Biotechnology could help solve many problems limiting crops and livestock production in developing countries. For example, biotechnology-derived solutions for biotic and abiotic stresses, built into the genotype of plants, could reduce use of agrochemicals and water, thus promoting sustainable yields. However, FAO says, national programmes need to ensure that biotechnology benefits all sectors, including resource-poor rural populations, particularly in marginal areas where productivity increases will be more difficult to achieve.
A number of issues are of special concern to developing countries aiming at increasing their involvement in biotechnology and thus developing their agricultural sectors. For FAO, they include:
Biotechnology expertise should complement existing technologies and be output-driven. Since biotechnology is often more expensive than conventional research, it should be used only to solve specific problems where it has comparative advantage. In many developing countries, funding for research in agriculture is being reduced, and often research is being privatized, with the consequent risk that it could be aimed mainly at resource-rich farmers. In addition to technical considerations, priority setting should take into account national development policies, private sector interests and market possibilities. Different stakeholders should be involved in the formulation of national biotechnology strategies, policies and plans.
Infrastructure and capacity.
For research to be truly productive, there must be a critical mass of expertise, knowledge and facilities. Biotechnology is no exception. Biotechnology research requires skilled staff, backed up by well-equipped laboratories with proper working conditions, a constant supply of good quality water, a reliable electricity supply, and organized institutional support . A minimal technology base is needed to adapt technology tried and tested elsewhere to local ecological and production conditions. Biotechnology research needs strong and organized outreach services and suitable institutions and infrastructures to facilitate its application.
Biosafety, food safety and the environment.
Potential environmental hazards from new products of biotechnology, mainly involving genetically modified organisms (GMOs), have raised concerns that companies may use developing countries as "test sites" for their products. Some of the potential environmental risks concern plant pests, while gene escape from GMOs could result in increased weediness in sexually compatible wild species. The inclusion of novel genes for herbicide resistance in plants may increase the occurrence of weeds with resistance to certain agrochemicals. Another worry about GMOs is the possible inadvertent production of toxins and allergens. FAO says developing countries need assistance in developing appropriate legislation and setting up regulatory bodies for all aspects of biosafety. National legislation must be consistent with international instruments and reflect national positions.
Biotechnology can contribute to the conservation, characterization and utilization of biodiversity, thus increasing its usefulness. Some techniques such as in vitro culture are very useful in maintaining ex situ germplasm collections of plant species that have asexual propagation (e.g. bananas, onions, garlic) and species that are hard to keep as seeds or in field gene banks. Related techniques are also important for the preservation of animal biodiversity through cryopreservation of semen and embryos, coupled with embryo transfer and artificial insemination. At the same time, however, biotechnology may reduce genetic diversity indirectly by displacing landraces and their inherent diversity as farmers adopt genetically uniform varieties of plants and other organisms.
Some products with a high export value for some developing countries, could be substituted by products with similar properties (e.g. copra-quality oil from rapeseed) obtained by genetic modification of other crops or through in vitro techniques. Such products could alter the competitive position of traditional crops, affecting existing trade patterns and consequently the food security of many developing countries that rely on agricultural export revenues.
Biotechnology is more than just a scientific issue - it is seen by some as "interfering with the workings of nature and creation". In priority setting, all concerns must be clearly balanced, respecting ethical aspects but recognizing biotechnology's potential for increasing food supplies and alleviating hunger. Many ethical issues are now being debated in the context of IPR legislation but others remain unresolved. Since such issues are largely related to cultural background and levels of public perception and awareness, decisions on the use of specific technologies should respect socio-economic realities.
Biotechnology is increasingly market and demand driven, and most of its products result from research and development investments by the private sector in developed countries. There is little point in developing a new technology if there is no market for the product. The same is valid for new varieties of plants and new breeds of animals, new vaccines and diagnostic kits. Market studies are fundamental in defining which ventures should be undertaken. Given that commercial considerations may not necessarily reflect social concerns and needs, there remains a pivotal role for public-sector research.
Published January 1999