can choose.

The ethnographic material we analyzed was gathered by Holmes within a multisited ethnography that followed the practices, aspirations, and views of (predominantly) publicly funded research scientists who worked with genetically modified crops in both Canada and Colombia in 2003–05 (Holmes 2006). Participant observation took place within two main laboratory sites—one in a government laboratory in Canada and the other in an international research centre in Colombia. Additional “short-term” (i.e. day visits) participant observation was carried out in two Colombian university laboratories. Fifty-nine interviews (23 in Canada and 36 in Colombia) were conducted for the study which included scientists using genetic engineering (28), plant breeders, and other scientists not using genetic engineering (18), and members of regulatory and nongovernmental organizations (13). Of the 19 interviews carried out with scientists using genetic engineering in Colombia, the analysis for this article focuses on the 13 who were working at Colombian univerisities or national research organizations; the remaining six were part of an international agricultural research centre. Interviewees were chosen after a web-based search of scientists' research interests as well as through suggestions of previous research participants. No requests for interviews with scientists in Colombia were declined. Interviews were conducted in the offices and/or laboratories of the scientists interviewed. Interviews were semistructured and were largely conducted in Spanish with the help of a native Spanish-speaking research assistant to ensure that no miscommunication occurred. Interviews and fieldnotes were then coded thematically.

Background: GMOs, Public Goods, and the Global Economy

One of the major justifications for the development of genetically modified plants and agricultural biotechnology has been their potential to increase agricultural production and development, and therefore food security, in the developing world. This position has been championed by the Nobel prize-winning plant breeder, Norman Borlaug (2001),3 among others (e.g., McGloughlin 2002). The U.S. Agricultural Secretary, Ed Schafer, recently raised biotechnology, including genetic modification, as part of the solution to the global food crisis at the June 3–5, 2008, summit in Rome:

Biotechnology is one of the most promising tools for improving the productivity of agriculture and increasing the incomes of the rural poor … We are convinced of the benefits it offers to developing countries and small farmers.

[Doyle 2008: para. 2–3]

Claims that GMOs, and plant biotechnology in general, will provide societal benefits (Burkhardt 2001) and will therefore contribute to the “public good” in countries such as Colombia obfuscate rather than clarify discussion about the uses of GMOs. The “public goods” resulting (or “translated”) from science can be interpreted in a variety of different ways.

Scientific knowledge came to be seen as a public good after the Second World War in the United States (Atkinson-Grosjean 2006; Mirowski and Sent 2008). The availability of scientific knowledge was thought to be an economic driver that stimulated national economies. While scientific knowledge could produce returns for society as a whole, it was considered too costly for private parties to produce and obtain a profit. Instead, it was deemed to be in the national interest to support scientific research as a “public good.” During the cold war, the U.S. government not only supported public research, but deliberately weakened intellectual property rights in an effort to ensure “public” knowledge could be translated from research and development into the competitive market place (Mirowski and Sent 2008). Today, however, public support for research has become intermingled with private funding in most laboratories, while intellectual property rights have expanded (Mirowski and Sent 2008).

Participation in the global “knowledge-based economy” (Drucker 2003) has been of strategic interest to many national governments (e.g., Martin 2001). Technological innovation is used in new economic theories as an important component of economic growth and international competitiveness (Gilpin 2001); knowledge is no longer a free floating “public good,” but a competitive arena:

Rather than technology being a public good equally available to all economic actors, in reality national differences in innovation and utilization of technology have become vital determinants of variations in national rates of economic growth, national competitiveness, and international trade patterns.

[Gilpin 2001:105]

The fostering of technological innovation and scientific knowledge, including that surrounding biotechnology and genetic engineering, can therefore be seen as playing a key role in a country's future.

