Modern biotechnology based on molecular biology is generating revolutionary advances in genetic knowledge and the capacity to change the genetic makeup of crops and livestock. The rapidly expanding field of genomics is providing new molecular tools to greatly accelerate and more precisely target conventional breeding. This same knowledge is being applied to transfer genes across (and within) species to create transgenic varieties (popularly known as genetically modified organisms). These new approaches require advanced skills, research laboratories, the capacity to manage intellectual property (IP), and in the case of transgenics, the capacity to evaluate environmental and health risks.

In the past year, a number of influential organizations and individuals have strongly endorsed the significant potential of modern biotechnology in developing countries to raise agricultural productivity in a more environmentally-friendly manner, enhance food security, and contribute to the alleviation of poverty (Royal Society of London, 2000; Nuffield Council on Bioethics, 1999; Conway, 1999; Pinstrup- Andersen & Cohen, 2000; Persley & Lantin, 2000; Serageldin & Persley, 2000; Spillane, 2000). This potential is particularly relevant given the enormous challenge of increasing food security in the developing world and the growing evidence that gains from conventional sources of technology are slowing.

To date, the application of molecular biotechnology has been limited to a small number of traits of interest to commercial farmers, mainly developed by a few ‘life science’ companies operating at a global level. Very few applications with direct benefits to poor consumers or to resource-poor farmers in developing countries have been introduced. Although much of the science and many tools and intermediate products can solve high priority problems in the tropics and subtropics, it is generally agreed that the private sector will not invest sufficiently to make the needed adaptations. Consequently, national and international public sectors in the developing world will have to play a key role, much of it by accessing proprietary tools and products from the private sector. However, there has been little detailed analysis of the incentives and mechanisms by which such public-private partnerships can be realized.

The aim of this paper is to provide a broad framework for assessing a range of policy and institutional options available to developing countries for generating and accessing these new molecular tools at the national, regional and global levels, with particular emphasis on crops. After a synoptic overview of the status of biotechnology research in and for developing countries, various mechanisms for accessing modern tools and technologies are outlined and analyzed for their potential cost effectiveness, using available examples. The main section of the paper discusses institutional and policy options for facilitating this transfer within a framework of public and private bargaining chips and segmented markets. Special attention is given to how strategies can be adjusted to fit the very different capacities among developing countries in biotechnology research.