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Statements

Curriculum vitae of Dr Jacques Diouf

 


Address by the Director-General of FAO to
The Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry
International Conference

Stockholm, Sweden, 14-15 May 2001

 

Genetically Modified Crops - Why? Why not?

 

Mr. President of the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry,
Honourable Members,
Distinguished Guests,

 

Right now, at this very moment, as we gather here this morning, more than 800 million people around the world are going to bed without food or awaking from that dreadful restless sleep of the hungry. Furthermore, thousands of children suffering from malnutrition will not live to see the end of this day. And so we are still faced with the horrible scourge of Hunger and Malnutrition and the pressing challenge of Food Security for All.

As we open this Conference, scientists in many countries around the globe are 'in conference', formally or informally, addressing ways and means of reading, understanding and manipulating that most fundamental alphabet of life - the genetic code - the blueprint of our very existence and of the world we live in. And so we witness Science with its exciting and seemingly boundless opportunities.

So too, as we speak, an ever-increasing number of people around the world are focusing their energies to address and express their worries and concerns that scientific advance may change the safety of the food we eat and pose risks to the environment in which we live.

Therefore, we must engage further in a discussion on the ethics of such dramatic change.

We also need to consider the reality that advances in communication technologies are such that all of us gathered here in this conference room could sit back in our chairs and simultaneously observe, in virtual reality, each of the three foregoing scenarios of potential, risk and ethics being acted out as they occur - it is simply a matter of audio-visual communication and planned engagement. And so we must harness Information Technology to the full in meeting the challenges we face.

Mr. Chairman, these four statements on potential, risk, ethics and communication technology encapsulate the challenges and opportunities we face today. As scientists, public servants, politicians or private sector leaders, directly or indirectly engaged in the management and use of our natural resources, we have an inescapable duty to harness science not only to produce more and safe food, to eliminate hunger and poverty, but also to conserve the natural resource base we inherited from our forefathers. This broad challenge embraces Science, Ethics, Food Security and Food Safety. More specifically, the challenge taxes us to build, monitor and connect the strands of knowledge and understanding that buttress the nexus where Science, Ethics, Food Security and Food Safety meet. That, I feel, is the substance of the debate in this most important Conference.

What more appropriate setting to address this challenge - within the hallowed walls of the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry and the birthplace of that famous 18th century Swedish botanist and explorer, Carl Linnaeus, who was the first to articulate the principles of taxonomy on which we delineate the germplasm (Genera and Species) of plant and animal life. And of course, in the birthplace of Alfred Bernhard Nobel, that most illustrious Swedish chemist, engineer and industrialist, it is most apt that ethics and social justice guide us as we engage the Promethean sciences in the quest of sustainable food security, food safety and human welfare.

Last year, we witnessed the President of the United States of America and the Prime Minister of Great Britain jointly announce the mapping of the Human Genome, with, may I add, a joint commitment that this information - a most fundamental public good - must remain in the public domain. As the year drew to a close, an international team of scientists published the first complete genetic map of a plant, the Thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) - a small weed related to the mustard plant. In the first three months of this year, very significant advances in our understanding of the human genome and the mapping of further plant and animal species (e.g., rice, the laboratory mouse) have been published in Nature, almost on a weekly basis. And global efforts to unravel the bovine genome continue apace. What more appropriate time to address the question of ethics in reference to these rapid advances in genetic engineering.

That, in essence, is the question posed by the Swedish Ministers of Justice, Environment and Trade, in their joint statement of 10 December 2000, "No Monopoly on Genes".

Biotechnology includes a large range of different techniques, many of which are not controversial, as well as the now widely discussed technique known as genetic engineering. Central to genetic engineering is the ability to identify and manipulate genetic material with great precision and to transfer traits of interest from one organism or species and express them in another. Biotechnology also encompasses the development of cloned organisms, such as Dolly (the famous cloned sheep), and the modification of reproductive mechanisms in farm animals and fish. A further field of rapidly advancing application of biotechnology is represented by the food processing industry, where modern molecular techniques are currently being applied in a number of sectors, including fermentation and the production of starter and separation technologies.

There have also been rapid and very significant advances in the application of modern biotechnology to food and forest crops over the past decade. Important advances have been made in each of the following areas of research: (i) Advances in plant propagation techniques, (ii) Advances in the diagnosis of pests and diseases, (iii) Advances in the construction of transgenic plants with improved yields, disease, pest and stress resistance and/or nutritional quality, and (iv) Advances in the use of genetic markers, maps, genomics and informatics in marker- assisted and gene-assisted selection.

