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Statements

Curriculum vitae of Dr Jacques Diouf

 


"Food for the New Millennium: Innovation in Nutrition, Safety and Biotechnology"

Lecture ot the Director-General on the occasion of the International Food and Nutrition Conference
Tuskegee University, USA, 9 October 2000

 

President Dr. Payton, President of Tuskegee University,
Madam Shirley Watkins, United States Under-Secretary of Agriculture,
Distinguished delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

On behalf of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, I wish to thank Dr. Payton, the distinguished President of Tuskegee University for inviting me to this important Conference, convened to celebrate one hundred years of Tuskegee's involvement in international agricultural development. It is indeed a great honour and a privilege for me to participate in this event.

The lofty goals of this distinguished gathering are commendable as it seeks to raise awareness and encourage action towards high nutritional standards at world level through domestic and international food policy, research and outreach activities, in particular by ensuring a global technology transfer.

It gives me great pleasure to observe first hand the remarkable progress Tuskegee University has made over the years. From its humble founding on the Fourth of July in 1881 with 30 students in a one-room shanty, it has grown to a student body of more than 3,200 students, occupying 5,500 acres with more than 70 buildings. The founder of your great institution, Dr. Booker T. Washington, was particularly concerned with the destitute, illiterate ex-slave farming families who were earning, at best, a subsistence existence from the land they toiled. As an 1890 land-grant institution, your mission has been to provide teaching, research and service to the members of your community and to the world - a mission quite similar to that of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

As many of you are aware FAO was founded in October 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. Since its inception, FAO has worked to alleviate poverty and hunger by promoting agricultural development and improving nutrition in pursuit of food security which means: "the access of all people at all times to the food they need for an active and healthy life".

The Organization offers direct development assistance, collects, analyses and disseminates information, provides policy and planning advice to governments and acts as an international forum for debate and international agreements on food and agriculture issues, including fisheries and forestry.

The tasks to meet these responsibilities are great. Agriculture must feed an increasing human population that is forecast to reach eight billion people by the year 2020. Although the rate of population growth itself is steadily decreasing, the increase in absolute numbers is such that, given current productivity levels, the carrying capacity of usable agricultural lands could soon be reached. But through the effective transfer of existing technologies to poor rural communities and the development of new and safe biotechnologies, there is a prospect for enhancing agricultural productivity today and in the future.

The 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) defined biotechnology as "any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific uses". In this light, biotechnology therefore includes the application of tissue culture, immunological techniques, molecular genetics and recombinant DNA techniques in all facets of agricultural production and agro-industry.

Biotechnology could be a powerful tool for the sustainable development of agriculture, fisheries and forestry to be of significant help in meeting the food needs of a growing and increasingly urbanized population. In particular, it could provide new solutions for continuing problems that have hindered sustainable rural development for decades. If adequately applied, biotechnology could increase the availability and diversity of food. It may allow maximizing overall agricultural productivity while minimizing seasonal variations in food supplies. Through the introduction of pest resistant and stress tolerant crops, biotechnology could also offer opportunities to lower the risk of crop failure under difficult biological and climatic conditions. Furthermore, biotechnology could help reduce environmental pressures from the unsustainable use of agricultural chemicals.

Following a first generation of biotechnologies which aimed primarily at productivity enhancement and cost reduction, a second generation is now targeting the increase of the bio-availability of nutrients and the nutritional quality of the product. Examples are found in the results of applied new biotechnological techniques in the production of varieties of rice and canola that have yielded additional amounts of beta-carotene. This precursor of vitamin A is in short supply in the diets of many, particularly in the developing world where it could help to alleviate or reduce chronic vitamin A deficiencies. Other research is underway to raise the levels of other vitamins and proteins in crops, such as potatoes and cassava. Researchers are also trying to develop foods that can deliver certain types of therapeutic substances, such as vaccines, that would stimulate the body's natural defences against certain endemic diseases.

FAO recognizes the need to take a balanced and comprehensive approach to biotechnological development, taking into consideration the opportunities and the risks. To ensure continued and effective development and coordination of activities in these areas, and following endorsement by the 116th Session of the FAO Council, I have established an Inter-Departmental Working Group on Biotechnology. This group will assist FAO member countries in optimizing the opportunities to develop, adapt and utilize biotechnology and its products in accordance with their needs. Such endeavour would require that they develop their capacity in human resources, institutions, legal framework and scientific equipment in order to assess and manage the risks to health and environment.

FAO is well aware of concerns expressed about the potential risks posed by certain aspects of biotechnology on human health and the environment. In this regard, a cautious case-by-case approach to determine the benefits and risks of individual Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), is necessary. The legitimate concerns for the biosafety of each product and process, prior to its release, must be addressed. In particular, caution must be exercised in order to reduce the risks of transferring toxins from one life form to another, of creating new toxins or of transferring allergenic compounds from one species to another which could result in unexpected impacts and reactions.