Given the degree of mixing between public and private, how can we understand biotechnology initiatives that claim to be for the “public good”? “Public” can be interpreted in a variety of ways. “The public/private demarcation is a negotiated, discursive space rather than a fact of the world” (Atkinson-Grosjean 2006:13). Therefore, “public” can mean three different, overlapping, and sometimes conflicting things: (1) the open and visible space of public life, (2) civic as opposed to private concerns or interests, and (3) common ownership (Atkinson-Grosjean 2006). In the case of plant biotechnology, we are interested in how the second and third meanings are employed, negotiated, and implied.

Plant biotechnology is an area of research and development (R&D) largely driven by the profit interests of multinational companies4 (Lurquin 2001). Many of the original and key intellectual property rights for plant biotechnology are held by corporations or universities which are primarily based in the United States or the European Union (Falcon and Fowler 2002; Parayil 2003; Yamin 2003). Furthermore, biotechnology research has focused on crops that have large commodity and export markets. Research and development is more advanced for temperate or northern agricultural crops. For instance, almost all the acreage currently planted with genetically modified crops is made up of four crops: soybeans (62%), corn (22%), cotton (11%), and canola (5%) (Brookes and Barfoot 2006). Over half of these crops are grown in the United States.

These crops are attractive to corporate interests as their seeds can be profitably sold to a sizeable market. Thus, many countries, particularly tropical ones, will not directly benefit from genetic engineering technology as it is currently developed. Assuming these “improved seeds” actually will enhance agricultural production without accompanying unacceptable risks (a claim that has been contested, see [e.g., Altieri 2001; Simmonds 1993]), current R&D does not meet the needs of tropical food production. Since it is unlikely that tropical agricultural production will increase through a “trickle down” effect from the initiatives of multinational corporations (Herrera-Estrella 2000), this leaves the burden of creating developing country “public goods” from genetic engineering to researchers in the public sector. This is not an issue isolated to biotechnology, as R&D in many developing countries is disproportionately funded by higher education institutions and government agencies rather than by private firms (Cozzens et al. 2008). The public sector is hampered by the control of intellectual property rights among private corporations (Parayil 2003).

Most of the crops genetic engineers have worked on to date are intended for large mechanized farms, with the traits chosen for their economic value. There is little likelihood that market mechanisms will transfer the technology to small farmers, particularly those in tropical countries, who do not have sufficient resources to purchase seeds and other agricultural commodities, and who are therefore not a profitable “market.”

New plants and crops are being developed not to solve problems of hunger and deprivation, but mostly to increase shareholder values of companies that have invested heavily in R&D efforts in the biotechnology sector. Consumer preferences are more important than farmer's rights and interests in the development and diffusion of genetic agricultural technology, and the trend is to develop technology suited for the interests of large biotech firms

(Parayil 2003:983).

Intellectual and technical property rights have made common ownership difficult to obtain, thus making one of the “public goods” unlikely for plant biotechnology. The question that then arises is in what public or civic interest is genetic engineering being harnessed? If the “public interest” is economic development, then that is served by the creation of plants that provide greater yields, export possibilities, new niche commodity markets and thus increased profit. Public interests would therefore be served through market distribution of research results (e.g., high-yielding seed varieties distributed through private companies). But is this the extent of possible “public interest”? As Waring (1988) demonstrated, practices that substantially affect quality of life and contribute to the economy in nonmonetary ways are often not counted in economic metric characterizations of a country. This strictly economic interest may not fit the needs of small farmers in developing countries (Soleri et al. 2008).

Colombia has many small-hold farmers who eat a large proportion of what they grow, in addition to having large agricultural exporters of cash crops such as coffee and sugar cane. Much of the population eats crops such as cassava and plantain, which have comparatively small export or commodities markets. This results in a lower commercial potential and, in turn, less research funding available for these crops. In this context, can “public” interests in greater food and livelihood security be “counted” (Waring 1988) or measured in terms of economic output? The “market” in this sense, does not include the trading of better cassava varieties between neighboring farmers through traditional social networks, something that could be considered “public” in the sense of common or shared ownership. Is the public good the forwarding of civic interest through economic development? Does it lie in supporting the common ownership of small farmers to improved seed stock? Or is the public good working toward the civic interest to increase food security? How do researchers working within the Colombian context configure their work amidst conflicts between differing conceptions of the public good?

