Press Release 00/47
SENIOR FAO OFFICIAL CALLS ON SCIENTISTS TO SPEAK UP FOR THE POOR AND WEAK
Hamburg, 17 August - The scientific community has a moral responsibility to speak up for the world's poor and hungry, Assistant Director General Louise O. Fresco, head of the Organization's Agriculture Department, said today.
"In the globalised economy, small countries, small companies and small farmers have very small voices. Scientists have a moral responsibility to speak for the weak, because they sometimes best understand the likely results of not doing so," she said in the inaugural address to the 3rd International Crop Science Congress, taking place in Hamburg, Germany, 17-22 August.
Her wide-ranging speech examined a number of current and emerging trends in agriculture from an ethical perspective, including the uneven distribution of food, globalisation, responsible use of land and water, harnessing biological diversity and genetic modification.
"Popular perception has it that the world of agricultural science has isolated itself from the man in the street (or the woman in the field), and is seeking to impose its ideas on the planet, rather than understand public needs. These views are not new but have quickly become more vigorous," Ms Fresco warned.
"The most forceful public questions are being asked about both the sharing of benefits and the perceived negative effects on human health and the earth's environment of the uncontrolled application of genetically modified crops. FAO's position is that we must use every means at our disposal to improve food security subject to careful assessments being made," she said.
Ms Fresco told the congress that FAO was confident the consensus could be achieved on GM food standards, and stressed: "There can be no doubt that scientists have an absolute moral responsibility in providing objective, peer-reviewed information to the public and to refrain from publicising immature, insufficiently tested results."
FAO had recently established an international Ethics Committee, to add the input of philosophers and religious representatives to that of scientists in investigating human factors related to agriculture so that strategies could be developed to use the GM tool in the fight against hunger and malnutrition, while taking all the necessary precautions to protect human health and the environment.
Looking at food distribution, Ms Fresco told her audience that the unbalanced availability of food in the world was mirrored by the uneven application of improved production technologies. "Scientists do bear a part of the responsibility for the selective applicability of technologies to more favourable ecological circumstances and, as a result, their uneven application," she said.
On globalisation, she commented: "Whatever its potential benefits, globalisation also exacerbates the existing differences among countries and regions and calls for specific strategies to be developed according to different needs."
Discussing the responsible use of land and water resources, Ms Fresco noted: "Within an integrated land and water approach, the logical complement to improving water availability to crops is the development of new lines that are drought resistant, or at least, drought tolerant. The revolution in molecular genetics has now made it possible, at least in theory...to increase the efficiency of breeding for some traditionally intractable agronomic problems such as drought resistance and improved root systems"
On the question of harnessing biological diversity, Ms Fresco noted: "FAO recognises that food security calls for continuing work on the genetic improvement of the main crops, especially to increase their adaptability to the wide diversity of agro-ecological conditions. However, I also want to emphasize the need to explore a wider range of species that are already adapted to different and marginal ecologies."
She continued: "Domestication of new crops may be time-consuming, but there seems to be a lot of scope in the improvement of locally important minor crops, which in many regions make a major contribution to the diet, but which attract limited R&D resources."
She concluded: "All of us have a responsibility toward the weak and poor, even if, in our rapidly globalising and unequal world, this is not self-evident. Crop scientists need to look beyond their subdisciplines and support policy and regulatory measures to protect international public goods, such as water, soil nutrients and genetic diversity."
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