Experts meet to discuss and learn about the status of capacity development, partnerships and enabling environment for agri-biotech innovation in Asia-Pacific

The Asia-Pacific Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology and Bioresources (APCoAB) of the Asia-Pacific Association of Agricultural Research Institutions (APAARI) organized and successfully delivered two Working Group meetings with regional experts on agri-biotechnology.

The meetings that took place on 25 May 2022 and 17 June 2022, aimed to elaborate on the recommendations and knowledge outcomes of recent APCoAB expert consultations, and discuss the current status, main challenges and opportunities that agri-biotechnology presents to smallholder farmers in Asia and Pacific.

The knowledge exchange was organized in the context of capacity development, partnership and enabling environment for innovation in agri-biotech, covering both technical and functional aspects of this development field. The outcomes of the WGs are envisioned to provide strategic guidance to agricultural researchers, academicians, government officials, including policy-makers, rural advisors, as well as other development practitioners, on the use of agri-biotechnology for the benefits of smallholder farmers in the region.

The first WG discussed what and how technology innovation in agri-biotechnology is taking place, but the new knowledge that can enhance productivity, competitiveness, and sustainability in farming is still not widely adopted and scaled up. This lack of adoption of innovation in agriculture has led to the search for new frameworks, such as ‘agricultural innovation systems (AIS)’ to help understand how the process of agricultural innovation takes place, and how its relevance and quality can be enhanced. In the context of  AIS,, the WG discussed the key advantages of agri-biotechnology for smallholder farming in terms of sustainable development, livelihoods, poverty reduction and resource use efficiency.

Examples of specific high- and low-tech agri-biotechnologies for the most vulnerable segments of Asia-Pacific population emerged from the WG discussion that will form a technology list for future reference and elaboration.

Increasingly, it is being widely recognized that the focus on technological innovation alone does not enable impact. The experts discussed various non-technical factors that are needed to increase the uptake and impact of agri-biotechnologies on livelihoods of smallholders. It was pointed out that working together and smarter, rather than in silos, and with a system perspective rather than focusing on the components of the system, is needed more than ever. This requires soft skills – functional capacities and other non-technical complementary factors – to build effective science communication, partnerships and trust that lead to innovation, and which maximize the benefits of agri-biotechnology for the benefits of smallholders.

Given the complexity of AIS with diverse actors involved, it cannot be assumed that innovations in agri-biotechnologies can simply be transferred to farmers. The WG, therefore, discussed the role of research, higher education and rural advisory services in ensuring that the developed agri-biotechnologies can meet local and smallholder needs based on “no harm” principles and partnership with farmers.

To boost public-private-civil society partnerships for agri-biotechnology innovation, the experts also discussed what incentives governments need to develop for the private sector to enhance the investment in agri-biotech innovations or other cutting-edge technologies benefiting smallholders and related infrastructure, e.g. establishing innovation hubs, business incubators and science parks at the national level.

Science communication was identified as one of the factors behind low adoption of agri-biotechnology at scale. Consumers are key actors driving the agri-biotechnology agenda through their perceptions, eating habits and preferences. Therefore, countries need to develop appropriate public participatory mechanisms or decision-making models to match demand and supply for biotechnology with consumers’ needs while addressing their concerns by demystifying the myths against biotech products that are created by anti-science lobbies. The experts discussed various lessons learned from the implementation of their communication strategies that future strategies can built on so that effective communication measures would lead to positive impact of agri-biotechnology for smallholders in the region.

The second WG meeting looked with greater focus on the creation of an enabling environment, which includes improved policies and smarter investments for promoting agri-biotech innovations. The experts highlighted the Filipino model that is based on continuous need to revise biosafety regulations and identify biotech champions in the government that can lead related innovation processes, which are among the key factors governing the development of an enabling policy environment in agri-biotechnology.

Shaping public perceptions was identified as very important for influencing policy, while ensuring that messages to public are communicated in a simple manner in various languages prevalent in the region. Furthermore, improved market access was highlighted as an important part of the enabling environment, with a combination of product positioning in value chains, trade facilitation, and safety regulations that can generally strengthen agri-food systems in the region.

Unpredictable regulatory systems delay the advancement of innovative technologies and processes, e.g. with regards to product development timelines. The need for regulatory harmonization was discussed with diverse perspectives of the experts. While some agree, it is possible to have regulatory harmonization to remove redundancy of field trials to enhance global momentum for resource allocation for innovation, some experts pointed out that field trials are extremely important as they involve local population, including farmers. There is also a need to look at harmonization, if possible. Otherwise, at least efforts should be made for regulatory policy coordination and cooperation at bilateral or multi-lateral levels from the practical perspective of enabling trade facilitation in the context of biotech products.

Science Diplomacy was discussed as playing an important role in providing socio-technical and collaboration platforms that can potentially deliver agri-biotechnology enabled sustainable development. In Taiwan, for example, non-profit science groups are functioning well to better contribute to sustainable development. Like in India, the governments may consider to allocate budget at the national level for promoting science diplomacy in a strategic manner not only for sharing data, protected innovations but also trade facilitation.

Lastly, the experts highlighted the need to strengthen collaboration of research with higher education (HE) and rural advisory services (RAS), since this area has been inadequately addressed by the development community. Both HE and RAS need to capitalize on the significant dataset on agri-biotech crops that is widely available to keep younger generations up-to-date and rural people abreast with biotech advantages. Therefore, it is very crucial to disseminate such  of information by these key actors.

The outcomes of both WGs will feed into a regional positioning paper on agri-biotechnologies, that is being prepared in collaboration between APAARI and the Asia- Asia-Pacific Islands Rural Advisory Services Network (APIRAS) under the Tropical Agriculture Platform (TAP), and is envisioned to be published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).