The potential of new technology: how to feed a growing world population
Jim Dargie, the chairman of FAO's interdepartmental working group on biotechnology described the potential of biotechnology to make agriculture more productive, and food safer -- in ways that are environmentally more benign.
Mr Dargie noted the current spotlight is on GMOs, although he emphasized that "these are not the only products of biotechnology and that there are many applications and other products that have brought proven benefits to developing countries, such as micropropagation and immunoassay and molecular-based disease diagnostic tests."
Based on the results of an inventory of crop biotechnology in developing countries that is being prepared by FAO, the problem he saw was that in general the "biotechnology toolbox" was not being sufficiently directed at the crops used and traits needed by resource-poor farmers.
"However, I caution against the current trend towards disciplinary and technology-driven approaches for fixing the constraints to food production in developing countries; we need to call for more holistic and ecologically based development efforts, for example, look at the success of conservation agriculture in Asia and Latin America," said Mr Dargie.
He added that while the data from the USA pointed to significant reductions in pesticide use, there was insufficient experience and large-scale monitoring and economic studies in developing countries to come to any conclusion on the likely impacts.
In any case, as long as the current emphasis is maintained on the main commodity crops and on traits for herbicide tolerance and insect resistance, the main beneficiaries would continue to be larger-scale commercial producers and technology suppliers.
Mr Dargie also described the perceived risks of GMOs in terms of food safety and the environment and noted that various scientific bodies in developed countries had concluded that neither the crops or food derived from them posed new risks to human health or the environment. However, the difficulties of predicting and studying the impacts of GMOs in developing countries should not be underestimated due to the greater diversity of cultivated and related wild species and in the nature and size of their production systems.
"Weaknesses in surveillance, monitoring and enforcement for food safety and environmental control should also be considered, as recent events had shown. The wise choice for countries is therefore not to rush, but to invest more in the needed research and monitoring and consider each proposed release on a case-by-case basis through effective transparent and inclusive governance," he said.
In terms of trade and environmental agreements that impinge on biotechnology, the critical role of FAO in providing a neutral forum through the FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission and the Interim Commission on Phytosanitary Measures for developing principles, criteria, guidelines and standards for risk assessment in relation to foods derived from modern biotechnology and GMOs was emphasised.
Given that genetic resources are the basic raw materials to which biotechnology is applied, he pointed also to the vital work currently underway through FAO's Commission on Genetic Resources in Food and Agriculture to reach agreement on the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources, stating that once this is successfully negotiated, there will be a Multilateral System of Facilitated Access and Benefit Sharing covering the world's key crops and a sharing of benefits from the commercialisation of materials from the System through mandatory payments.
In concluding, he pointed out that biotechnology provides a powerful illustration of how the balance of investments in R&D between the public and private sectors has moved the strength of the science and technology impulse towards profit and the global commodity market. Therefore, as he sees it, if modern biotechnology is to deliver on its promise of alleviating hunger and poverty, greater effort needs to be made to somehow loosen up the arrangements for enabling developing countries to access proprietary technology, and to provide poor farmers with improved seeds while protecting them against inappropriate restrictions on propagating their crops.