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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Winter 2004

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[Board accepted]

Staying on Top of Agbiotech -- An International Perspective

David Hemming
CABI Publishing
Wallingford, Oxon OX10 8DE, UK

Few areas of science in recent years have had such a major impact on the world as biotechnology. This has been particularly so for the agricultural use of this new technology. It is therefore critical to have accurate and accessible information in this area.

There is therefore a need to provide searchable access to the research itself, but also overviews and synthesis that helps to set the research in context, and give timely updates on the wider environment.

Agricultural biotechnology is a rapidly moving field at the interface of science and commerce that operates in a constantly changing political landscape. Major players come from all sectors including:

The wide range of organizations working in agricultural biotechnology often have differing agendas and needs. It is important to try to catalyse through relevant products and services the information flow between universities, government research networks, large and small biotechnology companies, developing country research groups and donors.

As a not-for-profit organization with an international mandate, CABI has responsibilities for trying to consolidate and disseminate core information in this important field. We have done this through the development of AgBiotechNet with the intent of it being a key information resource that bridges the needs of a wide community. Aside from the science of biotechnology itself, we've recognised the importance of covering issues such as biosafety (Morris and Koch 2002) and intellectual property rights (Mayer 2003). The resource contains key books from the Biotechnology in Agriculture Series, covering biotechnology in Africa (deVries and Toenniessen 2001) and developing countries in general, (Persley and MacIntyre 2001) EU/North American trade issues (Isaac 2002), and other issues related to GM food (Santaniello et al. 2002).

We have also developed appropriate services, such as training, that assist in this endeavour.

We have tried to use our unique skills to respond to specific needs.

Developing world relationships

We're using a variety of routes to get the information to users, including individual packages and site licenses, as well as sponsorship arrangements in the developing world.

I'm going to describe four of them:


When AgBiotechNet was first developed with assistance from the {Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project} (run from Michigan State University), one aim was to build bridges between the developed and developing world. The developed world could be made more aware of the biotech research that takes place in the developing world, through abstract coverage, news articles, our contact directory and reviews. At the same time researchers and policy makers in the developing world could see the research, regulatory and commercialization issues associated with biotech being played out through our coverage of what was happening in America and Europe. ABSP financially supported the initial stages of development of the site enabling it to be available to their collaborators worldwide.


Working with the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications we conducted training in identifying, researching and writing news stories, along with granting access to their Biotechnology Information Centres in the US, Kenya and the Philippines. It's a useful collaboration, which helps us get greater access to issues happening in the developing world and ensure our coverage is truly international. We also have licensing arrangements with the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) and the {Biosafety Information Network and Advisory Service} (BINAS), which deliver access to biosafety information from our content stores.


Recently, as part of the Uganda Biotechnology Support Project, we trained specialist Ugandan staff in retrieving information on transgenic crops. These specialists are in the position of advising policy makers on the latest research on biosafety in relation to transgenic crops. Uganda was making important decisions regarding testing of GM crops in a climate of many African countries with severe food shortages considering whether to accept food aid based on GM crops.

The issues behind the decisions of the other African countries were explored in a recent AgBiotechNet review by Joel Cohen and Robert Paarlberg (Cohen and Paarlberg 2002), as well as in the news and abstract sections. We examined with the Ugandan specialists some of the ways of obtaining objective information on biotechnology, and distinguishing it from more partisan accounts (see {Hot Topic on Bt plants}.)

So with the example of Bt crops we worked through the best searches to pull out information on non-target effects, management of insect resistance and setting these in context with cost-benefit analysis studies. This included information from our abstract database but also our news, online book chapters and recent reviews, and took advantage of CABI Bioscience's expertise in environmental impact assessment of GM crops. The Ugandan specialists also wanted to know what issues anti-GM groups were raising, to find a way of setting these views in context. The media in Uganda are still learning about biotech, and predominantly use information from those who make their points most articulately, and currently this is often the anti-GM NGOs.


Combining research and information

CABI is in a unique position in having an active research and training capacity alongside a publishing operation for information collation and dissemination.

Using our member network and international contacts

We also use our member government network and other international relationships to help get information to those who need it, particularly in the developing world.

There is no shortage of information on biotechnology, but sorting out reliable information from biased material and presenting it in a coherent and accessible format takes time. Our aim with AgBiotechNet is to provide an integrated resource so that users don't have to spend time and money tracking down and vetting information. We're aware that not all of our users will be familiar with the value of bibliographic databases, and we're responding by educating users to make that value more apparent, and integrating other elements that enhance that core information component.

As the subject evolves we, like other information providers, have to respond by providing better information in more usable formats. The need for objective information in a range of formats continues to grow as researchers and policy-makers worldwide have to stay on top of the plethora of scientific, economic and political issues concerning agbiotech.

While I've illustrated the talk with emphasis on the developing world, we're very much focused on meeting the needs of developed world scientists and policy makers too. Drawing together information from around the world and providing it to those around the world who require it is the essence of our strategy for helping them stay on top of agbiotech.


Carpenter, J.; Gianessi, L. 2001. Why US farmers have adopted genetically modified crops and the impact on US agriculture. AgBiotechNet 3, ABN 063. [Online]. Available: {} [Accessed December 9, 2003]

Cohen, J. I.; Paarlberg, R. 2002. Explaining restricted approval and availability of GM crops in developing countries. AgBiotechNet 4, ABN 097. [Online]. Available: {} [Accessed December 9, 2003].

Commandeur, U.; Twyman R.M.; Fischer R. 2003. The biosafety of molecular farming in plants. AgBiotechNet 5, ABN 110. [Online]. Available: {} [Accessed December 9, 2003].

DeVries, J.; Toenniessen, G. 2001. Securing the Harvest: Biotechnology, Breeding and Seed Systems for African Crops. Wallingford, UK: CABI Publishing.

Dicks, J. 2002. Plant bioinformatics: current status and future trends. AgBiotechNet 4, ABN 080. [Online]. Available: {} [Accessed December 9, 2003].

Fiehn, O. 2002. First International Congress on Plant Metabolomics April 7-11, Wageningen, The Netherlands. AgBiotechNet 4, ABN 094.

Isaac, G.E. 2002. Agricultural Biotechnology and Transatlantic Trade: Regulatory Barriers to GM Crops. Wallingford, UK: CABI Publishing.

Mayer, J. E. 2003. Intellectual property rights and access to agbiotech by developing countries. AgBiotechNet 5, ABN 108. [Online]. Available: {} [Accessed December 9, 2003].

Morris, E. J.; Koch, M. 2002. Biosafety of genetically modified crops - an African perspective. AgBiotechNet 4, ABN 102. [Online.] Available: {} [Accessed December 9, 2003].

Oda, L. M.; Soares, B.E.C. 2001. Public acceptance: a challenge for the strengthening of biotechnology R & D in Brazil. AgBiotechNet 3, ABN 067. [Online]. Available: {} [Accessed December 9, 2003].

Persley, G.J.; MacIntyre, L.R. 2001. Agricultural Biotechnology: Country Case Studies - A Decade of Development. Wallingford, UK: CABI Publishing.

Santaniello, V.; Evenson, R.E.; Zilberman, D. 2002. Market Development For Genetically Modified Foods. Wallingford, UK: CABI Publishing.

Schenk, P.M.; Ebert, P.R. 2001. DNA microarrays: new tools in agricultural biotechnology. AgBiotechNet 3, ABN 077. [Online]. Available: {} [Accessed December 9, 2003].

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