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Biotechnology offering much promise but few practical solutions for water scarcity

Photo: FAO   Biotechnology tools can play a valuable role in addressing the challenge of water scarcity in developing countries, but many applications of biotechnology relevant to water scarcity have not yet delivered practical solutions to farmers. This was one of the main messages emerging from an international dialogue on "Coping with water scarcity in developing countries: What role for agricultural biotechnologies?" that features in a new publication released by FAO this month.

The dialogue took place through a moderated e-mail conference hosted as one of FAO's initiatives to mark World Water Day 2007, whose theme was "Coping with water scarcity". The conference's main focus was on the use of biotechnologies to increase the efficiency of water use in agriculture, while a secondary focus was on two specific water-related applications of micro-organisms, in wastewater treatment and in inoculation of crops and forest trees with mycorrhizal fungi. The new publication brings together the background document and the summary report from the conference.

Biotechnology represents a broad collection of tools and these tools are currently being applied for a wide range of different purposes in food and agriculture. During the dialogue, there was general consensus that biotechnology has a valuable role to play in addressing the challenge of water scarcity in developing countries. However, opinions differed on the relevance of different biotechnology tools. Over the past years, opinions have indeed differed widely regarding one particular biotechnology, genetic modification, and the resulting genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that it produces. The controversy has been exacerbated by large-scale dissemination of misinformation, both for and against GMOs, through the media and elsewhere. Biotechnogy did not increased yield in drought period

In this polarized situation, Andrea Sonnino, from FAO's Research and Extension Division and Secretary of FAO's Working Group on Biotechnology, notes that "FAO has strived to provide high-quality, unbiased, science-based and updated information about agricultural biotechnologies to its Member Nations and their institutions and will continue to do so in the future".

A key message that emerged from the dialogue is that, despite their promise, many applications of biotechnology relevant to water scarcity (such as drought-resistant plants) have not yet delivered practical solutions to the end-users in developing countries. According to Pasquale Steduto, from FAO's Land and Water Division "biotechnology is not a silver bullet for coping with water scarcity and the pathway to achieve valuable breakthroughs can be quite long".



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