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Having fun while doing good: 20 years of bioeconomy conferences in Ravello

David Zilberman photo

By Professor David Zilberman, Agricultural and Resource Economics, UC, Berkeley
This article was originally published on The Berkeley Blog.
Read the original article.


The discovery of DNA in 1955 opened new opportunities for utilizing biological knowledge for practical applications. The medical biotechnology industry emerged in the late 1970s with the patenting of the human growth hormone, the Cohen-Boyer patent for genetic recombination, and the creation of Genentech. Scientists were also looking for agricultural applications of these emerging technologies. First applications included enzymes for breads and cheeses and a vaccine against swine diarrhea. In 1987 the ice-minus bacteria that targeted frost damage in strawberries was first applied in open fields in Berkeley, after the US government established a regulatory framework for the introduction of GMOs in agriculture. At the same time, Jeremy Rifkin and other activists started legal actions to halt the new technology, and new companies, like Agracetus were established.


Agricultural economists realized that the fledgling biotechnology industry held the potential to change agriculture and would raise significant policy challenges. In 1993, Richard Just and Darrell Hueth, predicted that agricultural biotechnology would destabilize the pesticide sector, lead to significant losses for existing pesticide companies, and introduce new players and conflicts to the industry. In the same year, Postlewait, Parker and Zilberman suggested that agricultural biotechnology would develop faster in the U.S. due to the strength of its educational industrial complex, rapid technology transfer from universities to industry, and the future of the industry would be affected by regulation and intellectual property rights considerations.

Robert Evenson, Doug Gollin and Vittoria Santaniello believed that the introduction of agricultural biotechnology would enhance the value of plant genetic resources and highlight the need for effective policies to enhance such resources and IP to enhance overall efficiency and the potential benefits in developing countries from the existing technologies. They organized a symposium at the University of Rome Tor Vergata with the sponsorship of FAO, entitled the Economics of Valuation and Conservation of Genetic Resources for Agriculture.

thumb_2006-06-30-16.02.50_1024-600x450In 1997, the first conference of what would become the International Consortium on Applied Bioeconomy Research (ICABR) was held at Tor Vergata organized by Santaniello with his friends from North Carolina State Jerry Carlson and Michelle Mara, Robert Evenson, and Bill Lesser with Pasquale L. Scandizzo in the background. It gained support from Joseph Cooper at FAO and the emphasis was on biotechnology and biodiversity as well as early studies of the impact of GMOs on yield and costs and the future of the agricultural biotechnology industry.

This conference was followed by a larger conference that was supported by the FAO and others. At the end of this conference, the working group had a discussion of how to proceed and decided to establish the ICABR as a consortium of individuals and universities modeled after the water consortium (IWREC). The leadership was Santaniello, Evenson, Zilberman, and Scandizzo.

The key principles guiding the ICABR’s design were that membership would be on a voluntary basis, regular members would pay their way to the conferences as well as registration fees, and that we would seek support from Tor Vergata, Yale, UC Berkeley, and other institutions to cover the costs of the consortium and pay for invited speakers, hoping that they would become members later on. We also decided to seek support to attract scholars from developing countries and to develop an agenda that evolved with the changing agricultural biotechnology sector.

From the beginning, the beauty of Rome was a key to success of the consortium. After long days, the members feasted on the cuisine and reveled at the beauty of Italian treasures, including special visits to the Borghese and other museums and a midnight tour around town. The consortium featured a wonderful website and announcements of the conferences emphasized the content as well as the attractiveness of the venue.

thumb_IMG_1202_1024-450x600In 2000, the annual meeting of the ICABR moved to Ravello. While Rome provided many attractions, the traffic and noise of city life were a distraction. The Italian government provided modest support to ventures that enhanced economic activities in the south, and after a visit to Ravello, we fell in love with the place. During the first few years, the meetings were held at the magnificent Villa Rufolo. More recently, the meetings moved to the modern auditorium designed by Oscar Niemeyer.

As part of the meeting, we had a nightly concert as well as tours of the attractions around the area. We still remember the amazing tour to Pompeii, a fascinating visit to the Naples museum, and great tours to Positano, Capri, and Amalfi. We have been in Ravello for 15 years now and we continuously discover new cultural and gastronomic gems. While the consortium has a group of regulars, the list of participants change each year, reflecting the changing agenda. What we realize is that once people join us in Ravello, they love to return.

