18 February 2003, Rome -- The promises and potential of biotechnology are not equally shared between developed and developing countries, the FAO Assistant Director-General, Louise Fresco, said in a statement issued today.

She warned of a "molecular divide", saying that "the gap between rich and poor farmers, between research priorities and needs, and between technology development and actual technology transfer, is widening."

To bridge the molecular divide, "biotechnology must be redirected to address the pressing needs of the poor and the new requirements for food quality and quantity and new agricultural products."

An open dialogue should be ensured on the benefits and risks of biotechnologies. Poor countries and farmers should have access to genetic resources and to the technologies and means to use them.

Neglected crops

"There are currently no serious investments in any of the five most important crops in the semi-arid tropics - sorghum, millet, pigeon pea, chickpea and groundnut," said Louise Fresco, who heads FAO's Agriculture Department.

"This is largely because 70 percent of the agricultural biotechnology investments are by multinational private sector research, mostly in developed or advanced developing countries."

"Today 85% of all plantings of transgenic crops globally are herbicide-resistant soybean, insect-resistant maize and genetically improved cotton varieties, designed to reduce input and labour costs in large scale production systems, not to feed the developing world or increase food quality," Louise Fresco said.

"There are no major public sector programmes to tackle more critical problems of the poor and the environment or targeting crops such as cassava or small ruminants."

Choosing the best option

Biotechnology is only one way to increase food quality and quantity in a sustainable way, Ms Fresco said. Choosing the best options to address specific production problems in developing countries should be based on economic, technical, social, trade and safety considerations.

"Biotechnology may add new dimensions to the existing integrated approaches, but not replace them."

"Perhaps the greatest potential of biotechnologies does not come from genetically modified organisms (GMOs), but from genetic markers, genomics and proteomics which can complement conventional breeding strategies and enhance their efficiency," Ms Fresco said.

"Vaccines and virus-free plant materials hold great potential. Biotechnology-based diagnostic tools can be of great help to quickly identify many viral, fungal, and bacterial pathogens. Biotechnological research should focus on key challenges facing developing countries such as drought, soil erosion and salinity. The point is harnessing genetic resources through biotechnology, and not just manipulating them," Ms Fresco added.

Research needs to be reversed

"I am most concerned that agronomic research is becoming increasingly specialized and exclusively focused on the plant or cellular levels."

"Pressures on research institutes to obtain external funding may lead to over-emphasizing biotech-related research. Already, the perceived profit potential of GMOs has changed the direction of investment away from systems-based approaches to pest management and toward a greater reliance on monocultures: the possible long-term environmental and economic costs of such strategies should not be overlooked," Ms. Fresco warned.

The key for reorienting research for the benefit of developing countries is a funding issue, Ms Fresco stressed.

"I would like to call urgently for reversing the decline in funding to public research, and creating incentives to harness private/public sector partnerships."

Erwin Northoff
Information Officer, FAO
(+39) 06 570 53105