From the mid-90's, as a direct result of advances of genetic engineering, we have witnessed a substantial cultivation of the first generation of new genetically engineered, or transgenic, plant varieties. In the year 2000, more than forty-four million hectares of land were planted with transgenic varieties of more than twenty plant species; the most commercially important were soybean, corn, rapeseed, and cotton. These new varieties were planted in 13 countries, including Argentina, Australia, Canada, China, Mexico, South Africa, and Uruguay and most predominantly in the United States. However, it is worth noting that 24 percent approximately were grown in developing countries. The value of the global market in transgenic crops has grown from US$75 million in 1995 to US$ 1.64 billion in 1998.

The specific characteristics these new transgenic varieties were bred for include: insect resistance, herbicide tolerance, delayed fruit ripening and virus resistance. Still further GM-based improvements are currently under field-testing. Interestingly, a new emphasis is now being directed to improving the nutritional value of foods and food crops that may have direct and tangible benefits for the consumer - that is where the concern and GM debate is most strongly engaged.

While there is as yet no reported commercial -scale production of genetically modified forest trees, considerable research is underway, including here in Sweden, especially for timber-producing species grown in intensively managed plantations. Traits for which genetic modification can realistically be contemplated in the near future include insect and virus resistance, herbicide tolerance and modified lignen content

The World Food Summit highlighted the importance of agricultural research, and biotechnology in particular, as most important elements in the fight against hunger and malnutrition. The products of biotechnology research and genetic engineering can help in a number of ways. First of all, let us remind ourselves that we can no longer depend on bringing significant new areas of virgin lands into the food production chain and that further expansion of food production must come from increased yields on the lands already farmed by the poorest of small farmers and the larger farms alike. This raises the twin challenges of raising productivity on the more fertile lands farmed by the better-off farmers together with an improvement in the output and range of food crops that can be grown on the less well-endowed fragile marginal lands.

In this latter context, the possible genetic modification of plant germplasm opens up new and exciting approaches to tackle many of the widely recognised constraints on tropical agriculture such as plant tolerance to drought, salinity and low soil fertility. Taken together, these potential advances coupled with the effective use of information technologies can underpin the development of sustainable food production on marginal lands based on Integrated Soil-Water-Nutrient-Germplasm-Pest Management technologies; in other words, Precision Agriculture for the tropics.

As to increasing yields of the major food staples, it is now widely recognised that we are at a post-Green Revolution standstill and that yield ceilings of the main food crops have already been reached in conventional breeding programmes. Certainly, we must look to genetic engineering to help to move beyond these plateaus, and the current research with rice gives us a basis for well-founded expectations in this regard. Biotechnology and genetic engineering also raise the possibility of enhancing tropical livestock production - a much needed development as we witness the accelerating pace of urbanisation and the changes in dietary patterns.

Perhaps, the most significant genetic engineering breakthrough which has direct relevance to malnutrition and food insecurity across the developing world is the modification of the rice genome to produce a new variety called Golden Rice. Golden Rice is a transgenic rice variety that produces pro-vitamin A and has increased levels of iron. There is strong and justifiable interest to make this transgenic plant available to farmers in developing countries, especially to combat premature death and blindness arising from Vitamin A deficiency. It is estimated that 180 million people throughout the world are Vitamin A-deficient, and that each year two million of them die, hundreds of thousands of children go blind and a significant number of women suffer from anemia, which is a major cause of death in women of childbearing age.

Hopefully we can look forward to more technological advances of this nature, not only to increase the nutritional quality of our food but also to effect improvements in food storage qualities and shelf life.

Most of the major advances in biotechnology and genetic engineering have been realised by the large multinational Life Science companies independently or in collaboration with the Advanced Research Institutes (ARIs) in the industrial countries. Certainly, a number of developing countries (such as Brazil, Argentina, China, India, Malaysia and the Philippines) have significant Research and Development programmes in biotechnology but in general, the vast majority of developing countries have not been able to devote adequate resources to support research in this field.

Developing countries need assistance, not only in laboratory facilities and know-how to undertake the field testing of GM crops and the other products of biotechnology research; they also need assistance in Research Policy and Management issues pertaining to biotechnology and genetic engineering research. The application of modern biotechnology to agricultural research systems across the developing world calls for new investments, changes in resource allocations and new responsibilities for policy makers, research managers and scientists alike.

In this context, the National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) must be supported more firmly by their Governments and by the international donor community. The Private Sector, and in particular the large Multinational Life Sciences companies, have a very important role to play in this regard, not only in openly sharing the results and products of their research but also in engaging in specific partnerships (Research and Training) with the national research systems so as to harness advances in biotechnology and genomic research in the fight against poverty and food insecurity.

The ownership and use of genetically modified germplasm is a fundamentally important question of equity that is being widely debated in fora concerned with Intellectual Property Rights (IPR). A primary determinant of who will gain or lose in the development of GMO technology is the IPR legislation and agreed protocols that govern the use of GM products.

