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ELECTRONIC FORUM ON
BIOTECHNOLOGY IN FOOD AND AGRICULTURE
This conference ran from November 1 - December 17, 2000.


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    Can agricultural biotechnology help to reduce hunger and increase food security in developing countries ?

    In the public debate about biotechnology in general (and genetically modified food in particular), it has been argued by different parties that biotechnology either will or will not help to reduce hunger and increase food security in developing countries. The aim of this, the 5th conference of the FAO Electronic Forum on Biotechnology in Food and Agriculture, is to to allow a more detailed and comprehensive discussion of this topic. The aim of this document is to provide some brief background to the subject as well as to mention some of the factors that should be considered in the conference.

    The first edition of the State of Food Insecurity in the World, published by FAO in October 1999, provided a recent update on the status regarding hunger in the world (for those with access to the Web, the report can be found at http://www.fao.org/NEWS/1999/991004-e.htm ). It estimated that in 1995-1997 there were roughly 790 million undernourished people in developing countries (and 34 million in developed countries), i.e. whose food intake was insufficient to meet basic energy requirements on a continuing basis. The majority (524 million) was in Asia, including 204 and 164 million in India and China respectively, while there were 180 million undernourished in sub-Saharan Africa.

    The report also examined changes from 1980 to 1996 in the proportion of undernourished people in a selection of countries, to try and understand the factors determining such changes. The analysis highlighted, as other reports have previously done, that many different demographic (e.g. changes in population size or the degree of urbanisation), environmental (e.g. degradation of land), economic (e.g. changes in Gross Domestic Product), social (e.g. road infrastructure, literacy) and political (e.g. war, economic boycotts) factors may affect the degree to which particular population groups are vulnerable to poverty and hunger.

    The global population size is currently 6 billion, and it is rising rapidly. By the year 2020, it is expected to reach 7.5 to 8 billion. Where will the food come from to feed these additional mouths ? Can it be provided by ''conventional'' methods of plant, animal or fish production alone ? An important factor to be considered is that much of the land currently used to produce food is being degraded - largely due to overgrazing, poor farming practices and deforestation. To counterbalance this, one might ask whether there is much additional land that can be brought into use for food production. There is some scope for extending the land area used for production in Africa and South America, although this may be at the expense of forestry and wildlife. For Asia there is little scope for extension of the land base. Under these conditions, will it be possible to provide enough food for the additional billions, without using biotechnology in plant, animal and fish production ? Is biotechnology indispensable if we are to successfully meet the challenge of an increasing world population ?

    However, the problem of hunger is complex and does not just depend on the amount of food produced. Currently, enough food is produced globally to feed all its inhabitants. Nevertheless, around 15 % of them are undernourished. Is the unequal distribution of resources and food a greater threat to world hunger than the sheer quantity of food produced ? Biotechnology may increase the amount of food produced but will it affect the key problems of unequal access to food ? Is it possible that we may end up in the situation where the amount of food produced globally increases, with the help of biotechnology, but so also does the number and proportion of hungry people ?

    Comments from Professor Mazoyer in a recent FAO publication, The State of Food and Agriculture 2000, might be of relevance in this context. He wrote "After 50 years of modernization, world agricultural production today is more than sufficient to feed 6 billion human beings adequately. Cereal production alone, at about 2 billion tonnes or 330 kg of grain per caput/year and representing 3 600 calories per caput/day, could to a large extent cover the energy needs of the whole population if it were well distributed. However, cereal availability varies greatly from one country to another: more than 600 kg per caput/year in the developed countries, where most is in fact used as animal feed, but fewer than 200 kg per caput/year in the poorer countries. Moreover, within each country, access to food or the means to produce food is very uneven among households. Consequently, in many countries, large segments of the population do not have enough food. And the large majority of the 830 million chronically undernourished are in the poor peasant farming community. World food security, therefore, is not an essentially technical, environmental or demographic issue in the short term: it is first and foremost a matter of grossly inadequate means of production of the world's poorest peasant farmers who cannot meet their food needs. It is also a matter of insufficient purchasing power of other poor rural and urban consumers, insofar as the poverty of non-farmers is also a product of rural poverty and migration from the land."

    Another factor that might be considered for discussion during the conference is that agricultural biotechnology has primarily been driven by private industry for farmers in developed countries. The products developed so far have, with few exceptions, not been targeted towards poor farmers in developing countries. Will biotechnology, which can potentially increase the efficiency and quality of food production, provide tools to aggravate inequalities in the world ? If trade barriers are progressively reduced, through organisations such as the World Trade Organisation, and export of food from developed to developing countries become easier and more commonplace, is it possible that biotechnology will make this trade more profitable, thus creating or increasing the dependency of developing countries on developed countries for food ?

    Discussion in this conference should also address whether particular biotechnologies have especially high (or low) potential to reduce hunger and increase food security in developing countries, or whether the application of biotechnology within specific agricultural and food-related sectors (crop, forestry, animal or fisheries) or within specific regions of the developing world can have greater (or lower) impact on hunger and food security in developing countries.

    When submitting messages (which should be no more than 600 words), participants are requested to ensure that their messages address some of the elements mentioned in this document.

    For those wishing to get a reminder of the types of biotechnologies currently available in the four sectors, the Background Documents (BD) of the first four conferences may be useful. For the crop sector, brief descriptions of genetic modification, micropropagation and biotechnologies based on molecular markers are provided in BD 1. For the forestry sector, brief descriptions of genetic modification and biotechnologies based on vegetative reproduction or molecular markers are provided in BD 2. For the livestock sector, reproductive biotechnologies (embryo transfer, cloning etc.) and DNA-based technologies in animal health, animal nutrition and growth and animal genetics and breeding are described in BD 3. For the fisheries sector, brief descriptions of molecular marker biotechnologies, induction of polyploidy, sex-reversal and creation of single sex fish groups, hybridisation, selective breeding, freezing of male gametes, genetic modification and DNA-based technologies for fish health are provided in BD4.

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