Research and technology Knowledge

Posted March 1996

Biotechnology in agriculture, forestry and fisheries:
FAO policies and strategies

from "Agricultural biotechnology in the developing world" (FAO, 1995)


Modern biotechnology is already making important contributions - and poses significant challenges - to agriculture, forestry and fisheries development. FAO recognizes that biotechnologies are a new group of powerful tools for research and ultimately for accelerating development, and not an end in themselves. It perceives that modern biotechnologies should be used as adjuncts to - and not as substitutes for - conventional technologies in solving problems, and that their application should be need-driven rather than technology-driven.

Successful development and application of biotechnology are possible only when a broad research and knowledge base in the biology, variation, breeding, agronomy, physiology, pathology, biochemistry and genetics of the manipulated organism exists. Benefits offered by the new technologies cannot be fulfilled without a continued commitment to basic research. Biotechnological programmes must be fully integrated into a research background and cannot be taken out of context if they are to succeed.

With this background, FAO's strategy is to keep biotechnologies in a balanced perspective by undertaking activities within the framework of existing national research agendas and priorities through consultations, monitoring, and programme initiatives, rather than to support development of new independent programmes and structures around a set of technologies which, in fact, are tools to be used by diverse disciplines and programme areas.

Each country has a responsibility to formulate its own policies, priorities, strategies and programmes for harnessing biotechnology, and to weigh expected benefits, not only against possible negative effects but also against the risk of not exploiting the technology. Commensurate with these responsibilities, the countries must have the necessary infrastructures, financial support and expertise. A majority of the developing countries lack these prerequisites and will need assistance to strengthen their overall capabilities in biotechnological research and development in order to meet the potentials and challenges of the new technologies. On request, FAO can provide technical inputs to assist in planning, programming, priority setting and strategy formulation.

In line with its mandate and the three major areas of its programme - namely, providing information, providing a forum for international debate for issues related to food and agriculture, and rendering technical assistance to its Member Nations - FAO seeks to realize fully the positive impacts of biotechnologies and to minimize, if not completely eliminate, the negative effects. In this resolve, FAO's strategy is to concentrate on activities such as providing information, monitoring and advice, facilitating access to the new technologies, providing a forum for the review of trends, developing appropriate guidelines and codes to facilitate the environmentally sound and quotable harnessing of modern biotechnologies, assisting developing countries to identify biotechnology needs and priorities and to assess socio-economic impacts, and strengthening the overall biotechnological capabilities of the developing countries.

Monitoring and appraisal

FAO, in cooperation with concerned national and international institutions, through country-level and intercountry studies and consultations and seminars, will seek to assess the realistic potential of the new biotechnologies (short-term benefits must not be overstated) as well as their limitations for agricultural, forestry and fisheries production, with special reference to developing countries. The objectives of positive benefits include increased yields, stabilized production, improved ecological sustainability, better food quality and reduced losses. FAO, also through the work of the Commission on Plant Genetic Resources, shall monitor and define potential and real adverse effects of biotechnology and develop early warning systems to ward off possible negative effects. Longer-term activities would include assessment of the propensity of widespread uses of biotechnologies to modify established patterns of comparative advantages in food, agriculture, forestry and fisheries production and trade, and to displace traditional commodities, and the implications thereof. FAO will also monitor legal, socio-economic, and other policy aspects of biotechnological advances and alert Member Nations of the implications.


It will be incumbent upon FAO to collect, consolidate, analyse and disseminate information on biotechnology in relation to food, agriculture, forestry and fisheries so that the Organization can assist Member Nations in evolving appropriate policies, strategies and management systems for rational exploitation of biotechnologies. Use will be made of AGRIS and CARIS (the FAO's information databases) and Member Nations will be assisted and encouraged to participate in information gathering and exchange. FAO will also assist in the development of international centres for the genomic databases of economically important organisms, and this information will be freely disseminated.