One key issue is the extent to which "farmer's rights" and "breeders' exceptions" will be recognized under the newly emerging IPR schemes. The first gives farmers the right to re-use seeds from protected patents whereas the second allows third parties to make use of patented varieties for breeding under certain restricted conditions. These two rights exist under some currently existing systems (e.g. UPOV-Union internationale pour la protection des obtentions végétales) but are not clearly guaranteed under others, which are being adopted in response to the TRIPS (Trade Related aspects of Intellectual Property rights) agreement concluded under the WTO.

Despite the fact that over the past few decades new biotechnologies have opened up exciting avenues and opportunities in a wide range of sectors, from agriculture to pharmaceutical production, the scale of the negative global debate about GMOs is unprecedented. This debate, which is very intensive and at times emotionally charged, has polarized scientists, food producers, consumers and public interest groups as well as governments and policy-makers.

Some ethical aspects of GMOs fall within the context of the right to adequate food, which is derived from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the 1996 World Food Summit, the Rome Declaration on World Food Security and the World Food Summit Plan of Action reaffirmed the right of everyone to adequate food - and, most recently in April of this year, the Commission on Human Rights reaffirmed "that hunger constitutes an outrage and a violation of human dignity". Other important human rights issues that have a bearing on the GMO debate are the 'right to informed choice' and the right to 'democratic participation'.

The right to informed choice derives from the ethical concept of the autonomy of individuals. This principle can be applied, for example, in the debate on labeling food derived from GMOs to ensure that consumers know what they are consuming and are able to make informed decisions.

The right to democratic participation addresses the need for justice and equity. There are very many men and women (particularly the poor and powerless) with little education and no social entry point to influence decisions about GMOs. Their concerns and well being must be reflected in the debate about the impact of GMOs on their lives and livelihoods, and about any benefits or risks involved. Also of concern is the fact that future generations have no voice in decisions about GMOs.

The consumers' primary concern about GMOs is food safety. Quite logically consumers seek assurances that GM foods reaching the market have been adequately tested and that these foods are being monitored to ensure continued safety. Because of the complexity of food products, research on the safety of GM foods is more difficult than carrying out studies on components such as pesticides, pharmaceuticals or industrial chemicals. Through the Codex Alimentarius Commission and other fora, countries are discussing standards for GMOs and ways to ensure their safety.

The potential of GMOs to upset the balance of nature is another concern of the public. GMOs are "novel" products which, when released, may cause ecosystems to adjust, perhaps in unintended ways. There is also concern about the possibility that genetic "pollution" will result from out-crossing with wild populations.

Ideally, in forming their views about GMOs, consumers should weigh the perceived benefits of accepting a new technology against the perceived risks. Since only a few of the currently available plant or animal GMOs present obvious benefits to consumers, they question why they should assume possible risks. It is said that consumers take the risks while the producers (and/or the multinational supply companies) reap the benefits. Clearly, risk assessment and risk management methodologies are critical in this context.

Science-based risk analysis seeks to enable experts to make decisions that minimize the probability of hazards in the food supply system and the environment. Consumers, however, may also wish for more transparency to protect their right to exercise informed consent on their own. Obviously, informed consent and labeling foods of GMO origin are the most important issues in this debate.

At present there are very few fora available to the public to discuss the wide range of issues relating to GMOs. The absence of such fora can lead to advocates concerned with one aspect of GMOs, such as environmental impact, pushing their concerns into a forum set up to deal with another aspect, such as labeling for example. A related issue is how to credibly bring the private sector transparently into public fora and, subsequently, how to hold public and private sector agencies accountable. Consumers' choices in the market cannot be ignored: if they choose not to, they do not have to buy. However, the market is not the only place where consumers can express their views or preferences. Increasingly, consumers are forming different lobby/protest groups seeking a more direct "say" in how their food is produced. This must be understood in the context that consumers throughout the world now live and work far from the locations where their food is produced. This lack of direct involvement in the production process can result in consumers' views on the agri-food system and its products being ill informed, misled and often largely ignored. The media have a very important and responsible role to play in this context.

Clearly, there is much concern and confusion about the risks of GMOs in terms of food safety and the environment. Regulatory agencies base their standards on science-based assessments of risk. Scientists, economists and policy makers are now using Risk Analysis methodologies to structure their evaluation of the effects of genetically modified organisms. Risk analyses consist of three components: risk assessment, risk management and risk communication. Risk assessment and risk management are largely self- evident.

Risk communication deserves special mention, as it is the element least practiced or highlighted in the GMO debate. Risk communication involves the interactive exchange of information and opinions among assessors, risk managers, consumers, industry, the scientific community and other interested parties throughout the risk analysis process.

