Agricultural Biotechnologies
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FAO Statement on Biotechnology

The statement was published in March 2000 on the occasion of the "Codex Alimentarius Ad Hoc Intergovernmental Task Force on Foods Derived from Biotechnology" meeting in Japan.

Biotechnology provides powerful tools for the sustainable development of agriculture, fisheries and forestry, as well as the food industry. When appropriately integrated with other technologies for the production of food, agricultural products and services, biotechnology can be of significant assistance in meeting the needs of an expanding and increasingly urbanized population in the next millennium.

There is a wide array of "biotechnologies" with different techniques and applications. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) defines biotechnology as:
"any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use".

Interpreted in this broad sense, the definition of biotechnology covers many of the tools and techniques that are commonplace in agriculture and food production. Interpreted in a narrow sense, which considers only the new DNA techniques, molecular biology and reproductive technological applications, the definition covers a range of different technologies such as gene manipulation and gene transfer, DNA typing and cloning of plants and animals.

While there is little controversy about many aspects of biotechnology and its application, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have become the target of a very intensive and, at times, emotionally charged debate. FAO recognizes that genetic engineering has the potential to help increase production and productivity in agriculture, forestry and fisheries. It could lead to higher yields on marginal lands in countries that today cannot grow enough food to feed their people. There are already examples where genetic engineering is helping to reduce the transmission of human and animal diseases through new vaccines. Rice has been genetically engineered to contain pro-vitamin A (beta carotene) and iron, which could improve the health of many low-income communities.

Other biotechnological methods have led to organisms that improve food quality and consistency, or that clean up oil spills and heavy metals in fragile ecosystems. Tissue culture has produced plants that are increasing crop yields by providing farmers with healthier planting material. Marker-assisted selection and DNA fingerprinting allow a faster and much more targeted development of improved genotypes for all living species. They also provide new research methods which can assist in the conservation and characterization of biodiversity. The new techniques will enable scientists to recognize and target quantitative trait loci and thus increase the efficiency of breeding for some traditionally intractable agronomic problems such as drought resistance and improved root systems.

However, FAO is also aware of the concern about the potential risks posed by certain aspects of biotechnology. These risks fall into two basic categories: the effects on human and animal health and the environmental consequences. Caution must be exercised in order to reduce the risks of transferring toxins from one life form to another, of creating new toxins or of transferring allergenic compounds from one species to another, which could result in unexpected allergic reactions. Risks to the environment include the possibility of outcrossing, which could lead, for example, to the development of more aggressive weeds or wild relatives with increased resistance to diseases or environmental stresses, upsetting the ecosystem balance. Biodiversity may also be lost, as a result of the displacement of traditional cultivars by a small number of genetically modified cultivars, for example.

FAO supports a science-based evaluation system that would objectively determine the benefits and risks of each individual GMO. This calls for a cautious case-by-case approach to address legitimate concerns for the biosafety of each product or process prior to its release. The possible effects on biodiversity, the environment and food safety need to be evaluated, and the extent to which the benefits of the product or process outweigh its risks assessed. The evaluation process should also take into consideration experience gained by national regulatory authorities in clearing such products. Careful monitoring of the post-release effects of these products and processes is also essential to ensure their continued safety to human beings, animals and the environment.

Current investment in biotechnological research tends to be concentrated in the private sector and oriented towards agriculture in higher-income countries where there is purchasing power for its products. In view of the potential contribution of biotechnologies for increasing food supply and overcoming food insecurity and vulnerability, FAO considers that efforts should be made to ensure that developing countries, in general, and resource-poor farmers, in particular, benefit more from biotechnological research, while continuing to have access to a diversity of sources of genetic material. FAO proposes that this need be addressed through increased public funding and dialogue between the public and private sectors.

FAO continues to assist its member countries, particularly developing countries, to reap the benefits derived from the application of biotechnologies in agriculture, forestry and fisheries - through, for example, the network on plant biotechnology for Latin America and the Caribbean (REDBIO), which involves 33 countries. The Organization also assists developing countries to participate more effectively and equitably in international commodities and food trade. FAO provides technical information and assistance, as well as socio-economic and environmental analyses, on major global issues related to new technological developments. Whenever the need arises, FAO acts as an "honest broker" by providing a forum for discussion.

For instance, together with the World Health Organization, FAO provides the secretariat to the Codex Alimentarius Commission which has just established an ad hoc Intergovernmental Task Force on Foods Derived from Biotechnologies, in which government-designated experts will develop standards, guidelines or recommendations, as appropriate, for foods derived from biotechnologies or traits introduced into foods by biotechnological methods. The Codex Alimentarius Commission is also considering the labelling of foods derived from biotechnologies to allow the consumer to make an informed choice.

Another example is the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, a permanent intergovernmental forum where countries are developing a Code of Conduct on Biotechnology aimed at maximizing the benefits of modern biotechnologies and minimizing the risks. The Code will be based on scientific considerations and will take into account the environmental, socio-economic and ethical implications of biotechnology. As in applications in medicine, these ethical aspects warrant responsible consideration. Therefore the Organization is working towards the establishment of an international expert committee on ethics in food and agriculture.

FAO is constantly striving to determine the potential benefits and possible risks associated with the application of modern technologies to increase plant and animal productivity and production. However, the responsibility for formulating policies towards these technologies rests with the Member Governments themselves.

©FAO/Giampiero Diana
Agricultural Biotechnologies in Developing Countries (ABDC-10) Conference