The participants in AGRIS and CARIS are conscious of the importance of biotechnology and already, at a general consultation in May 1990, have urged each other to make greater efforts to ensure complete coverage of the available information. However, because many disciplines are involved, biotechnology information tends to be widely dispersed in the scientific literature. Therefore, it is envisaged that AGRIS inputters could use new codes to flag relevant material and thus facilitate its extraction and presentation. Specialized products could then be issued in cooperation with other units of FAO for distribution to the global and regional networks. Such products could include printed bibliographies, similar to Animal biotechnology, specialized databases on diskettes or CD-ROM for use with personal computers, and alerting services directed to individuals and research groups.

AGRIS and CARIS are also exploring the possibilities of an electronic mail/bulletin board service which would enhance the speed at which critical information is delivered and provide an electronic conferencing capability for scientists in the various networks.

Increasing access to new technologies and products

In order to increase access of developing countries to biotechnological techniques, processes and products, including the protected ones, FAO will provide a natural forum to review and discuss the issue of free availability and other biotechnology access issues. Various FAO bodies such as the Committee on Agriculture, the Council, the Commission on Plant Genetic Resources and the Conference, will seek formulation of agreed norms, codes and procedures for the unhindered flow of information, technology and genetically engineered materials to all bona fide users, with due provisions for biosafety and environmental soundness. FAO would serve as an intermediary between the technology developers and the users to secure or acquire for developing countries the potential benefits arising from biotechnology research and its application. For this, FAO will act as an "honest broker" to match the needs of the developing countries and appropriate the proprietary technologies they require. The Organization will mobilize funding support from donors and development banks to implement the brokered proposals.

For some time, FAO has been debating the issue of free availability of genetic resources, including genetically engineered materials, to all bona fide users, particularly since 1983 when the Organization evolved a unique global system on plant genetic resources consisting of the International Undertaking, the Commission and the International Fund. In recent meetings of the FAO Commission on Plant Genetic Resources, and at the FAO Conference, the principle that plant genetic resources are a common heritage of the human race has been further clarified: it has been stressed that "free access" does not mean free of charge and it has been pointed out that the principle of a common heritage is not incompatible with national sovereignty. The discussions surrounding the recognition of Plant Breeders' Rights and Farmers' Rights, and the establishment of the International Fund for Plant Genetic Resources, have turned towards the need to establish a mechanism, or mechanisms, to reward breeders and to compensate farmers throughout the world - especially in developing countries - for having developed and preserved, over generations, the plant genetic resources that are now being utilized, and for making those resources available to today's breeders and scientists.

In FAO's view, an IPR system should be flexible enough to match the development goals, policies and socio-economic priorities of individual countries, and at the same time should be able to promote innovation and application of new technologies. Each country needs to weight the benefits and costs of IPRs in biotechnology, and frame its policies accordingly. If the national capability in genetic improvement and biotechnology research is negligible, the country will benefit little from establishing an IPR system generally used in industrialized countries. On the other hand, where the national capability is fairly developed and agriculture is market-oriented, a moderate system of the Plant Breeders' Rights (PBR), which would stimulate private sector investment, may prove appropriate. Developing countries should opt for a PBR system with provision for farmer plantback, especially where farmers cannot afford to buy seed each year or are not reached by a seed distribution system. Finally, member countries should ensure that no IPR system be established that would restrict access to and use of genetic resources, inhibit promotion of research and technology development and thereby adversely affect their vital socio-economic fabric. The important role that farmers had, and continue to have, in the development and maintenance of germplasm should be duly recognized. FAO is involved in preparing a code of conduct for biotechnology as it relates to conservation, exchange and use of genetic resources.

Strengthening national capabilities

Based on the needs and opportunities of individual developing countries, FAO will seek to strengthen national capabilities and to promote self-reliance for the generation and transfer of biotechnological techniques by supporting personnel development; enriching information collection, consolidation and dissemination; augmenting required research facilities; and assisting in the formulation of appropriate national policies and priorities.

Research and technology development. FAO has assisted several relatively well-positioned developing countries to assess their biotechnology requirements and prepare the way through institutional and human resources development for undertaking research and technology development with special emphasis on the integration of biotechnology. Assistance has been focused on biotechnology for crop improvement, or the production of vaccines and use of diagnostic, with involvement of the Joint FAO/International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Division (AGE), in livestock health and reproduction programmes. FAO's in-house capacity will be strengthened in order to meet the demands on the Organization in the field of biotechnology effectively.

