Agricultural Biotechnology Support Program - ABSP

The Agricultural Biotechnology Support Program (ABSP) is a  USAID-funded project, managed originally by the 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, regulation

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