In 2007, the ICABR entered a new era as we, and the scientific community, lost Bob Evenson (and here) and Vittorio Santaniello. In 2008 we established the annual Vittorio Santaniello Memorial Lecture, and in the first lecture, Justus Wesseler presented “The Santaniello Theorem of Irreversible Benefits”. Many lectures followed with renowned scientists.[1] We were fortunate that Sara Savastano, a professor at Tor Vergata, took over as the secretary and the engine behind ICABR, and Carl Pray of Rutgers University became our president. Carl established a broader leadership team that is responsible to organize the programs for the conferences and manage publications coming out of our work.

Under this new leadership, we hosted editions of the conference jointly with other international associations, among others a joint conference with the European Association of Agriculture Economist – the 128th EAAE Seminar in 2012, together with a Joint AAWE-ICABR Workshop on Technology and Innovation in the Wine Industry in Feudi di San Gregorio, one of the most spectacular winery in Southern Italy (Atripalda – Avellino), a Pre-Conference Workshop on The Economics, Technology, and Sustainability of the Wine and Beer Economy in 2011 in Villa Mondragone (Monteporzio Catone – Rome) a patrician villa that belongs to the University of Rome Tor Vergata, and a joint-workshop in 2011 during the annual meeting of the EAERE, the European Association of Environmental Economists held at the University of Rome Tor Vergata. Finally, in 2014, thanks to a grant from the Gates Foundation, we ventured out of Ravello and Italy to hold our conference in Kenya, and we were able to involve many African Scholars.

2008-07-03-14.22.04-300x225The agenda of ICABR has evolved over the years. In the beginning, we emphasized prediction of the magnitude and extent of the impact of biotechnology in agriculture. After empirical data on various impacts were available, ICABR presenters used it to show that adoption of GMOs tended to increase yields (especially in developing countries), reduce pesticides, reduce poverty and in some cases have environmental and worker health benefits. Another area of emphasis was to study the extent to which access to IPR by researchers and companies was a barrier to developing new GMO technologies, especially in developing new foods for the poor.

Ideas that were presented at ICABR were later used to develop arrangements that transfer the right to use IPR to developers of new technologies in developing countries. Multiple sessions of ICABR meetings investigated the distribution of benefits from GMOs in agriculture. Some results appeared in a US National Research Council study and suggested that while the developers of the technologies (Monsanto) made substantial gain, much of the benefits went to farmers and especially consumers. Consumers gained from lower prices of corn, soybeans, and other crops that translated in lower prices of food, especially meat.

Over the years, it became clear that the main constraint to the introduction of GMOs was regulation, and the political economy and politics of GMOs has become a major of emphasis. The regulatory systems have reached an equilibrium where GMOs are more acceptable for feed and fiber, but less for food. The GMO technology was introduced in the U.S., but was less favored in Europe.

The larger European influence in Africa has contributed to the tougher barriers on the introduction of GMOs there. The cost of heavy regulation of GMOs has negatively affected the poor, as the case of Golden Rice illustrates. The regulatory system is quite costly and confusing and there were presentations exploring the implications of different rules that allow co-existence between GMO and non-GMO technologies and ideas of how to improve them.

A driving force for GMO regulations in different locations is consumer perception, which emphasize that attitudes are shaped by the way that GMO choices are presented and that while some consumers would pay a premium to avoid GMOs, there is a large constituency that considers price and availability and not GMO, per se.


The agenda of the ICABR has gradually expanded to go beyond the study of agricultural biotechnology to the study of the bioeconomy, which include the parts of the economy that use bio-resources to produce commercial products – including agriculture, biofuels, fine chemicals, and even agrotourism. The ICABR has become a major forum to understand the impact of biofuels on food prices and availability, to debate the merits of many biofuel policies, and to assess the potential and impact of second-generation biofuels.

