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Biotechnology: FAO response to open letter from NGOs
Director-General Jacques Diouf outlines his views on use of biotechnology
16 June 2004, Rome -- FAO Director-General Dr Jacques Diouf has sent the following letter to NGOs in response to their criticism of FAO's recent State of Food and Agriculture report.

It has come to my attention that an open letter addressed to me is circulating on the internet for signature by NGOs and other members of civil society. This open letter appears to be in response to misleading press headlines and a mistaken interpretation of FAO's recent report, "Agricultural biotechnology: meeting the needs of the poor?" in the 2003-04 issue of The State of Food and Agriculture.

Those of you who have seen this open letter are urged to read my speech introducing the report and the report itself, rather than relying on secondary interpretations of this very important and complex subject. Therefore, I am transmitting to you the full text of my speech. The full report is available in Arabic, Chinese, English, French and Spanish at http://www.fao.org/documents/index.asp. Readers are further asked to consider that while this report emphasizes biotechnology, it is not meant to represent all components of FAO's broad mandate and commitment to promote agricultural development and alleviate hunger.

The open letter mentions several points that require clarification regarding FAO's working methods and our position on agricultural biotechnology, particularly transgenic crops.

1. The State of Food and Agriculture has been published every year since 1947. The report examines key developments in food and agriculture at the global, regional and national levels and provides in-depth analysis of important issues shaping food and agriculture. It reflects the views of the most known specialists of Member States on the subject. FAO has always respected scientific viewpoints in its reports but, as is always the case in controversial subjects, there are differences of opinion.

2. As regards biotechnology, I should point out that FAO's position is determined by its competent statutory bodies under the guidance of the FAO Conference and of Summits of Heads of State and Government. For instance:

  • The FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius has agreed on the principles and guidelines for assessing health risks related to foods derived from modern biotechnology. Foods derived from the GM crops currently being grown have been evaluated according to existing procedures for risk assessment and have been deemed to be safe to eat. However, the absence of evidence of harm to human health from the consumption of foods derived from GMOs is not a guarantee that they are completely safe; therefore FAO recommends continued monitoring and refinement of risk assessment procedures;
  • The FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Ad Hoc Intergovernmental Task Force on Foods Derived from Biotechnology, open to all Member Nations is the body responsible at international level to elaborate standards, guidelines or other principles, as appropriate, for foods derived from biotechnology;
  • FAO has recently published the guidelines adopted by the 130 Members of the International Plant Protection Convention for pest-risk analysis for living modified organisms. Such agreements can help harmonize regulatory procedures globally.

3. As far as food sovereignty is concerned, FAO negotiated for 7 years to arrive at the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources which will become operational on 29 June 2004. This treaty recognizes, for the first time at the international level, farmers' rights and the rights of countries originating genetic resources. Further, under FAO's umbrella, genetic resources for food and agriculture are conserved at the international level by the international agricultural research centres of the CGIAR. FAO also assists developing countries to conserve their national genetic resources in situ and in vitro.

In the above context, I would also mention that, in the Declaration adopted at the World Food Summit: five years later (WFS: fyl) in June 2002, the Heads of State and Government reaffirmed "the right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food". Under the initiative of the FAO Council, an Intergovernmental Working Group has been established to develop a set of voluntary guidelines to support effective policies and measures for the right to adequate food.

4. Regarding the fight against hunger, the 1996 World Food Summit committed FAO Members to reducing by half the number of hungry persons in the world by 2015. In speeches, interviews, and press conferences, I have always reflected the discussions of the WFSt: fyl, by indicating that the lack of political will and of mobilization of financial resources are the main obstacle to meeting this goal. Implementation of concrete projects in poor communities in rural and peri-urban areas are the priority for ensuring food production, employment and income, and thus achieving sustainable food security. These projects should emphasize:
  • small water harvesting, irrigation and drainage works (wells, canals, impoundments, treadle pumps, etc.). The other FAO annual report, The State of Food Insecurity 2003, indicated that 80% of food crises are related in some way to water, especially to drought. Yet Africa, for example, only uses 1.6% of its available water resources for irrigation.
  • the use of improved seeds and seedlings, particularly those issued from the Green Revolution and conventional plant breeding and tissue culture; the combination of organic and chemical fertilizer in soils that are no longer placed under fallow and are now depleted due to population pressure and clearly deficient in plant-available phosphorus; the integrated biological control of pests, insects and plant diseases without making excessive use of pesticides and complying with the PIC Agreement negotiated under the auspices of UNEP and FAO; and simple post-harvest technologies;
  • diversification of village and household farming systems, with the introduction of short-cycle animal production (poultry, sheep, goats, pigs) and the provision of feed, vaccine and shelter; artisanal fisheries and small-scale aquaculture;
  • the construction of rural roads, local markets and storage and packing facilities, meeting quality and sanitary standards;
  • the negotiation of more equitable terms for international agricultural trade.

I have always maintained that GMOs are not needed to achieve the World Food Summit objective: improved seeds and plant material generated by international agricultural research centres, particularly within the framework of the Green Revolution and by national research systems, including hybrids and varieties from inter-specific breeding are barely used by the smallholders of the Third World.

In the meantime, I have always drawn attention to the need to feed a world population that will increase from a current six billion people to nine billion in 2050, requiring a 60% increase in food production, while expanding the arable land area is becoming increasingly unfeasible because urbanization, industrial expansion and transport infrastructure is encroaching upon rural land and deforestation and the cultivation of fragile ecosystems are causing soil degradation. Such a situation will require intensified cultivation, higher yields and greater productivity.

With this in mind, we will have to use the scientific tools of molecular biology, in particular the identification of molecular markers, genetic mapping and gene transfer for more effective plant enhancement, going beyond the phenotype-based methods. Decisions on the rules and utilization of these techniques must however be taken at the international level by competent bodies such as the Codex Alimentarius.

The developing countries should not only take part in the decision-making, but should also develop their scientific capacity and master the necessary expertise and techniques so that they can understand the implications and make independent choices in order to reach an international consensus on issues that concern all of humanity. FAO provides support to the countries of the Third World to this end and will continue to do so.

Finally, in contrast to the Green Revolution which was generated by international public research and provided national research systems with improved genetic material, at no expense, biotechnology research is essentially driven by the world's top ten transnational corporations, which are spending annually US$3 billion.

By comparison, the CGIAR system, the largest international public sector supplier of agricultural technologies for developing countries has a total annual budget of less than US$300 million. The private sector protects its results with patents in order to earn from its investment and it concentrates on products that have no relevance to food in developing countries.

FAO, in accordance with its mandate, will continue to provide a framework for ensuring a dialogue on these issues at the international level. Such a dialogue should be based on sound scientific principles allowing the analysis of socio-economic implications as well as sanitary and environmental issues.

For the sake of transparency, I would be grateful if you would post this reply on your internet site.

Yours sincerely,

Jacques Diouf


Erwin Northoff
Information Officer, FAO
[email protected]
(+39) 06 570 53105

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Biotechnology: FAO response to open letter from NGOs
Director-General Jacques Diouf outlines his views on use of biotechnology
16 June 2004 -- FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf responded today to criticism from non-governmental organizations on FAO's recent report on biotechnology.
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