Twenty-Sixth FAO Regional Conference for the Near East

Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran, 9 - 13 March 2002

Biotechnology for Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in the Near East Region

Table of Contents


1.1 Overview of Agriculture, Forestry and Fishery Development in the Region
1.2Main Targets for Technological Innovation


2.1 Current Status of Biotechnology at the National Level
2.2 Developments at Regional and Sub-Regional Level

2.3 Major issues and concerns

A. Policy Issues
B. Infrastructure and capacity buildings

C. Constraints at the National and Regional Level

D. Intellectual Property Rights (IPR)

E. Biosecurity

F. Conservation and Sustainable Use of Biodiversity

G. Ethical Aspects





1.1 Overview of Agriculture, Forestry and Fishery Development in the Region

1. Generally, agriculture plays an important role in the economies of most Near East countries; however, agricultural contribution to GDP is characterized by wide variation among the countries in the Region. Most countries have experienced considerable growth in agricultural production over the past decade; but per capita gains are low or zero, largely due to high population growth rate. Food production continued to lag behind the burgeoning food consumption. Consequently, all near east countries, with the exception of turkey, are dependent on food imports to varying degrees. Numbers of undernourished in the region have increased rapidly to 36 million (10% of the population).

2. About 70% of agricultural areas in the Region are arid or semi-arid. Scarce and erratic rainfall, coupled with climatic shifts and an increasing number of dry years, are severely impairing stability of food production. Despite all exerted efforts to improve water-use efficiency, available water is still insufficient to further expand irrigated agriculture.

3. The Near East Region is unique from the standpoint of plant genetic resources, hosting two Centres of Origin and diversity of a number of the most important crop plants. The diversity present in the Region is a source of important traits to improve cultivated plants. Most of this diversity (10% of the flora) is threatened by genetic erosion1.

4. In the fisheries sector, the Near East Region has become a net exporter, but its global share of trade is marginal, accounting for only about US$ 135 million in 1999.

5. The total forest area of Near East countries accounts for 5.8 percent of the total land area2, 3. In addition to forests4, some countries in the Region (notably Algeria, Morocco, Somalia, the Sudan and Yemen) have significant areas of "other wooded lands" 5. The latter are important sources of wood and non-wood forest products, and play an important role in land stabilization, watershed management and desertification control. Fuelwood and charcoal are the major forest products together with browse for domestic animals. Production of industrial wood is very limited: about two-thirds of the demand is met by imports6.

1.2 Main Targets for Technological Innovation

6. Enhanced food security in the Region must come predominantly from increases in yields through the introduction of higher yielding or better-adapted varieties, more effective and sustainable agronomic practices and water management. Along with yield increases, improvements in nutritional quality and profitability are required.

7. In the Region where desertification menaces large areas, overexploitation of marginal lands and fragile ecosystems, deforestation, erosion of biodiversity and soil degradation can endanger the continued existence of food production itself. To counteract these forces, appropriate technological innovation must ensure sustainability of food production.

8. Biotechnology7 offers opportunities to reduce food insecurity and avoid environmental degradation. Tissue culture and DNA technologies can help alleviate regional agricultural constraints, e.g., by providing virus-free planting stocks and improved varieties resistant to biotic and a biotic stress, or with higher nutritional quality.

9. Biotechnology applications in livestock cover reproductive technologies and the production of improved transgenic animals. Molecular diagnostics facilitate the identification of pests, diseases and molecular-marker technologies facilitate traditional animal improvement and conservation schemes. Improvements in animal feeding and nutrition are also important.

10. In forestry, micro propagation techniques are already widespread. Other applications are largely limited to research. These include research on cryopreservation and in vitro germplasm storage, in vitro control of the maturation state, in vitro selection in breeding for hardiness and disease resistance, the use of molecular markers in breeding and genetic conservation, and research on wood quality traits, such as lignin-modification.

11. The use of molecular-marker techniques in fisheries biology provides an important tool for population genetics and information on the spread and genetic variation of pests and diseases. The application of reproductive biotechnology facilitates the development of selection programmes and the creation of polyploids, monosex and sterile stocks where these are desirable from production or environmental viewpoints.