The bioeconomy embodies a vision where biotechnologies are augmenting farming practices to expand the efficiency and range of products produced by agriculture. That will enable replacement of non-renewable resources on which we depend on today with renewable sources and reduce GHG emissions and the footprint of agriculture. One of the major areas of research is the supply chain and the transition of innovation to commercial products. We have found that the older sectors of the bioeconomy, that are based on fermentation, like beer and alcohol, provide several lessons for the new bioeconomy.

thumb_IMG_1196_1024-450x600This year we celebrate the 20th anniversary of ICABR and we are optimistic for its future. New developments, like gene editing (in particular CRISPR), hold a lot of promise, but their implications will depend on policy and regulations, and thus provide us new avenues of research. The bioeconomy is growing and evolving in response to changing economic and political conditions, along with climate change. The growing use of big data, and the introduction of new analytical tools, provide ICABR with even more opportunities to pursue its research agenda.

Happy 20th!

David Zilberman, University of California, Berkeley

[1] Including Odin Knudsen (Real Option International), Prabhu Pingali (Cornell University), Carlo Carraro (university of Venice), Abhaya Dandekar (UC Davis), Luuk van der Wielen (TU Delft), David Zilberman (UC Berkeley), Giuseppe Novelli (University of Rome Tor Vergata), Erwin Bulte (Wageningen) and Partha Dasgupta (University of Cambridge).

Decentralisation key to ending water wars

by Nujpanit Narkpitaks (ELP 2011), Thailand

This article was originally published on Bangkok Post.
Read the original article.

Water is the lifeblood of agriculture. It has significant impacts on the livelihood of millions of Thai farmers. Early on in rainy season this year, farmers in the Central Plains suffered from one of the most intense droughts in the last five decades. Evidence shows that this year is one of the lowest rainfall years since 1970 due to the effects of El Nino. Apart from the devastating floods of 2011, this drought is another wake-up call for Thailand to take a more serious step toward an effective and sustainable water management system.

Normally, wet season rice crops rely primarily on rainfall, but with severe rainfall shortages this year, farmers had to turn to irrigated water which was in extremely limited supply. The situation worsened when the two largest reservoirs in the North (the Bhumibol and Sirikit dams) hit their second lowest water levels in the last 45 years, putting millions of rai of rice plantations at serious risk.

To quickly respond to the drought impacts, the government launched several temporary relief measures and initiated some medium-and long-term projects, but like previous administrations, the emphasis is being put on the structural aspect of water management.

In addition to Mother Nature, another main factor causing this critical drought situation was the poor management of irrigated water during the past three years. After the 2011 floods, water from key reservoirs was discharged excessively due to politicians’ flood phobia and the controversial paddy pledging policy was implemented, resulting in a surge in rice production and excessive use of irrigated water between 2012 and 2014.

Water management in the Chao Phraya River basin has been quite problematic. Surface water is scarce, yet considered an open access resource as agricultural water uses are almost free of charge. This led to excessive use of irrigated water.

With limited surface water supply, increases in water demand due to rapid economic development and urbanisation along the Chao Phraya River have caused many conflicts among water users in different areas.

Also, the current centralised water management system has shown numerous weaknesses. The water allocation processes are prone to political intervention and considered unfair and inefficient. Farmers can usually obtain more water by lobbying politicians in their provinces and it is impossible for the central government officers to monitor and prevent water theft.

Experience in some developed countries prove that water management decentralisation is the key to solving these problems.

Thailand has started building stepping stones toward a decentralised system but this has not yielded a definitive result. The first attempt was when the Royal Irrigation Department (RID) created 50,000 water user groups. A TDRI survey of water users shows that some of these groups can efficiently manage the scarce common resource by themselves, creating a more equitable, stable and adequate water supply for farmers’ crops.

Conflicts among farmers have been reduced and some groups have made the collective decision not to grow rice when there is drought to save enough water for the next crop season.

Yet the roles of these water user groups are still limited because they are not legally recognised and entitled to state funds. Their real function continues to focus primarily on water allocation management in their areas as waste water and flood management are fragmented in the hands of the local governments and some central government agencies. Moreover, water user groups have never formed a network to work with groups in other provinces along the same river basin.

The second attempt was when the river basin committees were established by the Department of Water Resource in 1998. But so far, the committees have not played any active role in shaping water management policy.