To address these concerns, the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, a permanent intergovernmental forum established in 1989 to consider reports on technical and policy issues regarding biosafety, is developing a Code of Conduct on Biotechnology to maximize the benefits of modern biotechnologies while minimizing risks. The Code will be based on scientific considerations taking into account the environmental, socio-economic and ethical implications of biotechnology.

The scope for potential action is great, but the resources made available to FAO are limited. As a result, FAO is fostering closer relationships with other international bodies. An excellent example of such collaboration is the Secretariat of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which FAO is providing in cooperation with the World Health Organization. The Codex Alimentarius Commission is an intergovernmental body consisting of 165 member countries with the mission of protecting the health of consumers, ensuring fair practices in the food trade, and promoting the coordination of work on food standards.

In the area of biotechnology and food safety, the Commission has established an Ad Hoc Intergovernmental Task Force on Biotechnology which first met in Chiba, Japan in March 1999. The Task Force is responsible for the development of standards, guidelines or recommendations, as appropriate, for foods or food traits derived from biotechnology. These will be based on scientific evidence and risk analysis having regard, where appropriate, to other legitimate factors relevant for the health protection of consumers and promotion of fair practices in the food trade. The Codex Committee on Food Labelling, another subsidiary body of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, is also working on the development of recommendations for the labelling of foods derived from biotechnology.

The work undertaken by Codex, which elaborates food safety standards, is of great value to both the producers and consumers. The G8 Summit Meeting in Japan last July noted in its Final Communiqué that it attached strong importance to the work of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the principal global standard-setting body in food safety. These same world leaders encouraged the Codex Ad Hoc Intergovernmental Task Force on Foods Derived from Biotechnology to produce a substantial interim report before the completion of its mandate in 2003.

In addition, phytosanitary standards to protect global plant health fall under the purview of another FAO body, the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC). The purpose of the IPPC is to initiate common and effective action to prevent the introduction and spread of pests of plants and plant products, and the promotion of appropriate control measures. Thus, the IPPC is directly concerned with the potential impact of agricultural biotechnology on the environment. The IPPC provides the global standard-setting mechanism for phytosanitary measures and in this regard, has established an exploratory working group to address issues concerning biosafety in relation to GMOs and invasive species.

With the rapid growth of aquaculture, the fisheries sector has also recognized that GMOs are a diverse class of organisms that share many common features with introduced or alien species. FAO's Regional Fisheries Bodies have adopted, in principle, codes of practice on the use of introduced species and GMOs. The general principles in such codes of practice have been incorporated into the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. They deal with environmental assessment, contained use, advanced notification and the application of the precautionary approach.

I would like to take the opportunity of this Conference to assure the international community that, through holistic and multi-disciplinary scientific approaches of evaluation, risk assessment, management and communication, FAO will continue to address all issues of concern to its constituents, regarding biotechnology and its effects on human, plant and animal health. In view of the importance of harmonizing regulations related to the testing and releasing of GMOs, FAO will continue, at the national, sub-regional and regional levels, to strengthen its normative and advisory work, in coordination and cooperation with other international organizations.

Harmonization of regulations would first address protocols for risk assessment for testing and releasing GMOs. Biosafety issues, pertaining to food safety, will continue to be addressed in the context of the Codex Alimentarius. As recent advances bring into agricultural production environments a diverse set of GMO-based technologies and transgenic animals, there will be the need for a more systematic consideration of the biosafety questions involved.

FAO will also continue to explore the possibility of addressing animal and fisheries biosafety and GMOs in cooperation with other international agencies, including the International Office of Epizootics. FAO technical assistance to member states will encompass advising member governments on regulatory issues including harmonization at regional and international levels; offering legal advice for the establishment of any required regulatory bodies; improving national capacity for risk assessment; and, mobilizing donor funding as well as cooperating with other relevant organizations.

On the occasion of your Centennial Celebration, it is indeed a great honour to present the activities of FAO in this historic Thomas M. Campbell Hall, which houses the College of Agricultural, Environmental and Natural Sciences and which was named after the nation's first cooperative extension agent in agriculture. I would like to commend your great institution for its past and present achievements, in particular for successfully sowing the seeds of knowledge in the fertile land of the curious and open young minds of the students. I therefore would venture to appeal to the Academic community of Tuskegee University to join FAO in its continuing efforts towards alleviating poverty and hunger through the promotion of agricultural development, the improvement of nutrition and the pursuit of food security throughout the world. With your help, success is at the end of our efforts, perseverance and commitment.

I thank you for your kind attention.

 

 

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