Ladies and gentlemen,
It is indeed a great pleasure for me to be invited to address this important meeting of the first regional consultation of the project Capacity building in biosafety of genetically modified crops in Asia. I would like to welcome all of you, on behalf of FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf and on my own behalf, to this meeting at the FAO regional office in Bangkok.
Since the UN conferences of the 1990s, in particular the Earth Summit in Rio, and the World Food Summit, governments have publicly affirmed their commitment to an equitable world without hunger or poverty and where sustainable development guarantees the livelihoods of future generations. The Millennium Development Goals give us a common direction. However, today in Asia alone more than 500 million people are undernourished.
Agriculture in the twenty-first century will not only need to produce enough food for a growing, increasingly urbanized population whose dietary patterns are shifting towards more consumption of meat, fish, milk, fruits and vegetables, it will also be the key to alleviating hunger by providing income and employment to farmers. It can only do so through a systematic and far-reaching intensification of the use of land and labour. Most importantly, the agricultural sector will need to respond in ways beyond the traditional focus on higher yields, addressing protection of environmental common goods, consumer concerns for food safety and quality, and the enhancement of rural livelihoods. Yet at the same time, in an increasingly urbanized society, rich consumers take cheap food for granted.
Thus, the goals set for agricultural production are bewildering. Fortunately, there are clear promises that biotechnology may contribute to meeting some of these challenges, in particular in terms of improving the quality and quantity of food, and in offering new products: iron-fortified rice; hepatitis B vaccine in bananas; transgenic animals producing therapeutic quantities of human proteins in cows’ milk; or promising transgenic animal vaccines against some tick-borne diseases or swine fever.
Notwithstanding these potentials, something has gone terribly wrong in recent years. Biotechnology, largely because the debate is often limited to GMOs only, provokes profound public mistrust. Governments, consumers, farmers and to a lesser extent scientists disagree fundamentally on its benefits and risks. Against a backdrop of globalization and questions about the role of nation states, biotechnology raises four types of concerns: concerns about health and environmental safety; ethical concerns, the uneasy feeling that we are “meddling with evolution”; equity concerns about the access to and benefits of these technologies for poor countries, poor farmers and poor consumers; and democratic concerns as to who decides “where to go” in scientific research and technology development, which emphasizes some possible future scenarios while neglecting others.
In other words, the vision that science will naturally lead to social progress has been severely eroded. Many feel threatened and insufficiently consulted on the advances taking place. I would like to appeal to you today to discuss concretely what future we envision for Asia, and what roads we may take in order to meet some of these concerns.
Ladies and gentlemen,
FAO has conducted several studies on biotechnology. Our findings show that the pace of advance in developing countries varies considerably, and that developing countries are not exploring the full range of biotechnology tools to harness genetic resources. It is no exaggeration to say that we are witnessing a molecular divide. The gap is widening between developed and developing countries, between rich and poor farmers, between research priorities and needs, and above all between technology development and actual technology transfer.
Let me illustrate. Today, 85 percent of all plantings of transgenic crops globally are herbicide resistant soybean, insect-resistant maize and genetically improved cotton varieties, designed to reduce input and labour costs in large-scale production systems, not to feed the developing world or increase food quality. This is largely because 70 percent of the agricultural biotechnology investments are by multinational private sector research, mostly in developed or advanced developing countries. These investments concentrate on GMOs and biotic stresses. Barring a few initiatives here and there, there are no major public sector programmes to tackle more critical problems of the poor and the environment or to target crops such as cassava or small ruminants.
In the Asian region, countries are at different stages of research and development relating to GMOs, as well as in their capacity to scientifically evaluate, assess and manage the benefits and risks associated with the release, use and cross border movements of GM products. Regional harmonization of biosafety standards, regulations and guidelines should therefore foster better use of resources among countries, together with improved national capacities for the implementation and enforcement of regulations that will promote mutual acceptance of modified organisms and the products derived from them.
Recognizing the need to establish mechanisms for assessing and managing the potential environmental risks associated with GM crops under the Cartagena Protocol on Biological Diversity, FAO, with funding support from the government of Japan, is implementing this project together with national partners in selected countries in Asia: Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Viet Nam. The project aims to provide capacity building support to developing countries in this crucial endeavor of ensuring biosafety while embracing the full benefits derived from the new technologies. Allow me to quote from Hamdallah Zedan, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, who stressed last month that “With the science of biotechnology advancing at such a rapid pace, it is vital that developing countries […] have the human resources and institutions they need for promoting biosafety. By building these resources and strengthening international collaboration on biosafety, the Cartagena Protocol will boost public confidence in our ability to manage GMOs safely.”
Ladies and gentlemen,
Your regional consultation this week aims to identify country-specific strengths and weaknesses relating to national capacities, including legislation, regulations and policies for biosafety of GM crops. It will also address the prioritization of the support needed in enhancing biosafety capacities of the participating countries. As partners in this project, you – as the participants attending this meeting – have a crucial role to play. Biotechnology is everybody’s business. No consumer, no farmer, no government can remain indifferent in the face of its promises and its concerns. The misunderstandings and deadlock on biotechnology can only be solved through access to information, dialogue and transparency in decision making. There is no shortcut to building the credibility and public acceptance of agricultural biotechnology, and making sure it contributes to pressing social needs.
In conclusion, I would like to reiterate that FAO will also continue to work with partners like CGIAR, UNEP, JIRCAS, APAARI and other international research organizations to address issues relating to the use of agricultural science to reduce hunger and poverty.
I wish you all a successful consultation and an enjoyable stay in Thailand.