Ladies and gentlemen
On behalf of the Director-General of FAO Jacques Diouf, and on my own behalf, I have great pleasure in welcoming you all to the high-level policy dialogue on biotechnology for food security and poverty alleviation.
As you all are aware, Asia and the Pacific region has made great progress in reducing hunger and poverty in the last three decades. There has been manifold increase in per capita income as well as food production. The major socio-economic indicators have improved tremendously. However, despite dramatic economic transformation of the region in the last three decades, a significant portion of the Asian population remains poor. In 2002, almost 690 million people were estimated to be extremely poor (those living on less than $1 a day). And in our recent reckoning 519 million suffer from under-nutrition. Poverty and food insecurity have emerged as one of the greatest development challenge for the region.
The need to address this challenge has been well recognized by world leaders as they affirmed and reaffirmed this priority in the 1996 World Food Summit (WFS) and the 2002 WFS:fyl. The WFS set a target to reduce the number of undernourished people in the world by half by 2015. The United Nations Millennium Development Declaration, adopted by the UN General Assembly in September 2000, reflected the WFS target by making hunger and extreme poverty reduction a primary development goal. This global commitment has been reaffirmed in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and within these, eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, is on the top of the development agenda.
In this context, it is clear that agriculture will not only need to produce enough food for a growing, increasingly urbanized population, it will also be the key to alleviating hunger through income and employment. Development experience in this region and elsewhere has amply demonstrated the pivotal role of agriculture in poverty reduction and in laying foundation for non-agricultural growth. Growth in the agriculture sector benefited millions through higher incomes and cheaper food.
Technology has been central to accelerating agricultural growth in Asia. Considering that we have reached the land frontier in most countries of the region and that in many countries the arable area is shrinking due urbanization, industrial uses and degradation, future agricultural growth must come from increased productivity in a sustainable manner.
Past experience in Asia showed that agriculture’s impact on poverty reduction was greatest when the supply, demand and policy conditions favoured growth in labour-intensive, small-scale farming. The main lesson is that to be effective in achieving the Millennium Development Goals of poverty and hunger eradication, technological progress in the 21st century must be based on the correct identification of technology that will help tackle the needs of the poor small farmers and an effective system to generate and disseminate a range of such technologies to them.
Ladies and gentlemen
I believe that this is the litmus test that any research and extension system must satisfy. This is true for biotechnology. For centuries, food and agricultural production systems have made use of biotechnologies and recent advances in life sciences have opened new possibilities for producing food and agricultural products with greater efficiency. Biotechnologies can therefore help to increase the supply, diversity and quality of food products, reduce costs of production and environmental degradation. They can, and are being used to develop new animal vaccines, improve food safety, prolong storage and change the nutritional content of foods.
Biotechnology includes a large range of different techniques. There are many biotechnologies that have a proven track record of helping farmers to improve, protect and diversify their production, and assisting processors and marketers to add value and increase trade in food and agricultural products. Tissue culture and molecular techniques e.g. can help alleviate agricultural constraints by providing virus-free planting stocks and supporting selection of plant varieties with improved resistances to biotic and abiotic stresses or higher nutritional quality. Biotechnology applications in livestock cover reproductive technologies, genetic selection and animal health protection. In forestry, micro propagation techniques are already widespread. A further field of rapidly advancing application of biotechnology is represented by the food processing industry.
The most widely discussed and controversial one is genetic engineering giving rise to genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Large-scale production of GMOs in agriculture became a reality in the late 1990s, with the commercial planting of GM crops. According to ISAAA, sowings of genetically modified (GMO) crops rose to 81 million hectares in 2004 recording a 20 percent increase over 2003. Seven countries are now growing GMO crops in more than 1 million hectares each. One of these countries is in Asia: China with 3.7 million hectares. All others belong to North or South America. In Asia, apart from China, India and the Philippines are cultivating more 100,000 hectares with GMO crops.
However, apart from the narrow geographical coverage, substantial plantings largely concern four crops- soybean, maize, cotton and canola- and small areas of potato and papaya. Furthermore, only China is using a locally developed and commercialized GM crop (cotton) - other countries have obtained genetic constructs or varieties from industrialized countries. FAO surveys have found that several forest tree species have been transformed using recombinant DNA technology, but have not been released for commercial purposes. Tropical fruit tree species seem to have been largely neglected.
FAO's conclusion is that current GMO crop releases are still very narrow in terms of crops and traits and have not addressed the special needs of developing countries. Although several thousand GMO field tests have been conducted or are under way involving more countries and many more crop-trait combinations are being investigated. It can therefore be expected that the number of GMOs ready for commercial release in these countries will expand considerably in the next few years. However, many important crops - such as pulses, vegetables, and fodder and industrial crops and certain traits - such as drought- and aluminum-tolerance - are still almost entirely neglected.
One fundamental question in the context of the using technologies to achieve MDGs is therefore how to make the current biotechnology applications more effective in addressing the needs of resource-poor farmers in developing countries. Expanding access of such farmers to modern biotechnology is a major challenge. Other concerns associated with biotechnologies are related to the equity of the access to and the benefits sharing of these technologies for poor countries, poor farmers particularly the indigenous people and poor consumers. The widening molecular divide which generates a gap between promise and reality of the impact of biotechnology is a serious cause for concern. Therefore, we must ensure that biotechnology is used to reduce, rather than exacerbate, existing inequalities in access to food and other basic human needs.
