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FAO established the Electronic Forum on Biotechnology in Food and Agriculture in March 2000 to provide quality balanced information on agricultural biotechnology in developing countries and to make a neutral platform available for people to exchange views and experiences on this subject so that it might be possible to better understand and clarify the issues and concerns behind polarization of the debate on agricultural biotechnology for developing countries.

This publication presents a report on the first six conferences of the Forum that took place from March 2000 to May 2001. Some background to the Forum and its conferences are provided in this chapter.

1.1 Definition of biotechnology for the purposes of the Forum

Firstly, how is biotechnology defined for the purposes of the Forum? According to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), biotechnology means “any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use”. Interpreted in this broad sense, the definition covers many of the tools and techniques that are commonplace today in agriculture and food production. Interpreted in a narrow sense, as is often done and as is done in the Forum, biotechnology mainly covers technological applications involving reproductive biology or, secondly, the manipulation, or use, of the genetic material of living organisms for specific uses. This definition covers a wide range of diverse technologies including, for example, the use of molecular DNA markers, gene manipulation and gene transfer, vegetative reproduction (crops and forest trees), embryo transfer and freezing (livestock) and triploidization (fish).

1.2 Background to the establishment of the Forum at FAO

FAO was founded in 1945 with a mandate to raise levels of nutrition and standards of living, to improve agricultural productivity, and to better the condition of rural populations. It is an intergovernmental organization with 183 member countries. One of the most important tasks that FAO carries out is to collect, analyse, interpret and disseminate relevant information. FAO serves as a clearing-house, providing farmers, scientists, government planners, traders and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with the information they need to make rational decisions on planning, investment, marketing, research and training.

FAO should play an active part in disseminating information and promoting information exchange regarding biotechnology. It is important that member countries know which biotechnologies are available, what they can be used for, how and in which wider strategy they can be applied, and what the cost-benefit implications of using them are. The global population size has passed the six billion mark and is increasing by roughly 80 million annually. Almost all population growth is in developing countries. Since the amount of agricultural land available is limited, the increases in food production needed to feed the world’s growing population must come from increasing the amount of food produced per hectare. Biotechnology, which is a collection of diverse tools that can be applied to many areas of food and agriculture, may play a role here. This collection includes scientific tools (such as genetic modification) that are sometimes considered to be highly controversial. The tools may pose ethical problems and require substantial debate among policy-makers, researchers and the public at large. Particularly in some areas of agricultural biotechnology (e.g. involving cultivation of genetically modified crops), the debate has become quite polarized and there is therefore an increasing need for quality, balanced, neutral and factual information.

To consider specifically the background to the establishment of the Forum, the biennial meeting of FAO’s Committee on Agriculture (COAG), held in Rome from 25-29 January 1999, was of key importance because, among other areas, it set the direction for FAO’s future involvement in biotechnology. [Note, the main purpose of COAG is to review and appraise issues in food and agriculture, and make recommendations on them to the FAO Council, which in turn reports to FAO’s highest governing body, the FAO Conference]. The report of the Committee “stressed FAO’s role in providing a forum for countries to monitor food and agriculture biotechnologies”.

At its 116th session (14-19 June 1999), the FAO Council subsequently endorsed the COAG report, stating that it “appreciated the need for FAO to have a coherent programme on agricultural biotechnology to assist Member Nations in obtaining the full benefits of new developments while minimizing risks. FAO’s role as a forum for the discussion of issues and for standard-setting, and as an ‘honest broker’ of quality science-based information, through mechanisms such as the International Plant Protection Commission (IPPC) and Codex Alimentarius, was underscored in general, and in relation to biotechnology in particular”. Later, at the 30th session of the FAO Conference (12-23 November 1999), Members stated that one of the substantive areas to which they attached particular importance was the active contribution of FAO to current debates on biotechnology and genetically modified organisms. It was therefore in this spirit that FAO established the Forum. It is coordinated by the FAO Inter-Departmental Working Group on Biotechnology (IDWGB) that was established in 1999 following the recommendations of the 1999 COAG meeting.

1.3 Operation and structure of the Forum

The Forum has an open structure that allows various parties - policy-makers, people from universities, NGOs, the public, etc. - to discuss and exchange views and experiences about specific issues concerning biotechnology and its applications in the animal, fishery, forestry and plant sectors in developing countries. The principal activity of the Forum is to run moderated e-mail conferences (each lasting roughly two months) about specific topics concerning biotechnology in food and agriculture for developing countries. To register for any conference, individuals must first be members of the Forum.

The topics all have biotechnology as the core subject and may cover themes such as biosafety, public/private agricultural research, biodiversity, capacity-building, food safety, poverty alleviation, benefit sharing, intellectual property rights and food production. The emphasis is on developing countries. As the Forum covers the broad range of activities found within the area of food and agriculture, it covers topics both of specific relevance to those interested in the animal, crop, fish or forestry sectors or of general relevance to all sectors.

