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ELECTRONIC FORUM ON BIOTECHNOLOGY IN
FOOD AND AGRICULTURE: SUMMARY CONFERENCE 14

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    SUMMARY CONFERENCE 14

    Conference 14 of the FAO Biotechnology Forum was entitled "Coping with water scarcity in developing countries: What role for agricultural biotechnologies?" It ran from 5 March and 1 April 2007. The Summary Document of the conference (11 pages) provides a synthesis of the main arguments and issues discussed during the conference. Its Executive Summary is given below

    Executive Summary

    The availability of water is a challenge for all countries, but especially for those with scarce water resources and where the livelihoods of its people depend heavily on agriculture. The term 'biotechnology' includes a broad suite of tools that present varying degrees of technical sophistication and require different levels of capital input. A number of them can be used to mitigate water scarcity in agriculture, including a variety of plant biotechnologies, e.g. marker-assisted selection (MAS), and microbial biotechnologies, e.g. use of mycorrhizal fungi as a biofertiliser. Many examples of applications of biotechnology in developing countries were cited during this FAO e-mail conference. There was a general consensus that biotechnology has a valuable role to play in addressing the challenge of water scarcity in developing countries, although opinions differed on the relevance of different biotechnology tools. Despite much promising research and significant possibilities, the conference also indicated that many applications of biotechnology in this area have not yet met their full potential to deliver practical solutions to the end-user in developing countries.

    Among the different plant biotechnologies, MAS and genetic modification elicited most discussion. Although the general opinion of participants was that MAS had significant potential, some underlined the obstacles to its practical application in developing countries, such as the relatively high costs of breeding using molecular markers and the complexity of traits involved in drought resistance and water use efficiency in plants. For genetic modification, promising research results were reported but many participants expressed doubts about the role of genetically modified crops in helping developing countries to cope with water scarcity, referring to the kinds of obstacles also relevant to MAS (costs, complexity of the traits to be improved etc.) as well as to a number of additional concerns, such as intellectual property rights issues and potential environmental impacts.

    To ensure that research initiatives to develop drought resistant crops are successful and that the resulting products actually reach the farmers, participants called for increased collaboration between researchers in different disciplines and for all relevant stakeholders to be involved in the design of solutions to the problems of water scarcity in agriculture. Research should not neglect dryland (non-irrigated) agriculture. The role of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a strategic partnership supporting the work of 15 international centres, in developing drought resistance crops was emphasised.

    A positive outlook was foreseen for microbial biotechnologies in managing water scarcity. Participants described the potential of applying mycorrhizal fungi and certain bacteria as a biofertiliser to assist plants to cope with water stress, calling for greater research in this area. Several applications of biotechnology were reported as playing a useful role in treating wastewater, mainly on a small scale, involving the use of plants and microbes, so that it could be re-used for agricultural purposes. Participants also discussed the potential to design biotechnology-based wastewater treatment systems in such a way that they yield co-products (e.g. biogas) that could be used to generate income locally.

    Read the entire Summary Document of this conference.


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