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

    Conference 5 of the FAO Electronic Forum on Biotechnology in Food and Agriculture took place from November 1 to December 17, 2000. The summary documents provide a synopsis of the main arguments and concerns discussed. All messages posted are on the Forum website.

    Read the Long Summary Document of this conference.

    Read the Short Summary Document of this conference [below].

    I. Summary Document (Short Version) - Conference 5

    Conference 5 of the FAO Electronic Forum on Biotechnology in Food and Agriculture was entitled "Can agricultural biotechnology help to reduce hunger and increase food security in developing countries ?" and ran from 1 November to 18 December 2000. The conference was quite active, reflecting the wide interest in this topic. Although shorter than those held previously, the numbers of people registered (258) and of messages posted (118) were second only to those in Conference 1, while the level of participation was highest, with 18% of people registered submitting at least one message.

    Agricultural biotechnology is available and can play a role in different agricultural and food sectors. However, in the conference, specific applications of biotechnology were discussed only in relation to the crop and, to a much lesser degree, the livestock sectors. There were no specific references to the fisheries or forestry sectors. In addition, although a wide range of biotechnologies is currently available, there was considerable focus on just one biotechnology (genetic modification) and, in particular, on its use for development of a genetically modified (GM) crop variety known as Golden Rice.

    As befitting the theme of the conference, participants paid a lot of attention to the causes of hunger and food insecurity in developing countries and the potential impact and relative importance of using biotechnology to alleviate these problems. On many specific areas of debate, divergent viewpoints were exchanged and there was often a strong socio-political dimension to such differences. This is not really surprising, as people's perception of the role or impact of biotechnology on food security and hunger often depends on their vision of how the world is (or should be) and of how food security and hunger problems may be best alleviated.

    The many topics covered in the 118 messages can be summarised under the following major themes:

    1. Causes of hunger and food insecurity in developing countries

    There was wide agreement among participants that hunger and food security are complex issues and that their causes (and, indeed, their potential solutions) were economic, social and political, as well as technical. Participants discussed the contributions of different factors to hunger and food insecurity, such as inequalities in society; inadequate natural resources or skills; poverty or the limited population carrying capacity of the environment.

    2. How biotechnology can contribute to reducing hunger and increasing food security in developing countries

    Many participants described the potential advantages that biotechnology could offer to different areas of the crop and livestock sectors in developing countries. In general, their comments were quite cautious and measured, without ignoring the many challenges that need to be overcome in these countries. At a wider level, it was also discussed whether food security and hunger problems in developing countries could be alleviated using biotechnology to increase agricultural exports to developed countries (to earn more foreign currency) or to increase exports from developed to developing countries in the future (to feed the growing population in the developing world).

    3. Biotechnology is just one of the possible solutions to hunger and food insecurity in developing countries

    During the conference, it was commonly argued that many approaches need to be taken to tackle food insecurity and hunger problems, and that biotechnology was just another one that should be tried. A small number of participants disagreed, however, with this "tool box" approach on the basis that funds to fight hunger are being steadily reduced and that prioritisation of approaches is therefore necessary.

    4. Biotechnology may increase hunger, food insecurity and social inequalities in developing countries

    Some participants suggested that the economic and trade implications of increasing food production, e.g. using biotechnology, could be quite complex and that it might actually exacerbate hunger and food insecurity issues and deepen social problems in developing countries. If resulting in cheaper food, it could increase access to food by the poor, but at the same time the lower prices could also economically weaken farmers in developing countries and contribute to their migration from rural to urban areas.

    5. Impact of GM crops on hunger and food security in developing countries

    Of the many potential biotechnologies available, and the many different ways in which they could be applied, participants paid most attention to the use of genetic modification in the crop sector. Some of the discussion concerned the potential environmental impact of GM crops and the negative effect it might have on hunger and food security. Much was, however, specifically focused on a single GM variety, known as Golden Rice, which contains three foreign genes so that the rice plants produce provitamin A, from which humans can make Vitamin A. Conflicting opinions were expressed about the potential value of the variety, which is currently in the testing phase, as a tool against Vitamin A deficiency, which affects between 100 and 140 million children worldwide. Some argued that the variety exists and so why not try it. Others, instead, reversed the argument, taking the approach that hunger and nutrition problems exist and asked why Golden Rice should be used compared to other potential solutions, such as improvements in diet or Vitamin A supplementation.

    6. Biotechnology is more than GM crops

    Because there was a lot of discussion about GM crops during the conference, some participants felt it important to reiterate that biotechnology includes a wide range of tools (such as marker-assisted selection or reproductive technologies for livestock), and not just genetic modification, that may be used to address problems of food security and hunger.

    7. Relationship between the biotechnology industry and the issue of hunger and food security in developing countries

    In general, participants emphasised the potential negative aspects of the role and impact of the biotechnology companies on food security and hunger in developing countries. Some participants suggested that their interest in malnutrition and hunger in developing countries was primarily for marketing purposes, to increase public acceptance of GM crops. Others emphasised the commercial constraints they face, where crop research and development is expensive and their investors and shareholders need to be satisfied. It was argued that the private industry had a negative impact on food security and hunger by its influence on the biotechnology research agenda, because of the industry's focus on richer clients rather than small-scale farmers or the poor. The need for strong public research programmes was emphasised.

    8. Intellectual property rights (IPR) and the ability of developing countries to use biotechnology for their hunger and food security problems

    Some participants emphasised the importance of developing countries being able to develop their own biotechnology products to suit their own particular environments, but expressed concerns that IPR on biotechnology products and processes would adversely affect their ability to do so.

    9. Role of biotechnology scientists in the debate on hunger and food security

    A small number of comments were made about the importance of providing correct information in this debate, that the debate should not be dominated by biotechnology scientists and the private sector and that it was important to have problem-based rather than solution-based thinking in this area.

    For those with access to the web, further information on what the participants said can be got by viewing the actual messages they posted ( http://www.fao.org/biotech/logs/c5logs.htm ) or by reading the Long Version of the Summary Document ( http://www.fao.org/biotech/logs/C5/summary.htm ).

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© FAO, 2001