The Forum was officially launched on 9 March 2000. The launching was marked by sending an e-mail “letter of invitation” to a list of people and institutions that might have been interested in this initiative. An important source of e-mail addresses was a report on biotechnology networks in developing countries, prepared for FAO’s Research and Technology Development Service (SDRR) in September 1999. The list also included Permanent Representatives to FAO and all FAO country representatives and was supplemented by additional addresses provided by members of the IDWGB. In the letter of invitation, people were requested to also forward the information to anyone that they considered might be interested.

The number of Forum members rose to over 700 within the first month, to over 1 000 after three months and to nearly 1 300 by the time the sixth conference was finished more than one year later (see Table 1.1). Once they joined, very few people left the Forum. Forum members may not send messages to each other (although if they register for a conference they may send a message to all other participants in the conference) and may only receive messages from the Forum Administrator, who is responsible for all contact with the Forum members. They have so far (November 2001) received 31 messages i.e. roughly two a month from the Forum Administrator.

Forum members are not automatically registered for any e-mail conference, but instead have to do this themselves. Thus, they participated to varying degrees in the different conferences. Some did not register for any conference, but instead only received key documents from the Forum Administrator. Others instead, registered for several conferences and received all the e-mail messages posted. See Chapter 8 for further details on participation.

Table 1.1 Sequence of key events regarding the Forum, including the number of Forum members at each date



No. Forum Members

9 March 2000

1) Forum launched
2) Forum website launched


20 March

Conference 1 begins


25 April

Conference 2 begins


26 May

Conference 1 ends


12 June

Conference 3 begins

1 008

30 June

Conference 2 ends

1 086

1 August

Conference 4 begins

1 158

25 August

Conference 3 ends

1 182

8 October

Conference 4 ends

1 205

1 November

Conference 5 begins

1 217

17 December

Conference 5 ends

1 208*

20 March 2001

Conference 6 begins

1 240

14 May

Conference 6 ends

1 282

* The drop in numbers is due to removing some non-valid e-mail addresses in December
When the Forum was launched, a website to complement and support the Forum was also launched ( The website was implemented in collaboration with FAO’s information management group, WAICENT. Note, however, that the primary communication medium of the Forum is e-mail, so to be a Forum member and participate actively in any of its conferences, the only thing that is required is an e-mail account. The website merely gathers together in one place all the information about the Forum, as well as all the documents and individual messages related to the different conferences. The website has been recognized as a valuable resource. It was selected by the Internet Scout Project for inclusion in the Scout Report (26 May 2000), a weekly current awareness publication that highlights new internet resources of interest to researchers and educators (see; was chosen as a “Hot Pick” in the Netwatch section of the journal Science ( (28 July 2000); as well as the “site of the Day” by New Scientist (29 December 2000) (

It was a conscious decision to operate the Forum with e-mail as the base communication medium (rather than, for example, running the conferences on the web) to try and facilitate participation from developing countries. Although both typically require access to a computer, modem, phone line and an account with an internet service provider, full internet access with browsing on the web tends to be more expensive and more difficult in practice than simply receiving and sending e-mail messages. The analyses carried out (Chapter 8), showing that individuals from developing countries were actively involved in the Forum conferences but very seldom visited the Forum website, strongly support this decision.

Individuals wishing to join the Forum, have to register themselves. This is done by sending an e-mail message to an automatic FAO mail server. Using the server, people can automatically subscribe or unsubscribe themselves from the Forum, or they can receive messages previously posted by the Forum Administrator. Registration is also possible from the Forum website.

1.4 Operation of the individual e-mail conferences

The six conferences were operated in the same way.

a) Before a conference

Before a given e-mail conference began, a Background Document, two to five pages in length, was prepared. In this publication, the six Background Documents are included. As the conferences took place in a time span covering over one year (see Table 1.1), the documents were written at different stages from March 2000 to March 2001.

The aim of the Background Document is to give an easily-understandable description of the conference theme, enabling potential participants to have a basic grasp of some of the main aspects of the theme. For example, the Background Document to Conference 2, on the appropriateness of current biotechnologies for the forestry sector in developing countries, provided a brief summary of the kinds of biotechnologies currently available for the forestry sector; some key elements or current trends in the forestry sector in developing countries and finally, certain factors that should be considered in the discussions. Before a conference began, the Background Document was sent to Forum members. In the same e-mail message, they were invited to join the conference and given instructions about doing so. They were requested to carefully read the document if wishing to participate in the conference.

b) During a conference

Involvement of Forum members in each conference is governed by the “Rules of the Forum” and “Guidelines for Participation in E-mail Conferences” that Forum members receive on joining the Forum. These specify, inter alia, that

Each conference was moderated by the Forum Administrator. The Moderator’s role is to screen all messages before they are posted to ensure that they follow the rules and guidelines of the Forum and that they are relevant to the theme of the conference. In addition, the Moderator plays an active role in the conference by ensuring that messages are understandable and, where appropriate, providing additional information of benefit to participants. Roughly 95 percent of messages received by the Moderator during FAO working hours were posted to the conference within an hour of receipt. Those received after working hours were usually posted first thing the following morning. Only a small minority of messages was refused for posting, coming mainly in Conference 1. Messages were refused primarily because they were not directly relevant to the theme of the conference. When required, IDWGB members provided technical support to the Moderator.