12. This document aims to provide an overall evaluation of recent trends in the application of biotechnology to agriculture, forestry and fishery in the Near East Region in the light of regional agricultural development. It discusses briefly the major concerns and issues and proposes strategies for FAO support to the application of biotechnology in the Region.


2.1 Current Status of Biotechnology at the National Level

13. Agricultural research at national level is largely carried out by governmental research institutions and to a much lesser extent by universities and the private sector. In general, funding of national agricultural research systems has been unstable and has often declined. Although some countries (e.g. Algeria) have dramatically increased expenditure on research in recent years, the share of GDP invested at the regional level is still marginal compared to industrialized countries.

14. The present low level of biotechnology use in the Near East reflects the prevailing production systems, where more than 80% of the agricultural production is by small holders. In the limited areas of commercialized production, state-of-the-art biotechnology is usually applied, with examples in commercial dairy farming and specialized horticulture.

15. In the last three years, less than 1% of global agricultural biotechnology research publications received significant contributions from the countries of the Region8. Only few countries; e.g., Egypt, Iran, Morocco, Pakistan, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey, have centres capable of "state-of-the-art" research.

16. In Algeria, Iran, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Syria and Tunisia, plant micropropagation facilities have been established for a range of crops on experimental or commercial scales. In many countries plant tissue culture complements conventional plant breeding and germplasm conservation methods. Several countries; e.g., Iran, Egypt, Turkey and Kuwait have established public-private partnerships and attracted foreign private investors.

17. More sophisticated technology is in its infancy in the Region. Turkey and Egypt have the most advanced programmes, and produce and field-test a range of transgenic crops. Molecular markers are more widely adopted to assist selection in cereals, pulses and vegetables. Many countries are applying molecular techniques to plant disease diagnosis.

18. Innovative approaches to animal sciences have not reached the Near East significantly. A recent study9 reports that only 3% of breedable female cattle in the Region are artificially inseminated against a global figure of above 18%. Morocco has a more advanced programme, conducting studies to develop recombinant vaccines against equine plaque and mycobacterium diagnostic tests. Some countries have facilities for livestock reproduction research and practice artificial insemination and embryo transfer in small ruminants.

19. In the Near East, biotechnologies applied to trees and shrubs are currently restricted to micropropagation. Plant tissue culture protocols have been developed and applied by a number of countries for species of Cedrus and Quercus, Argania spinosa, some introduced Eucalyptus species, and a number of stone fruits. Research programmes in Lebanon, Syria and Tunisia aim at assessing the genetic diversity of priority forest and fruit tree species (Pinus brutia, Ceratonia siliqua, and Pistacia atlantica) using molecular-marker technologies.

20. Given the marginal importance of fisheries, no strategic research is carried out in the region, although biotechnology provides a number of interesting options. In Syria and Egypt, for example, molecular markers are applied to detect pollutant-induced mutations in fish and molluscs. Marker-assisted selection is applied to Nile tilapia and brown trout, while production of all-female populations through gynogenesis and polyploidy induction is practiced for rainbow trout in Cyprus and Turkey. ICLARM10 has a collaborative project for induction of the grass carp triploidy in Egypt. The genetics programme carried out at the Sturgeon International Research Institute (Iran) makes use of several biotechnological tools11.

2.2 Developments at Regional and Sub-Regional Level

21. The 7th General Conference of AARINENA12 (2000) identified major objectives for the development of Biotechnology in the Region, including linking biotechnology to those areas where it can have an impact; i.e., animal breeding and reproduction, veterinary medicine, and plant breeding. Other objectives included continuous analysis of research needs, development of new co-operative projects, development of a regional Agricultural Information System, and attraction of financial contributions.

22. ESCORENA13 provides an important link between the Near East and Europe, contributing significantly to the harmonization of standards and procedures and facilitating information exchange. The representation of the Near East (60 out of 2500 members) should be increased and more countries should be involved.

23. ICARDA14 has adopted modern biotechnology tools (marker-assisted selection, doubled-haploid production, embryo rescue and plant genetic engineering) for in-house and cooperative research projects. ICARDA also coordinates a biotechnology network aimed at providing assistance and training for the establishment of laboratories and projects.

