FAO studies show that the pace of advance in biotechnology in developing countries varies considerably, and that many countries are not exploring the full range of biotechnology tools. Globally, 85% of plantings of transgenic crops are herbicide-resistant soybean, insect-resistant maize and genetically improved cotton. These crops are designed to reduce input and labour costs in large scale production systems, not to feed the developing world or increase food quality. There are no serious investments in sorghum, pearl millet, pigeon pea, chickpea and groundnut, the five most important crops in the semi-arid tropics. This is largely because 70% of investment in agricultural biotechnology comes from the multinational private sector, with a focus on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and biotic stresses. There are virtually no major public sector programmes that tackle the critical problems of the poor and the environment, or that target small ruminants or crops such as cassava.
What we are witnessing is a molecular divide between developed and developing countries, between rich and poor farmers, between research priorities and needs, between technology development and technology transfer - in short, between the promise of biotechnology and its real impact. As the gaps widen, will biotechnology aggravate current inequalities in the world?
Three principles. There is no shortcut to building the credibility and public acceptance of agricultural biotechnology, or to ensuring that it contributes to pressing social needs. A new contract is needed between all stakeholders - between North and South, between public and private research, between scientists and citizens. Such a contract would be based on three principles:
The way forward. Achieving a new social contract requires, first, effective procedures - where possible, regionally or internationally agreed - in order to monitor where, how and when GMO products and processes have been introduced, as well as their post-release effects. Support should be given to developing countries in defining and implementing effective national policies on agricultural biotechnology.
Developing countries also need, urgently, to establish a capacity to assess and manage all aspects of risk throughout their food chain. A global research network is needed to broaden the use of biotechnologies for sustainable agriculture, matching the needs and demands from any part of the world with the vast expertise, technology and financial resources available. Such a network of knowledge and expertise could create a fair platform for developing countries to tackle crops of global significance.
Even in these times of financial stringency, resources must be directed towards public research producing public goods. FAO calls on private sector companies to share their technologies and information with developing countries free of charge or at minimal cost, particularly when no important market is lost by facilitating such access. We need to consider partnerships to constitute a public technology bank, which would put key technologies and products at the disposal of poor farmers in the developing world.
To begin, we must rise above prejudice and inertia. Biotechnology holds great promise, but involves new risks. In most countries, the scientific, political, economic or institutional basis is not yet in place to provide adequate safeguards for biotechnology development and application, and to reap all the potential benefits. Clearly the question is not what is technically possible, but where and how life sciences and biotechnology can contribute to meeting the challenges of sustainable agriculture and development in the 21st century. It is up to us to decide "the roads we take", and mobilize the political will to bridge the molecular divide.