Personnel. The present and future use of biotechnology depends, to a considerable extent, upon the availability of trained researchers, bioprocessing engineers and technicians. One of the major factors limiting the use of biotechnology in developing countries is the acute shortage of appropriately trained staff. FAO, through both its regular and the Field Programmes, should support developing countries in establishing functional applied biotechnology laboratories and in related training activities. The Joint FAO/IAEA Division (AGE) laboratory has a strong research-training component on biotechnologies and has been actively involved in staff training and basic research in this field. Fortunately, the techniques and methods have become more accessible through technological innovations such as the polymerase chain reaction and automated sequence analysis. Nonetheless, FAO should continue giving high priority to training scientists in developing countries.

Policy. In view of the fast pace of biotechnological development and the widening gap in the capabilities of developed and developing countries, the effort to narrow this gap will be further intensified by increasing the policy-formulation, priority-setting and programme-implementation capabilities of developing countries. In particular, FAO will reinforce its assistance to developing countries in analysing the necessary and sufficient social and economic policies for the development, adaptation and implementation of appropriate technology.

Establishment of reference laboratories

FAO strongly advocates observation of all internationally established norms and requirements for bioengineered vaccines and other bioproducts based on the application of microbiological factors. The Organization will continue and further strengthen its programme on the establishment of collaborating laboratories that provide invaluable services, not only as reference for quality testing but also for training. For instance, arrangements are being made to test recombinant vaccines under the FAO umbrella. In addition to strengthening national institutes and supporting ongoing efforts in developing countries, FAO has established a Collaborating Centre for Biotechnology Transfer at the University of California, Davis. A counterpart Molecular Virology Unit for Biotechnology Transfer will be organized at the Pan-African Vaccine Centre in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The FAO/IAEA laboratory at Seibersdorf, Austria, will be strengthened to serve as an important reference centre for new biotechniques, genetically engineered organisms and resulting products.

Promotion of intercountry cooperation and networks

FAO will promote intercountry and inter-laboratory cooperative research through the establishment of cooperative networks. Examples of such networks include the Asian Network for Biotechnology in Animal Production and Health; the Computer Assisted Analysis of Nucleic Acids and Protein Sequences (CANAPS) in Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Latin American Technical Cooperation Network on Plant Biotechnology. An Asian Network on Plant Biotechnology, and a Latin American Network on Animal Biotechnology, are currently being established. FAO is also sponsoring regional networks on the preparation and distribution of diagnostic probes/monoclonal antibodies for the rapid diagnosis of livestock and poultry diseases.

Based on their capabilities and willingness, certain laboratories in selected National Agricultural Research Services (NARS) will be strengthened to take the leadership role in specific areas. Results and products from these centres will be shared freely among all cooperators in the networks. FAO will work closely with selected biotechnological research and development centres both in developed and developing countries, and will seek their assistance in programme and project formulation, appraisal and evaluation.

Several expert consultations organized by FAO to prepare the ground for cooperation networks in animal production and health have recommended approaches and steps for FAO in this field. Regional expert consultations were held in the Asia-Pacific Region in 1990 and 1991 in order to establish a cooperation network on plant biotechnology. Through the 1991/92 André Meyer Fellowship on Forest Biotechnologies, the potential role of biotechnology, within well-founded tree improvement and breeding strategies, and in forestry in general, is being analysed, with special reference to potential in developing countries.

FAO will stimulate development-related research in industrialized countries and help establish links with institutes in the developing countries. It will strive to influence at least the public sector institutions in developed countries to include in their biotechnology research agenda commodities and techniques of importance to developing countries. The Organization will encourage the strengthening of biotechnology capabilities at the IARCs, and work in concert with them in human resources development programmes and in cooperative research activities to strengthen the biotechnology capabilities of developing countries. FAO will keep abreast of opportunities for solving recalcitrant problems through the application of biotechnology, and will organize workshops/seminars to discuss methods and strategies for approaching such problems through cooperative research programmes.