24. ILRI15 is investigating the genetic background for trypanotolerant cattle in West Africa, which may benefit some countries in the Near East. The regional office of IPGRI16 supports molecular marker-assisted diversity evaluation for forest genetic resources. CIP17 is managing a genetic engineering programme to develop virus and disease resistant potato clones with potential benefits for Egypt, Algeria and Morocco.

25. Only 9% of the CGIAR's18 annual budget of US$ 300-350 million is dedicated to the Near East19 and less than 8% goes to biotechnology. The CGIAR's investment can be considered remarkable but insufficient. The CGIAR helps in creating awareness and implementing regulatory frameworks on intellectual property20 and biosafety. ICARDA has recently agreed to act as a biosafety focal point in the Region21.

26. Egypt and Tunisia took part in the pilot phase of "GEF Biosafety Capacity-Building Project/Initiative"22, although of 100 UNEP/GEF initiatives addressing capacity building in biosafety23, none are taking place the Near East.

2.3 Major issues and concerns

A. Policy Issues

27. Member Countries should consider formulating long-term, sound and sustainable national policies and strategies on biotechnology that are appropriate to their requirements including perspectives of concerned stakeholders. Biotechnology research requires high investment and should only be used when it offers comparative advantages to address high priority objectives.

28. Each country should decide whether, and to what extent, technology should be developed locally or imported and adapted, considering that technology importation will depend on the existing legislation, particularly for biosafety and intellectual property rights.

29. Biotechnology R&D needs to be fully integrated into a general agricultural research plan and linked to related activities at national, regional and international levels. In particular, public-private partnerships should be promoted.

30. National policies should also enhance public acceptance of biotechnology and take consumers' concerns into account. Extensive public awareness building, highlighting biosafety measures and the benefits of biotechnology products, is required to address stakeholders' concerns.

B. Infrastructure and capacity building

31. To be effective, biotechnology research and its application require a critical mass of expertise, facilities, institutional support and access to international collaboration. It goes without saying that the improvement of basic infrastructure and capacity are essential even when adapting imported technology. Therefore, a great deal of attention must be paid to human resources and infrastructure development.

32. Organized technology transfer systems are required to ensure that biotechnology results reach the end user. The flexibility and innovative creativity necessary to foster biotechnology application can not be realized by public research organizations alone.

33. Continuing globalization of trade will further increase the demand for goods of certified quality, requiring substantial investment for standardized quality management and control systems. This issue, only recently perceived at political level, has not yet resulted in appropriate infrastructure or human capacity being put in place.

C. Constraints at the National and Regional Level

34. Severe limitations in infrastructure and human, financial and institutional capacities remain the major bottlenecks for developing and incorporating biotechnological innovations into agriculture, fisheries and forestry in the Region. The limited funds available are often unbalanced with the operational resources being marginal compared to personnel costs.

35. Farmers' access to and rapid adoption of high quality, improved seed material requires a viable seed sector. Currently, 90% of seed is supplied by informal systems. Many countries do not have operational seed quality control systems.

D. Intellectual Property Rights (IPR)

36. Countries must evaluate IPR issues and introduce appropriate legislation, as required by the TRIPS24 Agreement, to ensure access to the latest biotechnology methods. In particular, they must decide on the preferred form of protection for plant varieties. Examples from other regions demonstrate that private sector development and public-private partnerships benefit from an IP-regime.

37. In the Region, most countries have patent legislation. Many countries, including Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, and Yemen, are developing legislation for the protection of "breeders' rights". In Morocco, plant variety protection legislation has been approved, but not yet put into practice25. Only a limited number of institutions (AGERI26 in Egypt is one of the exceptions) have established departments to manage IPR issues.

E. Biosecurity

38. In view of rapid advances in transport and trade, awareness of biological diversity/environmental issues and technological progress, improved national and international frameworks and standards are required to regulate, manage and control biosecurity27 of food and agriculture (including forestry and fisheries). Biosecurity has direct relevance to food safety, conservation of the environment (including biodiversity), and sustainability of agriculture.

39. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety28, which focuses on transboundary movements of living modified organisms, was recently finalized within the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). So far, less than half of the Near East countries have signed the Protocol and are eligible for support under the recently launched "GEF Biosafety Capacity-Building Project/Initiative"29. This project assists countries to prepare for the entry into force of the Cartagena Protocol through the establishment of national biosafety frameworks.

