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
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
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.
"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
Information Officer, FAO
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