As many new technologies are held by the private sector, there are concerns regarding fair and equitable access, as well as the sharing of benefits and the impact of current intellectual property rights (IPR) regimes. Concerns about IPRs therefore cover biotechnology companies in developed countries patenting genetic resources in developing countries and secondly, the negative impacts of IPRs on agricultural biotechnology research, both in developing countries and by public sector institutes.
On the other hand, we have to recognize that IPRs are also critical to the growth of the biotechnology industry, especially the private sector, and that lack of patent protection in a country can limit access to the results of biotechnology originating elsewhere. Noteworthy steps towards the development of innovative IPRs have already been taken with the Uruguay Round agreements, the Convention on Biological Diversity and more recently FAO’s International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which recognized Farmers’ rights as a complement to the Plant Breeders’ Rights. However, there is a great deal to be done in establishing national legal and regulatory framework in harmony with the international instrument and the necessary infrastructure including human resources to efficiently implement the established system.
FAO recognizes the potential of biotechnology to contribute to addressing the world hunger with increased supply of safe and nutritious food and has given priority to its enhancement and development. It is also aware that concerns have been raised about the potential risks of GMOs on human and animal health and the environmental consequences. Therefore, it has taken a view that biotechnology applications, and particularly the use of GMOs, must be therefore accompanied by a systematic risk assessment and management. A science-based, case-by-case evaluation system is needed to objectively determine the benefits and risks of each individual GMO prior to its release, and determine the best strategy to manage these. Careful monitoring of the post-release effects of GMOs is also essential to ensure their continued safety to human beings, animals and the environment. The consumers’ primary concern about GMOs is food safety. Past experiences with food problems such as allergens, pesticide residues, microbiological contaminants and, most recently, BSE and Avian Influenza have and continue to cause consumers to be increasingly concerned about food safety and to be particularly wary of the safety of foods produced with new technologies.
In order to address the safety issues of modern biotechnology, for humans and the environment national biosafety systems are to be put in place, consisting in a system of legal, scientific, technical, and administrative mechanisms. In the Asia-Pacific region, countries are at different stages of research and development in dealing with GMOs and also in their capacity to scientifically evaluate, assess and manage the risks and benefits associated with release, use and cross-boundary movements of GM products. Regional harmonization of biosafety standards, regulations and guidelines should therefore foster better use of resources amongst countries and improving national capacities and capabilities for the structuring, enactment, implementation and enforcement of regulations which would selectively promote and encourage mutual acceptance of safe modified organisms and the products derived from them.
The development and enforcement of a regulatory framework for GMOs may need to be co-ordinated within cross-sectorial national approaches to the management of biological risks in food and agriculture. This concept is referred to as Biosecurity by FAO and covers food safety, plant life and health, animal life and health and the environment, including the introduction and release of GMOs and their products. FAO has taken a number of measures including technical consultations to promote biosecurity. In fact, “Strengthening biosecurity for food security and agricultural trade” is one of the six thematic programme areas adopted by the FAO Regional Office for Asia and Pacific.
While the fruits of success in agricultural biotechnology eventually passed on to farmers and consumers, a number of actors are intermediaries are involved in its research and development, regulation, testing, monitoring and evaluation prior to and after the biotech product is released. In the current environment of polarized opinions, an open dialogue amongst stakeholder is needed on the risks and opportunities of GMOs. Objective, unbiased information should guide this dialogue. But border lines between research, marketing, public relations and activism are becoming increasingly blurred. Objective brokers are needed, and multilateral organizations, like FAO, are playing a key role in this respect.
Therefore, in line with its mandate to promote agricultural development and food security, FAO joined hands with APAARI and GFAR to promote yet another round of regional policy dialogue on this important subject. The objective as already stated in the Concept Note is to bring together different stakeholders, from governments, academia, the private sector and civil society, to promote greater understanding of the issues, sharing of knowledge on new developments and findings, and raise awareness of their potential benefits and risks and the implications in terms of needed regulatory framework, institutional capacity building and human resources development. This is expected to facilitate appropriate policy decisions by developing countries of Asia and the Pacific region with respect to application of biotechnology in their food and agriculture sector in addressing poverty and hunger, in accord with the World Food Summit and Millennium Development Goals. It also important to keep in mind that biotechnology involves much more than GMOs and that there are many other biotechnologies available and being developed which can assist farmers, foresters and fisherfolk to improve, protect and diversify their production.
The agenda of the policy dialogue is shaped by the major concerns that the organizers felt should be discussed. However, if there are other important issues these can be raised and discussed during the course of relevant sessions. Three major outcomes of this meeting that we are looking forward to are: (i) identification of the major priorities in biotechnology that FAO and its partners should focus on to enhance its contribution to food security and poverty reduction and (ii) recommended roles for different stakeholders in meeting these priorities and (iii) mechanisms and modalities of enhanced cooperation and partnership amongst the stakeholders. The organizers will be grateful to each one you if you could pay special attention to these.
As a co-organizer of this workshop I thank you all for kindly accepting our invitation to contribute to this workshop and look forward to greatly benefiting from your valued inputs and advice. I welcome you once again.
I wish you all a successful workshop and a pleasant stay in Bangkok.