40. Biosafety legislation was developed by Egypt in 1995 and Syria in 2001. A number of other countries (e.g., Pakistan, Turkey and Iran) are currently discussing national biosafety regulations that might soon enter into force. While each country must develop its own biosafety procedures and capacities, commensurate with its needs and prospects, they should be regionally harmonized to meet agreed standards.

F. Conservation and Sustainable Use of Biodiversity

41. Biotechnology can contribute to the conservation, characterization and use of biodiversity but may also become a cause of genetic erosion if its products displace primitive landraces or traditional breeds. Gene flow can occur with the spread of genes from GMOs, as per other introduced populations, to natural stands, altering their genetic constitution.

G. Ethical Aspects

42. Biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are regarded by some as interfering with nature and directed to commercial profit making, raising controversy and ethical concerns. Since biotechnology can offer significant help to increase agricultural productivity, these concerns can conflict with the right to adequate food.

43. Other ethics-related issues include the right of informed choice and the right of democratic participation30, besides the aspects raised by IPR legislation. Decisions on the use of specific technologies should take these issues into account.


44. FAO recognizes that biotechnology is a powerful tool for research that is making important contributions to sustainable development of agriculture, forestry, and fisheries. It considers that modern biotechnology should be integrated with conventional technologies and that its application should be needs-driven rather than technology-driven.

45. In line with its mandate, FAO offers upon request policy and legal advice, promotes information dissemination and renders technical assistance to its members. FAO is making use of available resources to bring biotechnology results to fruition and to minimize their negative impacts.

46. FAO may, upon request, assist member countries in developing strategic policy frameworks for use in stimulating the development, assessment and use of appropriate biotechnologies for enhancing food and agriculture production. Specific areas in which FAO can help include:

47. FAO strategy is to maintain a balanced perspective on biotechnology by undertaking activities within the framework of existing national research agendas and priorities through consultations, monitoring and programme initiatives, rather than by supporting new independent programmes and structures.

48. FAO promotes regional biotechnology networks to foster active research and development partnerships and linkages between institutions and countries, emphasizing private-public cooperation.

49. FAO provides legal and technical advice for the establishment of appropriate regulatory frameworks in the fields of biosafety, food safety and IPRs. FAO will continue to strengthen its normative and advisory work on the harmonisation of methods for risk-analysis in relation to testing and release of GMOs.

50. Member Countries of the Near East might need information on which technologies are available, what they can be used for, how they can be applied, and what the cost-benefit implications of using them are. Maintaining awareness and brokering information are important roles for FAO.

51. The use of cost-effective modern electronic information tools through building on networks, which cater to shared ownership of information, peer-reviewed interactive databases and topical E-mail conferences must be promoted.


52. Biotechnology could support solving many of the constraints that limit crop, livestock, forestry and fishery production in the Near East. However, national programmes need to ensure that all sectors, including resource-poor rural populations in marginal areas where productivity increases are difficult to achieve, benefit from biotechnology.

53. Biotechnology requires high investments and should, therefore, be complementary to existing technologies, demand-driven, and only when it offers a comparative advantage. Priority setting in the Region should involve various stakeholders and take into account national development policies, private sector interests and market opportunities.

54. Since much biotechnology research is conducted by private companies in industrialized countries, Intellectual property rights legislation is critical for access to the results of biotechnology research originating elsewhere. Partnerships between foreign and local institutions can help to acquire know-how and yet soften the patent requirements. Legislation is also needed to regulate activities; e.g., specifications for introduced genetic material, animals and plants, and their certification.

55. Developing countries of the Region may need assistance in developing appropriate legislation and setting up regulatory bodies for biosafety. Legislation developed in the region must be consistent with international agreements and reflect national positions.

56. It is imperative that developing countries of the Region are not left at the edge of development nor in a disadvantaged position. FAO, together with partners, is ready to help member countries to optimize their capacity to develop, adapt and use biotechnology and its products to meet their needs, to enhance food security and to improve living standards, while


1 FAO (1998) The state of world's genetic resources for food and agriculture.

2 FAO (2001).Global Forest Resources Assessment 2000 . Main Report. FAO Forestry Paper 140. FAO, Rome.

3 See also: "The Use of Treated Sewage Water in Raising Forest Plantations in the Near East ". Secretariat Note FO:NEFC/02/4, prepared for the 15th Session of the NE Forestry Commission, Khartoum, Sudan 28-31 January 2002.