If the government is serious about water management reform, it has to urgently pass the water resource law which will vest power and assign legal functions to the water user groups and river basin committees. Above all, the committees must consist of water user groups’ representatives from both upstream and downstream of the same river basin to ensure participatory decision-making. This will essentially fill in the missing links in water management decentralisation efforts.

Water management is 95% practice and 5% theory, so it will work if, and only if, water users in the same river basin are given forums to work together to come up with productive collective actions. The goal towards sustainable and equitable decentralised water management will take years or decades to reach. That is why we need to begin our journey now.

Companies, communities and NGOs define a new trade Market for Amazon products

by Helga Yamaki (ELP 2013), Brazil

The companies that want to fill up their products with oils, nuts, native essences from the Amazon, will need to create a dialogue with the extractivist communities, quilombolas and small producers of the region. Having accumulated knowledge on how to extract valuable raw material in a way that don’t degrade the forest, the supplier communities enter a new era of relationships with the industry.

Supported by the NGO, the traditional communities that survive from the sustainable use of the Amazon biodiversity, established the base line for trading of NTFP (Non-Timber Forest Products). The Community Protocol was launched on December 4th at Alter do Chão, Pará state, during the seminar on “Dialogues about Agroecology and Ethical Trade in the Amazon”.

Community representatives, partners and speakers in the Seminar at Alter do Cháo.

Community representatives, partners and speakers in the Seminar at Alter do Cháo.

The Forest of Value Project, is an initiative of Imaflora – Institute of Management and Agriculture and Forest Certification, that has a goal to conserve the Amazon forest through the strengthening of sustainable supply chain of NTFP and the dissemination of agroecology.

This Project is developed in three different territories of traditional communities and small holders in the country side of the state of Pará: Calha Norte of the Amazonas River, São Félix do Xingu and Terra do Meio regions. The project helps to establish paths to a new economy which keeps the forest standing and on its traditional ways of life, maintaining its most important value.

Our main focus is at the end of this chain, but we have partners such as ISA – Socio environmental Institute and ICMBio – Public sector responsible for these Protect Areas, that work along the chain.

To create a network between companies and communities, guide lines were created in order to develop a Community Protocol. This protocol emerged from negotiations between companies and communities from the State of Pará, taking into consideration their needs and rules.

The development of this Community Protocol aimed to diffuse the idea and allow it to be used in different communities from Pará and other Amazon communities.

To get to know more about the Community Protocol – companies and communities establishing new ways of trading protocol, click here:

This video represents part of our learning process at Imaflora and part of my work, where I have worked for the past 6 years.

yamaki2Through this video, we hope to stimulate the dialogue between traditional communities and companies, aiming to promote a differentiated trade market that contributes with the biodiversity conservation, that respects traditional communities ways of life and that follows ethical trading principals.

Searching for coexistence of GMO and organics in Amsterdam

David Zilberman photo

By Professor David Zilberman, Agricultural and Resource Economics, UC, Berkeley
This article was originally published on The Berkeley Blog.
Read the original article.


I recently returned from a conference on the co-existence of genetically modified food (GMO) with other food, such as organic. The meeting was on November 17-20 in Amsterdam, which was rainy, cold and windy, an unpleasant departure from the sunny and dry climate of drought-stricken Berkeley that I have grown accustomed to. Fortunately we were located in a hotel at DAM Square – the center of the city where everything began – that did not have much exposure to the weather.

I was fascinated from my time in this bustling city. Amsterdam has all the major brands you see in major tourist towns: Zara, Hermes and Gucci. But the local stores especially emphasize what seem to be the pillars of the local economy – cheese, marijuana, sex, and alcohol (you feel like you live in a Heineken ad). And the head shops put Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley to shame. The city is friendly and crowded, in a constant state of orderly chaos. As a taxi driver told me, “You might think that traffic is a mess- but there is some logic there- people tend to obey the red lights but use common sense when it come to other rules. Freedom is good.”

IMG_2059-225x300One benchmark to judge conferences, especially on topics related to food, is on their nightly dinners – and this one was a winner. Our first conference dinner was in a fish restaurant in a charming building built around 1640. We climbed a narrow and steep staircase to our seats on the third floor (safety and access rules are rather recent phenomenon). A unique feature of the restaurant is a Rembrandt self-portrait on the wall – I guess he gave it in exchange for a meal.

