One of FAO's major roles is to provide member countries and their institutions with factual, comprehensive and current information on issues related to food and agriculture, including biotechnology applications. It provides this information through the FAO Web site on biotechnology, an e-mail newsletter FAO-BiotechNews, and a series of e-mail conferences hosted by the FAO Biotechnology Forum. This e-mail-based forum was launched in 2000 with the aim of providing quality, balanced information on agricultural biotechnology in developing countries and to make a neutral platform available for people to exchange views and experiences on this subject. It has around 3 000 members worldwide, and in its first five years it has hosted 13 moderated e-mail conferences.
Each conference of the FAO Biotechnology Forum takes one particular topic and discusses it for a limited amount of time, normally four weeks. Before each conference begins, a background document is sent to the Forum members, which gives a good background to the conference theme, in a balanced neutral way, and is written in easily understandable language so that people with little knowledge of the area may understand what the theme is about. The conferences are moderated, open to everyone, and normally 350 to 650 people join in. Despite the fact that there are tremendous global inequalities in use of the Internet, there has been very active participation from developing countries, with roughly 50 percent of all messages posted coming from people living in these countries. After each conference, a summary document is sent to the Forum members, which summarizes the main issues discussed during the e-mail conference, based on the messages posted by the participants during the conference. Although it is an e-mail-based forum, all documents and messages are also made available on the Internet (www.fao.org/biotech).
On the occasion of World Food Day 2004, the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged “individuals and institutions alike to give greater attention to biodiversity as a key theme in our efforts to fight the twin scourges of hunger and poverty and achieve the Millennium Development Goals”. He also noted that the unprecedented loss of biodiversity over the past century was a major cause for alarm, where
“many freshwater fish species, which can provide crucial dietary diversity to the poorest households, have become extinct, and many of the world's most important marine fisheries have been decimated. Food supplies have also been made more vulnerable by our reliance on a very small number of species: just 30 crop species dominate food production and 90 per cent of our animal food supply comes from just 14 mammal and bird species - species which themselves rely on biodiversity for their productivity and survival. There has been a substantial reduction in crop genetic diversity in the field and many livestock breeds are threatened with extinction”.
On the same occasion, FAO's Director-General Jacques Diouf also underlined that although forests are among the world's most important repositories of biological diversity, the world forest cover is decreasing at an alarming rate.
It is in this context of declining agricultural biodiversity that the FAO Biotechnology Forum decided to dedicate Conference 13 to “the role of biotechnology for the characterization and conservation of crop, forest, animal and fishery genetic resources in developing countries”, which took place between 6 June and 4 July 2005. Biotechnology is a broad collection of tools, which can be applied for a range of different purposes (e.g. genetic improvement of populations; disease diagnosis and vaccine development; improvement of feeds). The focus in the e-mail conference was on biotechnology tools, such as molecular markers or cryopreservation and reproductive technologies that can be used directly for the characterization and/or conservation of genetic resources for food and agriculture. About 650 people subscribed to the conference and 127 messages were posted from people living in 38 different countries. Over 60 percent of messages posted were from people living in developing countries. As part of the preparations for the conference, an international workshop was held from 5 to 7 March 2005 in Turin, Italy, on the same subject that was organized by the FAO Working Group on Biotechnology in collaboration with the Fondazione per le Biotecnologie, the Econogene project (a European Unionfunded project on biodiversity and conservation of sheep and goat breeds in marginal areas) and the Italian Society of Agriculture Genetics.
In this book, we are happy to bring together papers from the meeting in Turin and the background and summary documents from the subsequent e-mail conference. The book aims to provide an updated overview of the current status of the world's genetic resources for food and agriculture, of the use of biotechnology tools for characterizing and conserving these genetic resources, and of the many specific issues involved in applying them in developing countries. Section I contains four papers on the status of the world's livestock, fishery, crop and forest genetic resources. Section II considers the use of cryopreservation and reproductive technologies for conservation of animal and plant genetic resources. Section III is dedicated to the use of molecular markers for characterization and conservation of genetic resources. Finally, Section IV contains the two documents from the e-mail conference. We hope the book will be useful to individuals interested in the utilization of biotechnology for characterization and conservation of genetic resources for the good of humanity today and tomorrow.
Chairperson, FAO Working Group on Biotechnology