Biotechnology is linked to “a symbology of power [that] is assigned to DNA and genetics both in the media and in scientific publications” (Fleising 2001:239). This can lead to “genohype” (Holtzman 2001), or exaggerated claims and hyperbole attached to DNA-related research. Jasanoff argues that “biotechnology companies fall short of delivering the economic miracles expected of them” (2005:249) and therefore cause some skepticism as to their promise. Nevertheless, biotechnology is still seen as a key path to the development of a knowledge economy and social progress. Such an environment encourages the training of students and the availability of research funding within this area of scientific research.

The discourse of biotechnology promise can be powerful in political and scientific arenas (Fleising 2001). Latin America has not been immune from the global political will to foster biotechnological knowledge. Tambornini (2003), for example, argues that biotechnology is a key way for Latin America to develop and progress economically. This kind of interest has led to bioprospecting ventures, the collection and testing of biological materials for useful properties or genetic traits (see Hayden 2003), as well as other uses of biotechnology.

There was a general discourse of promise and hope surrounding biotechnology within Colombia at the time of Holmes' fieldwork. Members of Colciencias, Colombia's major science funding agency, said that biotechnology (including both the health and the agricultural aspects) was one scientific area in which they hoped to make Colombia internationally competitive. While opening the Biotecnología congress in Bogotá in 2003, the president of a large Colombian university suggested that biotechnology was a potential method for confronting the country's problems. Colombian scientists using genetic engineering operate within a global enthusiasm for biotechnology that embraces its potential as an economic driver for achieving social development. While increased availability of research funding might direct a researcher into a particular area, the design of research to forward particular research interests or goals is still within the control of researchers. This sentiment is reflected in the way in which scientists discuss the decisions they made regarding their work. For example, the following university scientist sees himself contributing to a nationally strategic approach:

These techniques have a strategic importance for the development of countries like Colombia, since we are mega-diverse countries. And genetic engineering is something that can give value to all genetic resources, as it is possible to capture genes in whatever biological context and develop biotechnological processes with them, the result is that they give value to all genetic resources, no matter where we are. In this sense, then, I consider that what I do is a strategic approach.

A strategic economic approach is one of several ways that were mentioned for using plant biotechnology to provide public goods for Colombia.

Two themes recurred in interviews with scientists: (1) the presence of hope and enthusiasm for what the technology might achieve, and (2) the barriers that made the realization of that hope difficult.

Barriers to Using Genetic Engineering in Colombia

The possibility of using biotechnology, particularly genetic engineering, to improve the lives of those in developing countries has been critiqued by many. It has been challenged by members of civil society (e.g., ETC Group 2002, fomerly RAFI; Shiva 2000) and also by social scientists who question the desirability and practical benefit of genetically engineered seeds for small farmers in developing countries (Cleveland and Soleri 2004; Fitting 2006a, b; Soleri et al. 2005, 2008; Stone 2007). In addition, scientists have suggested that genetic engineering will only increase trends toward harmful monocropping and chemical use, decrease crop biodiversity, and will cost more than other kinds of agricultural research (Altieri 2001; Altieri and Rosset 1999, 2002).

By contrast, Colombian scientists stated that the technology could have useful applications, but recognized that many barriers exist for successfully implementing their genetic engineering projects. They acknowledged that research was expensive, which made it more difficult to carry out, especially since competition for research grants was fierce. Furthermore, some researchers commented that external funding sources were important, because national funding sources could be uncertain. Indeed, lack of resources for research was a central barrier mentioned by practically all scientists interviewed. In the example below, this Colombian university researcher weighs off the expenses related to biotechnology with its future promise.

Biotechnology, in relation to other breeding methods is expensive for developing countries, because the equipment to do genetic transformation is expensive, the reagents are expensive, human capital, information, etc. are very expensive. But I think that they are powerful tools to change the future. I believe that we need to know what we have, perhaps it isn't necessary to do genetic mutation, if nature itself has done it for us and we do not know it. Above all else in the tropics where we have such biodiversity and interaction between organisms, the first thing is to know what one has so as to know how to use it.