IMG_2030-225x300The next night we had a lovely tour in the rain of Amsterdam’s canals on the way to second and main dinner of the conference, which was held in a grand and very impressive and elegant building. The dinner included a presentation of the history of Amsterdam and we learned that the dinner’s venue served originally as a church, later converted to become the first stock market in the world. This stock market financed the Dutch discoverers and trade companies during the golden era of Holland in the 18th century when Amsterdam was the richest city in the world.

We learned that the Dutch discovered New Zealand, bought Manhattan, and renamed familiar locations (Harlem Brookline). The food in both cases was like everything in Holland – not flashy – but well done and enjoyable with an ample supply of liquids. Kudos to Justus Wesseler and his team on organizing a wonderful conference on food issues with a strong culinary component.

The conference was about co-existence…but what is co-existence? The definition of co-existence as addressed in the conference is quite narrow: it is a political and economic set up that allows for genetically modified crops to exist within the same regions of non-GMO and/or organic systems. The conference addressed the relative advantages and disadvantages of GMOs versus other systems, the regulation of GMOs (e.g. labeling, purity standards, etc.), and attitudes and perceptions of biotechnology in agriculture.

So, what did I learn from the conference?

IMG_2137-225x300First, the conference strengthened my impression that we reached some equilibrium in production and use of GMOs. There is some degree of co-existence of GMO and non-GMO products in consumption – and much less in production. Consumers in much of the world consume GMOs indirectly when they consume meats (it is used in production corn and soybeans that feed chicken and pigs), but there is very limited direct consumption of GMO products as food (papaya, sweet corn and few vegetables).

Much of the GMO products are produced in the US, Canada, Brazil, and Argentina, and even though GMOs are used to produce few feed crops in much of Europe and Africa, regulations practically ban GMOs. There is evidence that the limited use of GMOs already benefits the poor and the environment by reducing the price of foods, the use of heavily toxic pesticides, and the greenhouse gas emissions of agriculture.

Second, Europe is changing its regulatory regimes. In the past, many applications to grow GMO varieties were approved on technical grounds by the EU regulatory authorities. The implementation was delayed because it was impossible to reach the political consensus needed for approval. A recent policy will enable some countries to ban production of GMO products (opt out of the EU decisions) while the rest will maintain procedures that may allow some production with GMO varieties. This new policy may take the EU further away from the goal of “An Ever Closer Union Among the Peoples of Europe.”

It is expected that certain countries like Germany and Austria may fully ban GMO use. Some sensed that the political reality in those countries would lead to growing emphasis on shunning new biotechnology discoveries and encouraging local food and organic production. Other countries — Spain, Holland, and maybe England — may actually embrace GMOs, and have GMOs and organics side-by-side. But, developing the rules will still be a challenge. Since agricultural biotechnology is evolving and new technologies like gene editing are being introduced, the regulatory regimes will also evolve over time.

The countries that shun GMOs, like Germany, are losing a source of relative advantage and tend to reduce their research capacity in modern biotechnology. It is expected that some of these countries may reverse their positions and regulations in the future.

Third, on average, consumers have negative attitudes towards GMOs. But the attitude towards GMO as a technology are not strong, but rather are affected by the way the choices faced by consumers are framed. Instead, the objection to GMOs in many cases reflects negative attitudes to big agribusiness that became associated with GMOs. Consumers’ familiarity with GMOs is limited: a large percentage of the U.S. public assumes that GM products are much more ubiquitous than they really are, which allows retailers to promote GMO-free chocolates or tomatoes when no such GMO varieties are even available, and thus can charge a premium.

Consumers’ attitudes towards GMOs vary within and across nations. Significant portions of the population in many developed countries may be willing to pay a significant amount to avoid GMO foods, but studies also found that half the population was not willing to pay much to avoid it, and some were even open to pay extra for traits that enhance food quality.

Fourth, surveys found that a large majority of consumers were in support of labeling GMOs as long as they are not costly. A majority of consumers in a survey supported a label stating that the food “contains DNA which is a living organism”. But when consumers realize that labeling is costly, a large percentage will not be willing to pay the cost. Indeed all the propositions in the US to introduce GMO labeling were defeated. In the US we are likely to see voluntary labeling while in the EU, labeling is mandatory. The impact and cost of labeling depends on their implementation.