4 Land with tree crown cover of more than 10% (or equivalent stocking level) and area of more than 0.5 hectares. The trees should be able to reach a minimum height of 5 meters at maturity in situ (see footnote [3] above for reference).

5 Land with a crown cover of either 5-10% of trees able to reach a minimum height of 5 meters at maturity in situ, or a crown cover of more than 10% (or equivalent stocking level) of trees not able to reach a height of 5 meters at maturity in situ (e.g. dwarf or stunted trees); or of shrub or bush cover of more than 10% (see footnote [3] above for reference).

6 FAO (2001). The State of the World's Forests 2001. FAO, Rome.

7 The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) defines biotechnology as: "any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use".

8 Survey conducted using Cab International, Agricola and Biosys databases.

9 Thibier and Wagner, 2001. The world statistics of artificial insemination of cattle.

10 International Center for Living Aquatic Resources (ICLARM - The World Fish Centre)

11 Activities at Sturgeon International Research Institute (Iran) include karyology of Persian sturgeon, population genetics of Persian sturgeon in the south Caspian Sea, vitellogenesis in Acipencer stellatus, conservation biology of ships sturgeon, and cryopreservation of sturgeon milt. Planned activities include additional population genetic studies, characterization of growth hormone gene, microsatellite DNA characterisations, gynogenesis and sex specific markers, selective breeding and genetic markers, and mass production of cryopreserved sperm (see Bartley, and Ranna. 1998. Evaluation of artificial rehabilitation of the Caspian Sea fisheries and genetic resources management in aquaculture and fisheries of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Mission Report).

12 Association of Agricultural Research Institutions in the Near East and North Africa - AARINENA. The website on the organization and position of AARINENA, including important links to NARS, ARI. is:

13 The European System for Cooperative Research Networks in Agriculture; further information can be found on the website:

14 International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas, Aleppo, Syria (,. In durum and bread wheat improvement, ICARDA is cooperating with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, CIMMYT, whereas the improvement of chickpea is carried out in collaboration with International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, ICRISAT.

15 The International Livestock Research Institute, Nairobi, Kenya (

16 International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, Rome, Italy (

17 International Potato Center, Lima, Peru (

18 Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research

19 estimated from CGIARs annual financial report 2000, focusing on germplasm improvement and biodiversity assessment,

20 for example, IPGRI's "key questions for decision makers"

21 ICARDA (2001) Proceedings of the workshop Developing and Harmonising Biosafety Regulations for Countries in West Asia and North Africa, Aleppo, Syria, September 11-13, 2000

22 Global Environmental Facility - GEF (see

23 see the website of CBD (

24 The TRIPS (Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) article 27 obliges Member Countries to grant patents for "inventions whether products or processes, in all fields of technology, provided that they are new, involve an inventive step and are capable of industrial applications". Article 27.3s allows for the exclusion, inter alia, of plants and animals, but it requires members to provide protection to plant varieties either by patents or by "an effective sui generis system, or a combination thereof". Developing countries had a five-year transition period after entry into force of the agreement in 1995 to allow the development of necessary legislative adaptation, and the least developed countries eleven years, with the possibility of an extension.

25 Andreas Hadjichristodoulou (2000) Seed legislation and regulatory measures in the Near East and North Africa

26 Agricultural Genetic Engineering Research Institute, Cairo, Egypt.

27 In this document, "Biosecurity encompasses all policy and regulatory frameworks (including instruments and activities) to manage risks associated with food and agriculture (including relevant environmental risks), including fisheries and forestry" in relation to food safety, the introduction and release of GMOs and their products, and of alien species and genotypes, plant and animal pests and diseases, and zoonoses (FAO Committee on Agriculture document COAG/01/8).

28 Biosafety is defined as the safe and environmentally sustainable use of GMOs and their derivatives. Biosafety regulations require risk assessment and post-release monitoring to ensure that GMOs do not have harmful effects on the environment or people.

29 Global Environmental Facility - GEF (see

30 FAO (2001) Genetically modified organisms, consumers, food safety and the environment. FAO Ethics Series n. 2.