Another key issue is that successful use of genetic engineering demands that intellectual property considerations be taken into account. This usually does not directly affect scientists' research possibilities, because licenses to do research using genes and techniques with proprietary claims are comparatively easy to obtain. The challenge comes when the research needs to be translated into the release of plant varieties, when the negotiation of licenses becomes legal and complex.5

Two potential strategies were employed by Colombian researchers. Material for research was carefully chosen so that relevant intellectual property was not proprietary (e.g., CAMBIA 2008). This could involve securing permission for intellectual property through collaboration with a public institution that was working with the gene or process in question. Alternatively, researchers needed to negotiate access to material, genes, or technical protocols, often with multinational companies. Two or three academic researchers stressed that they and their colleagues needed to know more about how to identify and negotiate for intellectual property rights, as this was not usually a part of their training. Given a recent report of large biotechnology companies (including Syngenta, Monsanto, and BASF) filing for patents for hundreds of genes that may help plants withstand drought and other environmental stresses (i.e., “climate change” genes, Weiss 2008), this is not an issue that will likely diminish in the near future.

Finally, regulatory testing raised an additional barrier before a GM variety could be released and used by the intended beneficiaries. Further funding would be needed for such tests. This was only mentioned independently by one scientist, while others, when questioned, said that it was a stage so far in the future that they did not yet need to address it:

In everything, if one thinks about a plant needing to pass through all the regulations, we're talking about many years of work and research and we have to start somewhere. That is our job: first to identify what substances can affect “broca” [the plant pest] and that we could put in the coffee plant. To work with all the systems of regeneration and transformation and all that that implies and to continue with the whole process and if, finally, we succeed in having something that could be good, that we can say to the coffee growers “we have something good,” but from here to thinking about commercializing a lot of time must pass. However, we shouldn't reject the technology yet, as we don't know what will happen. We could suddenly have something really good for them, and if the public accepts it, it would be excellent because broca really causes serious problems for Colombian coffee growers. It's really, really hard.

Why Use Genetic Engineering to Create Public Goods?

Despite the costs, the technical challenges involved in the research itself, and the regulatory and intellectual property hurdles, many researchers commented that it was important to try to use this technology. Both technical and “political” reasons (or reasons relating to the creation of public goods for the country or its citizens) were cited. The technology was discussed as useful in three ways. First, genetic engineering could offer the ability to do things that other methods could not. In one example, an institute researcher discussed the ability to know precisely what characteristic has been added to the plant to ensure it stays within the new variety:

With genetic transformation there are a range of possibilities. It is, perhaps, the only tool to obtain improved varieties efficiently because when genetic improvement is done by simple selection, the characteristic could be lost with time.

Second, genetic engineering was seen as advantageous insofar as it can allow the use of genes that are not currently available in closely related plants (thereby ruling out the possibility of conventional plant breeding). For example, a researcher who works on coffee speaks of using this technique to solve a problem with coffee plants that could not be overcome with conventional methods:

The problem is that with the pest that we work with, which is broca del café, no resistant material has been found at this point. Therefore, it is very difficult to think about traditional methods, although there is a lot of research. The research centre is doing research in this area to see if conventional genetic crosses can be made, or some improvement, but it has not been seen yet. So, we find that we have to resort to research in non-traditional methods in order to generate what we want: a plant that can defend itself better against broca del café. How do I see biotechnology? I see it as a tool that can help us create a plant resistant to the pest that is our problem and that can help the farmers.

Third, genetic engineering is seen as a method that will achieve important results for Colombian farmers more quickly than conventional methods. This was specifically mentioned for crops that are difficult to work with, but important to Colombian diets, such as cassava and plantains:

Hybrid plantain is difficult to breed and this process can take 40 years. This [genetic transformation] is a 10 to 15 year strategy, but if it is compared to traditional crop improvement, a great deal [of time] is saved. Also, this variety can be used by small farmers, because plantain is not important to the multinationals and is a small producer product. What is focused on, then, is that small farmers will have access to biotechnology and the varieties obtained through it.