Midway through each conference, a brief Update Document was written and sent to Forum members, summarizing the kinds of messages posted, the subjects dealt with and pointing out some areas that should be addressed in the remaining time available. In some cases, as in Conference 1, more than one Update was written.

c) After a conference

After a conference is finished, two Summary Documents are written. The first version is longer (five to eleven pages), more detailed and contains references to specific e-mail messages. The second version is shorter (one to two pages) and does not contain references. Both documents attempt to provide an easily-readable summary of the main arguments and concerns discussed during the conference, based on the messages posted by the participants. In this publication, the longer versions of the Summary Documents are provided. References are made to specific e-mail messages that can be viewed on the Forum website.

1.5 The six conferences

The first conference began less than two weeks after the Forum was launched. It was the first of a four-conference block on the theme of the appropriateness of currently available biotechnologies in the crop, forestry, animal and fishery sectors respectively for food and agriculture in developing countries. The themes of the fifth and sixth conferences were chosen based on the interest shown in them by participants during the early conferences. The fifth conference dealt with the implications of agricultural biotechnology for hunger and food security in developing countries, while the sixth examined the impact of intellectual property rights on food and agriculture in developing countries. The titles and start/end dates of the six conferences are as follows:

Conference 1 (20 March to 26 May 2000): How appropriate are currently available biotechnologies in the crop sector for food production and agriculture in developing countries?

Conference 2 (25 April to 30 June 2000): How appropriate are currently available biotechnologies for the forestry sector in developing countries?

Conference 3 (12 June to 25 August 2000): The appropriateness, significance and application of biotechnology options in the animal agriculture of developing countries.

Conference 4 (1 August to 8 October 2000): How appropriate are currently available biotechnologies for the fishery sector in developing countries?

Conference 5 (1 November to 17 December 2000): Can agricultural biotechnology help to reduce hunger and increase food security in developing countries?

Conference 6 (20 March to 14 May 2001): The impact of intellectual property rights (IPR) on food and agriculture in developing countries.

The conferences thus dealt with specific separate themes, although always remaining within the general area of biotechnology in food and agriculture in developing countries. The conferences attracted different audiences, discussed different topics (although they often overlapped) and each had different characteristics. Some general figures from the conferences are provided in Table 1.2.

Table 1.2 Number of people that registered for each conference, number of messages posted and the number of weeks the conference lasted



No. members

No. messages

Duration of
conference (wks)






















Hunger/Food security









1.6 Limitations of the conferences

a) Language

The six conferences took place in English only. Thus the Background and Summary Documents for each conference, as well as all messages from the Moderator and by participants (with the exception of a couple of messages transmitted in both English and French in the livestock sector conference) were in English. This affects the kind of audience and participants in the different conferences, making it difficult for individuals lacking the English language to contribute to the conferences and to make their opinions/experiences known. For example, in the fisheries sector conference, there were no messages from some of the developing countries that have active programmes in fisheries biotechnology (Brazil, China and Cuba) and language might explain their absence. Nevertheless, messages posted in the Forum conferences came from nearly 50 different countries throughout the world, many of which do not have English as their main language (see Chapter 8).

b) Electronic communication

When people attend a “traditional” conference, the list of participants typically includes those who are invited and those who either pay for themselves or who are paid to attend by their employer. There is often a restriction on the maximum number of attendees. There is thus a certain process of selection where (language considerations apart) a number of people interested in a particular subject may not be present to provide their input. However, with any type of conference, the quality of the discussions and outputs depends on the participants. The aim of the Forum is to allow a wide range of parties to discuss and exchange views and experiences about specific issues concerning biotechnology. The medium for communication is e-mail and, as with a traditional conference, this also involves problems of selectivity.

Even though the Forum is free and open to everyone it requires, however, in the most typical case, electricity, a phone connection and a computer with a modem. There are thus large differences between and within countries regarding access to these new communication technologies. The UNDP Human Development Report 2001 ( showed there is a large “digital divide” in the world today. Figures from the report indicated that, in the year 2000, nearly seven percent of the world population was using internet but that 79 percent of internet users lived in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. Furthermore, the percentage of the population with internet use ranged from 28 percent in high-income OECD countries to 0.4 percent in sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia. In addition, the report also provided some information on the “digital divide” within countries, pointing out that internet users are mainly:

These are important limitations that should be kept in mind when reading the summaries from the conferences.


The views expressed by the participants in the different conferences and summarized in Chapters two to seven are those of the participants and do not reflect those of FAO. FAO cannot and does not guarantee the accuracy of any statements made in or materials posted to the Forum’s e-mail conferences by participants.

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