The global population size is increasing by roughly 80 million annually and almost all population growth is in developing countries. Since the amount of agricultural land available is limited, the increases in food production needed to feed the worlds growing population must come from increasing the amount of food produced per hectare. Biotechnology includes a range of scientific tools that can be applied to different aspects of agriculture, food production and nutrition and may play a role in this challenge.
However, biotechnology includes tools that are sometimes considered controversial, with the result that in some areas (e.g. involving genetically modified food and crops), the debate on the value and consequences of agriculture biotechnology has become polarized. There is therefore an increased need for quality, balanced information and to better understand and clarify the issues and concerns resulting in this polarization. It was in this spirit that FAO, acting as an honest broker, established the Electronic Forum on Biotechnology in Food and Agriculture.
The Forum hosted six e-mail conferences (each lasting approximately two months) from March 2000 to May 2001. The first four conferences dealt with the appropriateness of currently available biotechnologies in the crop, forestry, livestock and fishery sectors, respectively for food and agriculture in developing countries. The last two conferences dealt with the implications of agricultural biotechnology for hunger and food security in developing countries and the impact of intellectual property rights on food and agriculture in developing countries.
Before each conference took place, a document was written to provide an easily understandable background to the conference theme. After the conference, the participants views and comments were summarized in a concisely structured document. These documents constitute the major part of this publication. The conferences were open to everyone but were moderated to ensure that the messages circulated were relevant to the conference themes and were neither offensive nor too long.
About 1 300 people joined the Forum and over 400 e-mail messages were sent by participants from 47 different countries. More than 40 percent of messages were from people living in developing countries. Participants came from a wide range of walks of life, with 75 percent of messages sent by individuals in research organizations/institutes, universities and NGOs.
Regarding biotechnology in the different sectors (crop, fishery, forestry or livestock), the Forum members showed greatest interest in the crop sector. In addition, genetic modification was the single biotechnology that, by far, attracted the greatest interest and discussion and which dominated the crop, fishery and forestry sector conferences.
A wide range of topics concerning the appropriateness, importance and implications of biotechnology for food and agriculture in developing countries was dealt with in the conferences. Some of the major issues that participants raised repeatedly in different conferences were:
a) could make developing countries dependent on developed countries (or on private companies from developed countries); and
b) meant that the needs of small, food-insecure farmers in developing countries were being overlooked as these farmers do not represent an important market for the private sector in developed countries.
From the six conferences, it was clear that there is large interest in receiving and sharing information about agricultural biotechnology for developing countries. It can be hoped that by providing people with this opportunity to share their views and experiences, the Forum may have contributed in some way to a reduction in polarization and to an increased understanding of other viewpoints in this debate.