These technical advantages were to be harnessed in order to solve particular problems, which would make enduring the difficulties and expense in using the technology worthwhile. A researcher from a national research centre suggests:

For me, genetic transformation is a very specific technology. It isn't generic, [but should be used] where we need it, for what we need it, and when we need it. […] And the other thing that I would like to emphasize is that before beginning a big genetic transformation project you have to explore all the existent genetic variability [in the plant you are working with, to rule out conventional methods] […] The question is if there is a transgenic variety with important characteristics, if it's worth the cost? If it's imperative, one must confront it in case [the variety] resolves social and economic problems.

The social and economic problems that researchers suggest the technology could address, points to the complexity of how “public goods” are conceptualized for biotechnology. It was time and again emphatically argued that Colombian agriculture existed in its own unique context and that Colombian scientists needed to respond to those conditions with appropriate research.

The type of genetic engineering done in developed countries is logical from the economic point of view. But [they have] ecosystem conditions different from ours. We have a tropical agriculture, there they have a temperate zone agriculture and they're different things. We have a very diversified economy, including the participation of indigenous communities, Afro-Colombian communities, in our case, up to cultivators such as those in the Valle del Cauca6 that are global players. In this sense, then, the logic that I defend is that the type of science that we do has to respond to our context. It doesn't mean that we're doing third world science, but it's rather like the processes of globalization, at least as I understand them. It's to take those elements and give them a conventional meaning. So, if one does not develop processes here that serve all sectors of production, then those particular types of technology have their limitations to be appropriated by society.

[emphasis added]

This university researcher's comments encompass different types of “public good” that scientists are trying to provide. Their references to the “technical” benefits of genetic engineering illustrate its meaning in terms of helping coffee growers to develop export crops (and therefore to create a traceable economic benefit), but also includes assisting small producers to grow cassava and plantain, a “public good” which, although more difficult to measure economically, contributes to food security. The same researcher goes on to describe how he designed his research program to advance public interests by serving both industrial export sectors (and therefore economic development goals), as well as small farmers (and therefore food security goals):

What was important to me was to work with a species that was of national interest and that, besides, was being used by all sectors of production: from the zone of the peasant economy to producers oriented towards exportation. And that fundamentally allowed me to develop processes of empowerment of the country; [to develop] knowledge, with respect to genetic resources.

Colombian scientists are attempting to create “public goods” in ways that address gaps in what is being provided by the world market. As the following researcher suggests, the major global crops are extensively dealt with elsewhere, so it makes more sense to focus on underserved crops of particular importance to the Colombian context.

There are things that are better to be bought because we don't have time or the money to develop them. … The major crops are in the hands of the transnationals. It is a fact. But we have other crops, such as the promising ones [previously mentioned], that [the transnational corporations] will not adopt because they are not interested in the market. That is what we have to develop ourselves. But we have to provide information: this [genetic engineering] is only one more system that guarantees us a more controlled product, from the genetic perspective. Before being released, all the risks have been evaluated, and we have a regulatory system that guarantees that the risks have been evaluated and that it will not affect either health or the environment.

In some cases, concern over neglected tropical crops was combined with the desire to make the best of Colombia's biodiversity. This was an opportunity to make a uniquely Colombian contribution:

Colombia is a mega diverse country and if we find genes that have better adaptation to drought, diseases, pests or [that give the plant] an improved quality, they can be introduced into native species in which the multinationals are not interested. If, as Colombians, we do not do this, nobody will do it. This is the case of tropical fruit.

[emphasis added]

There was a recognition that genetic engineering was not applicable in every situation and that different methods could be more useful in some cases. However, they were not willing to reject the technology outright, despite the difficulties and costs inherent in pursuing it. There was a general sentiment among the scientists interviewed that the technology held promise for providing a varied range of “public goods.”

