Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific

Agricultural biotechnology must be pro-poor farmer: FAO

Thailand, 26 Mar 2002 -- Bangkok – Notwithstanding its tremendous potential, agricultural biotechnology has done little so far to reduce hunger and poverty, which requires making it friendly to tens of millions of resource-poor farmer households in Asia-Pacific countries, says the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

[…] To gain wide acceptance, biotechnology would have to demonstrate not only that it is safe for human health and the ecology, and useful to marginal farmers, but also that what it can do, cannot be achieved otherwise, said R.B. Singh, assistant director-general and FAO regional representative for Asia and the Pacific at the 21 to 23 March expert consultation on the status of biotechnology in agriculture in Asia and the Pacific. Senior government officials and experts from Australia, Bangladesh, India, Iran, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Republic of Korea, Sri Lanka and Thailand attended the meeting organized by FAO and the Asia-Pacific Association of Agricultural Research Institutions (APAARI). Representatives of international research institutes, inter-governmental bodies, leading regional NGOs and multinational biotechnology companies such as Aventis and Monsanto were also among the over 40 delegates.

The FAO-APAARI consultation was called to review the status of agricultural biotechnology in the region, the role of the private sector, issues linked to intellectual property rights, biosafety as well as the ethical and social aspects of the development and adoption of the new agricultural technologies.

According to Andrea Sonnino of FAO’s Research and Development Service, an FAO survey of agricultural biotechnology in developing countries found that the commercially released genetically modified (GM) crops have made “little or no contribution to food security”. “(While) important problems and crops (have been) insufficiently addressed or completely ignored” by the new agricultural biotechnology applications, its “impact on biodiversity of tropical ecosystems is virtually unknown”, he said. Moreover, many countries lack an effective biosafety system, he added.

Current agricultural biotechnology development is focussed on transgenic crops, which now cover over 50 million hectares, more than 98 percent of this in the United States, Argentina and Canada. Australia and China are the other main GM crop cultivating countries. Besides pest resistant GM cotton, which was growing on some 600 000 hectares in 2001, long shelf life tomato and colour changing petunia are among GM agricultural products being commercially cultivated in China.

[…] The consultation examined the role biotechnology can play in reducing hunger and poverty and agreed that a central objective should be to sustain productive farming and related activities in the natural resource-stressed region. Representatives of NGOs stressed the importance of empowering local communities, enhancing farm productivity, distribution and accessibility to food, and cautioned that biotechnology may be of little value if it failed to serve the cause of the hungry and poor.

The meeting agreed that the new farm technologies would also have to be friendly to rural women who are the main agricultural workers in Asia-Pacific countries. Expressing concern over the declining public spending on agriculture, most of those present supported public-private sector partnership in pursuit of the common goal of national food security.

R. S. Paroda, executive secretary APAARI emphasised that the private industry has both an obligation and interest in being part of a “consortium of all partners and institutions” to harness biotechnology for food security.

RAP 02/07

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