Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific

Renowned farm scientist calls for bridging ‘genetic divide’ to reduce hunger

16 Jan 2002 -- Bangkok – Bridging the ‘genetic divide’ between profit-driven farm research and public sector institutions is crucial for reducing hunger in developing countries, famous agricultural scientist M.S. Swaminathan told senior UN officials, experts, Thai Government officials and members of the diplomatic corps based in Bangkok, during a talk at the FAO regional office on 11 January.

At the same time, it is important to ensure public confidence in genetically modified crops being developed by agribusiness, before these are used, Dr Swaminathan said during his talk on ‘building a community nutrition security system’. The talk was organized by FAO and the Research and Information Systems for the Non-aligned and other developing countries.

[…] According to Dr Swaminathan, biotechnology will play a major role in ensuring food security, which he describes as not just physical and economic access but also biological access to food. Efforts to improve the nutritional quality of basic staples is vital with an estimated 3.7 billion people at risk from ‘hidden hunger’ caused by deficiencies of iron, zinc, vitamin A and iodine, he pointed out. […] Rice, wheat and maize are the main human food, accounting for nearly half the calories consumed by all the people in the world. Increasing production of these is as important as improving their nutritional quality. Biotechnology has made it possible to develop a rice crop with a 14 tonne per hectare yield. Big yield gains are also possible by using biotechnology to improve the wheat plant. Genetic modifications are also enhancing the nutritional value of food, such as ‘golden rice’ to combat Vitamin A deficiency. A ‘designer’ potato being developed by Indian experts has better yield and nutritional value.

However, most research in biotechnology is presently controlled by the private sector. “Bridging the genetic divide is also very important. It has been said that the green revolution was a product of public sector research while gene revolution is a product of private sector research,” Dr Swaminathan observed.

Ensuring the safety of the new genetically modified organisms is of paramount importance, he cautioned. The “only way (to) increase public confidence” in genetically modified organisms is to “have a broad based committee in which all stakeholders are represented, including the media so there is transparency in assessing risks and benefits,” he suggested. Poor farmers should have a stake in the new agricultural research, which should be used to improve their living conditions. Thus hybrid crops can be used to create jobs and income among the rural poor if these are promoted not by big corporations, but in a “decentralized” way.

Emphasizing the importance of protecting traditional farm knowledge, Dr Swaminathan cited the example of a new Indian legislation that is the first in the world to combine breeders’ and farmers’ rights in one law. FAO too insists that traditional farm knowledge should be recognized and Dr Swaminathan pointed out that the World Intellectual Property Organization also has spoken of the need for recognizing indigenous knowledge.

[…] According to Dr Swaminathan, agricultural research and development should aim for an ‘evergreen revolution’. Unlike the green revolution, which was centred on commodities – a few cereals – this should strive to defend the gains already made; extend these to new areas; and create new gains through farming systems intensification, diversification and value addition, he said. He said he was already trying to put this in practice through the ‘bio-village’ model approach in India.


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