GMOs as Technohype or Public Goods?

Colombian scientists' motivations for participating in plant genetic engineering are varied and complex, encompassing conceptions of public good that target both economic and food security outcomes. In order to best represent the complexity of their perspectives and the context in which they operate, we suggest two interpretations for understanding the commitment to use GM technology. First, we suggest that the position taken by genetic engineering scientists can be interpreted as a rejection of the idea that expensive technologies should not be used in resource-poor settings. This idea, we argue, can best be understood through considering the concept of “appropriate technology” and its critique. Second, we suggest an alternate interpretation: that scientific use of genetic engineering is an example of technological hype and hope of salvation through scientific progress, with which development has been historically associated.

The concept of “appropriate technology” was coined by Schumacher (1973). Schumacher argued that less expensive technology, created with local materials and within the financial reach of more individuals, would create economic development. He argued that industrial technology would not effectively generate employment, as such technology was designed to reduce human labor. However, the term “appropriate technology” soon spread to a discussion in developed nations about the nature of modern society (Winner 1986) and to the setting of development priorities (Farmer 2001). Farmer (2001) argues that, in the case of accessing medicines in Haiti and other poor countries, the concept of “appropriate technology” is used to maintain privilege and justify the denial of technology to those in resource-poor contexts. Farmer further argues that we should be suspicious of public health narratives that claim that medical interventions need to be “cost-effective.”“We can no longer accept whatever we are told about ‘limited resources’… The wealth of the world has not dried up; it has simply become unavailable to those who need it most” (Farmer 2001:xxvi). He suggests that demarcating “appropriate” technologies is equivalent to saying that some human beings are entitled to a different level of technology than others.

Herrera-Estrella (2000) has argued that medical and agricultural research are similar in their lack of attention to the needs of developing countries. The desire of Colombian researchers to use genetic engineering in the face of resource challenges could be interpreted as a denial of the idea that genetic engineering is not “appropriate” for those in resource poor contexts. Rather than accept the scientific dominance of temperate agricultural needs, they are attempting to create a wider distribution of benefits from the technology by applying it to tropical crops and Colombian local varieties. Their position challenges the de facto concentration of intellectual property rights and current GMO market distribution in the hands of northern-based, multinational corporations. In order to be sucessful, however, genetic engineering technology would have to have a chance to tangibly benefit farmers, including small farmers. This assumption is contested (Soleri et al. 2005, 2008) on the grounds that the needs and practices of farmers are not incorporated into agricultural research priorities. But does this mean Colombian scientists should not work toward achieving such ends using biotechnology?

An alternate interpretation of the position of Colombian scientists using genetic engineering is to consider their views within the history of invoking “scientific progress” in development discourse. Escobar (1995) has suggested that development discourse arose as a prominent policy in the post-World War II period. Instead of improving economic and social well-being, he argues that it contributed to massive underdevelopment, impoverishment, and exploitation in countries intended to be development recipients, including Colombia. A strong conviction in the powers of science and technology was a key component of development policies. Escobar's account cautions against the uncritical acceptance of technology's promise to resolve social and economic problems.

A powerful platform is created when the idea of contributing to development through scientific progress is coupled with the professional desire to participate in the cutting edge of agricultural science. The hype and accompanying resources (both material and symbolic) surrounding biotechnology is more appealing to many scientists than conventional plant breeding and crop research. The key question, however, is who does this research serve? Escobar (1995) suggests that

The “tree of research” of the North was transplanted to the South, and Latin America thus became part of a transnational system of research. As some maintain, although this transformation created new knowledge capabilities, it also implied a further loss of autonomy and the blocking of different modes of knowing.

[Escobar 1995:37]

Plant genetic engineering research in Colombia may contribute to knowledge that is centered elsewhere at the expense of Colombian agricultural needs and interests. As a result, biotechnology could provide some resources and prestige to Colombian scientists without providing the public goods they had hoped for. This potential is exacerbated by resource-related difficulties involved in using genetic engineering and biotechnology, as well as the tendency to secure funding from outside the country which often includes incorporating the donor organization's research goals. However, this is certainly not the expressed intention of those doing genetic engineering research in Colombia.


