Biotechnology: meeting the needs of the poor?
Bioengineered food crops have real potential as a tool in the war on hunger, but so far that potential remains largely untapped
By introducing high-yielding plant varieties, agro-chemicals and new irrigation techniques into agriculture systems around the world, the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s boosted crop yields and helped lift millions of people out of hunger and poverty.
But today many small-scale farmers remain trapped in subsistence agriculture, while each day over 842 million people go without enough to eat, according to FAO's latest estimates. Billions suffer from micronutrient deficiencies, an insidious form of malnutrition caused by an inadequate diet. And over the next 30 years an additional 2 billion people will need food -- yet the natural resource base on which agriculture depends is growing increasingly fragile.
Can the "Gene Revolution" -- the use of biotechnology in agriculture -- contribute to meeting these challenges?
A global debate
Science can be an ogre or an angel, depending on how one looks at it. The Green Revolution, for example, is not without its detractors, who argue that it promoted overuse of water, pesticides and chemical fertilizers, making poor farmers dependent on these inputs and in some cases seriously damaging the environment in the process.
Today, the rising profile of biotechnology in agricultural production has sparked a similar global debate.
Some types of biotechnology have been around for millennia, and probably began when our ancestors used microorganisms to make bread, wine and cheese. The current era of modern biotechnology was made possible by the use of molecular techniques to "cut and paste" genes from one cell to another.
It is precisely this emerging science of genetic engineering that lies at the heart of today's biotech polemic.
Supporters hail genetic engineering as essential for addressing food insecurity and malnutrition in developing countries. Opponents counter that it will wreak environmental havoc, increase poverty and hunger, and lead to a corporate takeover of traditional agriculture and the global food supply.
A newly released FAO report, The State of World Food and Agriculture 2004, considers these contrasting views of biotechnology.
Pros and cons
On the one hand, there are compelling arguments for altering the genetic makeup of food crops, notes the report.
Doing so, it may be possible to increase the availability and variety of food by improving agricultural productivity and reducing seasonal variations in food supplies. Pest-resistant and stress-tolerant crops can be developed to reduce the risk of crop failure due to drought and disease. More nutrients and vitamins may be bred into plants, combating the nutrient deficiencies that affect so many of the world's poor. Crops could be made to grow on poor soil in marginal lands, increasing overall food production.
Biotechnology also offers the possibility of reducing the use of toxic agricultural pesticides, and may also improve the efficiency of fertilizer and other soil amendments.
On the other hand, cautions FAO, the scientific assessment of the environmental and health impacts of genetic engineering of crop plants is still at an early stage and should be made on a case-by-case basis.
Moreover, the Organization emphasizes the need to ensure that the prospective benefits of biotechnology in agriculture are shared by all people, rather than a select few. Indeed, while SOFA 2004 notes that poor farmers and consumers in developing countries can benefit greatly from biotechnology, it adds that so far only a few are actually doing so, and that as the biotech sector develops "there is clear evidence that the problems of the poor are being neglected."
Issues of equity
Unlike the Green Revolution, which came about through an international programme of public-sector agricultural research specifically aimed at creating and transferring technologies to the developing world as free public goods, the 'Gene Revolution' is primarily being driven by the private sector, which focuses on developing commercial products for large markets.
"This raises serious questions about the type of research that is being performed and the likelihood that the poor will benefit," observes FAO in SOFA 2004.
The report notes that while public- and private-sector biotech research and development are being carried out on more than 40 crops worldwide, there are few major public- or private-sector biotech programmes addressing the problems of small farmers in poor countries.
"Neither the private nor the public sector has invested significantly in new genetic technologies for the so-called 'orphan crops' such as cowpea, millet, sorghum and teff that are critical for the food supply and livelihoods of the world's poorest people," explains FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf in the introduction to the report.
Even the major food crops of the poor -- wheat, rice, white maize, potato and cassava -- are also being neglected, according to SOFA 2004. At the same time, biotech plants with traits of interest to the poor -- drought and salinity tolerance, disease resistance, or enhanced nutrition -- are receiving little attention.
Important questions remain
Clearly, agricultural biotechnology has real potential as a new tool in the war on hunger.
As The State of Food and Agriculture 2004 points out, however, many pressing questions have yet to be answered.
How can more farmers in more countries gain access to the technologies that are emerging from the Gene Revolution? Which biotech research priorities could most directly benefit the poor, and who will develop innovations for the majority of developing countries that are too small in terms of market potential to attract large private-sector investments and too weak in scientific capacity to develop their own innovations? How can we facilitate the development and international movement of safe transgenic organisms and promote the sharing of intellectual property for the public good?
Another major issue: how to ensure that countries -- especially financially strapped ones in the developing world -- have adequate environmental- and human-health risk assessment regimes in place that let them assess new biotechnologies, both before they are introduced and after they begin to be used in the field.
In The State of Food and Agriculture 2004 FAO takes up these and other issues and suggests some lines of action that individual countries and the international community could take in order to make biotechnology a more potent tool in the war on hunger.
Read the related stories and links listed to the right in order to learn more about what FAO says about agricultural biotechnology.
17 May 2004
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