Regulatory issues, especially those relating to quarantine, invasive species and biosafety become very important when GM crops are traded internationally. International organizations supporting conventions such as the International Plant Protection Convention, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety are actively engaged in constructing workable regulatory frameworks. More specific regulatory mechanisms include a code of conduct on biotechnology as it affects the conservation and use of genetic resources for Food and Agriculture; this is currently under development by FAO member countries within the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

Commissions and fora within FAO are facilitating discussion among member countries on a wide range of issues relating to the debate on genetic engineering and GMOs in agriculture, forestry and fisheries. At the international level, there are mechanisms to establish standards for Food Products, for Plants, for Animal Health and for Fisheries; In addition, in March of last year FAO launched an Electronic Forum on Biotechnology in Food and Agriculture to assist developing countries in debating these issues.

 

Mr. President,
Honourable members,
Distinguished Guests,

Certainly, it should be stated that the use and implementation of traditionally improved organisms and technologies would be sufficient to permit developing countries to achieve the goals of the World Food Summit 1996. But the evidence to date clearly shows that genetic engineering technologies and GMOs have the potential to significantly raise levels of efficiency and productivity in plant and animal production in a world where population will increase from the present level of six billion to nine billion and where the best agricultural land is diminishing through urbanization, industrialization and infrastructure for transport development, while deforestation and expansion of agriculture in marginal land constitute serious blows to fragile ecosystems. All our efforts must be directed to ensure that the potential benefits of biotechnology with the necessary safeguard measures for health and environment are brought to within the reach of everybody, including the poor and the most disadvantaged. Nor can we ignore food safety as an integral and most critical part of this research and development process.

Clearly, it is not possible to make sweeping generalizations about GMOs; each application must be fully analyzed on a case-by-case basis. Through complete and transparent assessments of GMO applications, and recognition of their short- and long-term implications, the debate can be less contentious and more constructive. The scientist has a fundamental ethical responsibility in this regard.

While scientists, governments and the agri-food industry are increasingly recognizing the need to inform the public about GMOs, there is still relatively little information available to enable the layperson to make decisions. Widely communicated, accurate and objective assessments of the benefits and risks associated with the use of genetic technologies must be made available to all stakeholders.

This, all the more, highlights the ethical responsibilities of the scientist to be more proactive and to communicate their findings in terms that can be understood by the layperson. Scientific professional associations have a greater role to play in this regard - education of the general public on GMO technologies and their consequences.

The right to adequate food, as discussed today, carries with it obligations on the part of Governments to protect individuals' autonomy and their ability to participate in public decision-making fora, especially when issues relating to that most basic of all necessities - food - are being discussed. These obligations can include the provision of public resources to ensure that the fora are effective and are conducted in a spirit of fairness and justice.

Whereas GM technologies offer a great opportunity to develop a world that is truly food secure, we must not forget that we all- the Scientific Community, the International Community, the Multinational Life Science Companies and the Donor Community together with National Governments - bear a fundamental responsibility to ensure that the developing countries can equitably share in these exciting advances that science offers in a way that is safe for their population and environment. This calls for a more open, integrated and collaborative involvement of all the stakeholders engaged in developing country agriculture and food production.

 

Honourable Members of the Academy,

Throughout history, man has continually sought advances in knowledge and enlightenment to meet his needs for food, shelter and safety. Over time, each era brought its own set of Promethean changes and associated risks. Following the industrial revolution, the science of change became more profound, more excitingly challenging and more potentially dangerous as technologies became increasingly potent and risky; in turn, each new perceived risk-prone development invoked calls for the control of science and scientific paradigms in terms of assured safety in the management of scientific advance.

Paradigm shifts are interesting moments in science, because they force us to rethink the rationale of our actions as scientists. They are particularly interesting when we can perceive the outcomes, not of mutually exclusive approaches but of possibilities for acceptable broad-based developments for the common good. At the dawn of this new millennium, the Science of Food and Agriculture has reached another milestone in its history that heralds significant and exciting possibilities to build a New Green Revolution - a much needed set of changes to which hundreds of millions of food insecure people bear witness today, and on which sustainable development can and will build for this and for future generations to come.

To the scientist, to the development community and to all of us, this is a tremendous challenge that requires a more comprehensive, transparent and inclusive research paradigm involving the sharing of decision-making and research outputs in ways that we have not done before. The effective, transparent and equitable use of increasingly accessible Information Technologies can help us to build that much needed inclusive framework of scientific investigation for the food needs of today's poor and tomorrow's world.

But as scientists we should always keep in mind the warning of Einstein "Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal".

Mr. President, therein lies the challenge of this conference.

 

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