We present two interpretations concerning Colombian researchers' intent surrounding scientific decisions and directions. “Moments of scientific and technological change are always sites of struggle over how the benefits and costs of change will be distributed” (Harding 1998:5). Harding points out that there is a great deal at stake in such decisions, given conflict over the distribution of resources, power, and status. The barriers to agricultural biotechnology in the Colombian case suggest genetic engineering is unlikely to provide a global contribution on any large scale toward problems of hunger, so long as its use remains largely monopolized for profit generating purposes. The case is one in which, as Burkhardt (2001) has suggested, future benefits or contributions to the “public good” from a technology cannot be assumed, but must be demonstrated. To some extent, whether genetic engineering will prove useful for Colombian scientists and farmers is unknowable at this point. The scientists who inhabit the accounts here, however, are actively engaged in a struggle to redirect and more equally distribute the benefits of this technology by trying to harness it for local Colombian needs of both small farmers and exporters. By integrating traits to serve local needs and by using more local varieties (rather than ones imported by multinational companies), they are purposefully including local Colombian needs and uses into their activities in order to serve both economic and food security “public goods.” Further clarification of exactly for whom public genetic engineering and biotechnology are providing “public goods” is crucial to create an accurate assessment of genetic engineering “benefits.” Realistically assessing the “public good” of genetic engineering is as important as assessing its risks. If different goals for genetic engineering are not distinguished, as the following Colombian research scientist points out, then the “goods” provided will be for profit purposes rather than civic ones:

If it is used only to support large agricultural production, the members of the network for a Latin America free of transgenics are going to be right in thinking that it is an instrument of science that only serves the powerful.


This research was funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (doctoral fellowship); the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR Operating Grant: Risk and regulation of novel therapeutic products: A case study of biologics and emerging genetic technologies [CIHR MOP 74473], Principal Investigator: Janice Graham, and an Institute of Genetics Short Term Research Visit Grant: Science, Controversy, and Genetically Modified Plants: Participant Observation of the Creation of New Genetic Knowledge and Edible Vaccines, Principal Investigator: Christina Holmes); and the International Development Research Centre (Canadian Window on Development Award: Seeds, scientists, and sustenance: engineering value-added crops in Colombia and Canada [No. 102667-99906075-010]). JG acknowledges the support of the Canada Research Chairs program. The authors wish to thank the anonymous reviewers, Fiona McDonald, Mavis Jones, and Russell Wyeth for their comments on this paper, as well as individuals who commented on previous versions of this work at the 2007 Latin American Studies Association Congress and the 2007 Society for Social Studies of Science meetings.


  1. 1. “Genetic modification” and “genetic engineering” will be used interchangeably here to refer to the insertion of DNA into an organism's genome.

  2. 2. We will use “developing country” throughout this paper to refer to countries that might otherwise be considered “Third World” or “the global south.” While this term is controversial, as it is tied to larger discourses which privilege certain countries as “developed” and imply a “lack” on the part of “developing countries” (Escobar 1995) and which, further, obscures the wide range of differences between the countries so labeled, it is nevertheless the most commonly used term (in Spanish “países en vía de desarollo”) by the scientists interviewed in this research and reflects the structural view of much current international agricultural policy. We add “tropical” to this to draw attention to the key agricultural differences found in tropical environments, particularly the (lack of) global research interest given to the plants that grow well in these environments.

  3. 3. Borlaug won a Nobel peace prize for his breakthrough creation of dwarf wheat and his subsequent role in the Green Revolution.

  4. 4. These companies were originally based in the United States or Europe, although in a global environment, they may declare their “headquarters” and therefore their income in other countries for tax purposes.

  5. 5. For a more detailed description of the kinds of challenges faced at this stage, see (Potrykus 2001) in reference to the golden rice case.

  6. 6. Sugar cane is extensively grown in this area.