Fifth, Monsanto – the dominant developer of commercialized GMO traits – has decided to launch a “charm offensive” and reach out to its critics and the critics of GMOs more generally. I wish them the best and believe that they will be able to reach out and change the mind of some open-minded critics of GMOs; but the hardcore opposition to GMOs will not budge. They benefit from demonizing Monsanto and have been very successful thus far.

Whatever the flaws of the company, it was able to harness a great technology that eluded others. Furthermore, this technology already has provided benefits to the poor and the environment. Such technology should have been hailed (like Apple), but the fact that the benefits of the technology are not apparent to the middle class, coupled with the power of the certain interest groups that stand to lose from the technology, and past missteps of Monsanto (it did not have a Steve Jobs) have all contributed to their current predicament. As such, the diffusion of GMOs has been curtailed – and while they have not reached their potential – they already have had a major impact and will have much larger impacts in the future.

IMG_2147-300x177This conference is part of an effort to improve the global food system and the human condition. The current state of affairs is unsatisfactory. The poor and the environment pay a heavy price for the global community’s failure to take advantage of known traits which were not developed and promising opportunities that have not been pursued because of unjustified regulations and barriers.

Furthermore, our ability to adapt to climate change will be hampered by not utilizing the best tools for developing agricultural technology we have. Of course, more and smarter use of GMOs is not the only solution – I believe in diversified agricultural principles that take advantage of the best of biotechnology as well as ecological agricultural practices.

As I see it, cumbersome regulations, efforts to label GMOs, and attacks against Monsanto are not providing alternatives to address the real issues of our food systems. We need to improve food distribution systems and address other societal problems that maintain poverty and restrict opportunities and access.

My Impressions of the ELP

by Linh Huong Dang, Vietnam, ELP 2015
Written on August 1, 2015.

Finally I made it to the United States where, to me, it is supposed to be a pinky one. However, to be honest, I was a little bit disappointed on the way from San Francisco International airport to Berkeley. The taxi drove me by some gloomy resident areas. The reality was far different from what I had in mind. The disappointment went away as soon as I entered the “Bear territory” – I could feel a friendly, open, and academic atmosphere. The first day went by with a mixed feeling about a new country and the people here.

Second impression – the country of immigration. From Foothill to the campus, I saw people from all over the world. No matter where they were from and how long they have been living in this country, opportunities were there for people to take. All of the ELP staff were originally from different parts of the world, some respectful and distinguished professors also came from other countries. They made themselves in the country by their efforts and talents, and for that, I admired them. I was fortunate to have a chance to expose myself to other educational systems, but for the very first time in my life, I was deeply impressed by the way people could make the change here. They made me feel I was part of the team even though we all met each other for the first time.

Third impression – good story. Everybody I met here has a story. And some of the stories made me cry. I could not forget the the moment I had to control myself for not bursting into tears in front of people when listening to an inspiring, motivated, and brave story from one of my classmates – her own life. I also remembered the minute I couldn’t help but cry when I had a chance to express my gratefulness to one of the professors who was a silent sponsor to help me attend the course. In ELP, you are encouraged to tell your story and listen to the others. It is the shortest way for you to reveal yourself, reach out to embrace, and learn from others – learning is sharing. Stories make people get closer to each other. No matter who you are or where you are from, true stories come from within with full emotional, touching, and inspiring thoughts that connect people.

Fourth impression – field trips. ELP offers you not only the academic knowledge but also the practical and fun experience. From Redwood forests to Point Reyes, from Urban Agriculture to Salinas Valley, you have chances to experience the conservation and agriculture work on the ground in the country. Believe me, they are so much different from what you have already known. And if you are lucky enough (like me), you will see elk in the wild.

There are so many things I would like to say about the amazing three-week course with ELP where my expectations came true. Go to the ELP, go to UC Berkeley to experience it yourselves, and I am sure you will love it all. And last but not least, by attending the ELP, you will have a chance to meet the most talented participants from around the world who you will never forget in your life.

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