Meeting gives FAO go-ahead for new fields of work
Major new emphases for FAO's work were proposed by the Committee for Agriculture (COAG) at its fifteenth session that finished on 29 January. The Committee was vocal in its support for the development of cross-sectoral and interdepartmental programmes in three relatively new fields of global importance - organic agriculture, urban and peri-urban agriculture and biotechnology.
High priority urged for biotechnology programme
Discussion at COAG on biotechnology was particularly lively, according to FAO expert, Maria Zimmerman. There were more than 20 interventions on the subject and the Committee finally recommended that 'FAO develop a strategic approach to biotechnology and give high priority to a coordinated cross-sectoral programme'.
The meeting noted that the many techniques grouped under the term biotechnology offer great potential for progress in agriculture, but they also present risks. Recognising and minimizing the risks presented by biotechnology is a key area of concern for FAO and COAG stressed FAO's role in providing a forum for countries to monitor food and agriculture biotechnologies.
The meeting particularly noted the difficulties that developing countries and countries in transition face when evaluating risks in relation to genetically modified organisms. Such risk analysis may call for international standard setting and harmonization, according to the meeting's report. Several countries asked FAO for assistance in drawing up national biosafety legislation.
The importance of labelling foods that contain the products of biotechnology in the interests of consumer health protection and of trade was also underlined and the work of the Codex Alimentarius Commission in this area was welcomed.
Biotechnology is not just for big businesses
Ms Zimmerman said that the introduction of low-cost biotechnologies for small farmers in developing countries is a high priority for FAO. She cited tissue culture as one suitable technique. In some Latin American countries, tissue culture is used - frequently by women - to produce disease-free planting materials, either for sale at the market or for their own use. The technique is mainly used for flower production and for a few species like African Palm.
COAG also recommended that FAO should promote information-exchange and capacity-building as part of its new strategic approach to biotechnology and give policy advice to members on the subject. It was noted that the implications of biotechnology for trade and for plant and animal health should be analysed.
Organic agriculture is good for the environment - and food security?
On the subject of organic agriculture, the meeting was highly positive. The environmental and potential health benefits of organic agriculture and its contribution of innovative technologies to other farming systems and to sustainable agriculture were unanimously recognized. It was stressed, however, that organic agriculture is not proposed as a replacement for conventional agriculture, but as a complementary form of production that offers significant opportunities for some farmers.
Some concerns were voiced about the capacity of organic agriculture to keep pace with growing food needs and members called for studies to be made of its contribution to food security. Other areas proposed for further investigation in relation to organic agriculture included, its implications for women farmers, its potential for tropical environments, alternative uses of organic matter and scenarios for future supply-demand relationships.
The time is ripe for urban agriculture
As for urban and peri-urban agriculture (UPA), members saw its inclusion on the agenda as timely. UPA is a term that covers a wide range of food production techniques used in developed and developing countries on small and large scales. UPA contributes to the food security, incomes and nutritional levels of urban families.
COAG recommended that FAO's work on UPA should focus on areas where it has a comparative advantage over rural agriculture and aim to build up an understanding of the benefits and risks inherent in UPA. The following areas were suggested for particular attention: the health and sanitary implications of UPA, the land-use dynamics caused by encroachment of urban areas into agricultural areas, interdependency between rural and urban agriculture, credit and other input constraints of poor urban and peri-urban farmers, the involvement of women in UPA and associated requirements for marketing and distribution.
11 February 1999