Bridging the molecular divide
How can more farmers in more countries gain access to the technologies that are emerging from the Gene Revolution?
Biotechnology can provide farmers with disease-free planting materials and speed up conventional breeding programmes.
It can lead to crops that resist pests and diseases, reducing the use of toxic chemicals harmful to the environment and human health.
It offers the possibility of improving the well-being of billions of the world's poor by boosting the nutritional quality of the staple foods they rely on to survive.
Biotechnology is also producing valuable diagnostic tools and vaccines that help control devastating animal diseases like rinderpest.
Yet a number of factors inhibit the transfer of new agricultural technologies to the developing world and prevent farmers from taking advantage of the biotech research that is taking place around the world.
These include inadequate regulatory frameworks, lacking technical capacity for evaluating the environmental and health risks that may be associated with these crops, complex intellectual property issues, weak domestic plant breeding capacities and poorly functioning markets.
A plan of action
In SOFA 2004, FAO identifies policies that could help address this situation.
First are policies to encourage private investment in researching and marketing biotechnology applications that meet the needs of the poor.
These include commercial incentives such as adequate intellectual property rights, appropriate biosafety regulations, and tax breaks for private firms investing in this sort of research.
Second, development policies must strengthen national capacities in plant breeding, including biotechnology, says FAO; only then will countries be able to successfully incorporate important transgenic traits into cultivars appropriate for local conditions.
Third, public-sector biotech research focusing on the problems of the poor needs new support, says FAO -- as do biotechnology research programmes at international agricultural centres.
Fourth, innovative public-private partnerships in biotech research need to be encouraged in order to promote the transfer of technology to the public sphere while maintaining incentives for private-sector R&D.
Finally, FAO says: there is a pressing need to help developing countries build their capacity to assess the environmental and health risks associated with new biotechnologies before they are introduced and to measure their impacts in these areas after they are being used.
A powerful tool, but not a panacea
Despite the challenges, biotech does offer the potential to increase the incomes of poor farmers in developing countries by boosting agricultural production to improve their household food security.
According to Dr Jacques Diouf, Director-General of FAO, the effective transfer of existing technologies to impoverished rural communities and the development of new and safe biotechnologies can greatly enhance the prospects for sustainably improving agricultural productivity today and in the future.
"But," he writes in the introduction to SOFA 2004, "technology alone cannot solve the problems of the poor."
For instance, biotechnology cannot overcome gaps in infrastructure, regulation, markets, seed systems and extension services that hinder the delivery of agricultural technologies to poor farmers in remote areas, notes SOFA 2004.
Nor can it overcome the institutional problems, market failures and policy shortcomings that hinder all efforts to promote agricultural and rural development in many countries.
"Given that technologies that are on the shelf today (generated by conventional research methods) have not yet reached the poorest farmers' fields, there is no guarantee that the new biotechnologies will fare any better," the report concludes.
"Investments in biotechnology research capacity for the public sector will only be worthwhile if the current difficulties in delivering conventional technologies to subsistence farmers can be removed."
Accordingly, FAO argues that biotechnology should form part of an integrated and comprehensive agricultural research and development programme that gives priority to the problems of the poor and should complement, but not supplant, research in other areas, such as plant and livestock breeding and integrated pest, disease and natural resource management.
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