Promotion of biosafety and environmentally friendly use

FAO will continue to cooperate with United Nations Industries Development Organization (UNIDO), UNEP and WHO in the establishment of codes and guidelines for biotechnology-related environmental and health risk assessment. The UNIDO/UNEP/WHO/FAO Working Group on Biosafety brought out a Voluntary Code of Conduct for the Release of Organisms into the Environment in 1991. The code sets out general principles, a framework and guidelines to be adopted at national, regional and international levels to facilitate the safe application of biotechnology. FAO will lead the establishment of "prior informed consent" and seek to further the use of relevant data to assist developing countries in elaborating pertinent policies and regulations.

FAO and WHO will jointly monitor the food safety aspects of foods prepared through biotechnology applications in accordance with established principles for the evaluation of food safety in general. While the 19th Session of the Codex Alimentarius Commission in 1991 had endorsed the opinion of the Joint FAO/WHO consultation on this subject in Geneva in 1990, that foods derived from "modern" biotechnologies were inherently not less safe than those derived from traditional biotechnologies, the issue of safety along with nutritional concerns had to be considered. The Consultation had recommended that FAO and WHO, in cooperation with other international organizations, should take the initiative in ensuring a harmonized approach on the part of the national governments to the safety assessment of foods produced by biotechnology. Based on scientific and technical advice by joint FAO/WHO committees and consultations, the various Codex Committees will discuss the issues concerned and help to reach international consensus on particular novel foods. For instance, the Codex Committee on Food Labelling is to provide guidance on how the fact that a food is derived from "modern" biotechnologies can be made known to consumers.

The Fourth Session of the FAO Commission on Plant Genetic Resources, in April 1991, resolved that FAO, in collaboration with other concerned organizations, should develop a Code that includes and promotes basic biosafety standards for the contained use and deliberate release of GMOs, and for their importation and exportation. The Code will include elements to minimize the negative potential of GMOs on genetic diversity. Work in this direction and on the lines suggested is already in progress.

Promotion of pro-poor features

Within the framework of overall strategies, FAO will seek to promote biotechnological research and development of commodities, often referred to as "orphan commodities", which are generally not researched by industrialized countries but which are of vital importance to most developing countries. It will strengthen national capabilities for biotechnological solutions of problems related to increased and sustained agricultural production under rainfed, saline and other marginal conditions, which are largely inhabited by resource-poor farmers and which are characterized by low and unstable productivity. FAO will also seek to strengthen national capabilities for exploiting in vitro culture techniques, biological nitrogen fixation, genetic resistance to pests and diseases, low-cost production, and increased employment opportunities. Furthermore, through expert consultations, information exchange and technical assistance, the Organization will promote the use of biotechnology for diversified and new uses of rich indigenous variability, especially those of industrial, medicinal and aromatic plants and small animals, and for developing new farming systems. These policy elements, if linked with appropriate action plans, should go a long way towards promoting equity coupled with sustained and environmentally sound economic development.

Links with other UN agencies and with NGOs

FAO has been collaborating with several UN and non-UN agencies/ systems in a number of activities related to biotechnology. For instance, it takes part in the UNEP-initiated effort to establish a Convention on Biodiversity and in the Biotechnology Working Group formed in that effort. FAO was a member of the Working Group on Biotechnology which was created in preparation for the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), and will continue to work with other UN Agencies in implementing the Action Plan on Biotechnology contained in UNCED Agenda 21. The Organization has been working with UNIDO, UNEP and WHO in developing a Code of Conduct for Biosafety, and in developing food safety standards. It will continue to work closely with WIPO and GATT in evolving appropriate intellectual property protection systems suitable for both developed and developing countries.

Addressing the issue of environmental safety in 1989 FAO, the International Office of Epizootics (OIE) and WHO jointly prepared the international requirements for vaccinia vector rinderpest vaccine. A joint FAO/WHO Consultation on Strategies for Assessing the Safety of Foods Produced by Biotechnology was organized in 1990. Other joint activities in this area are planned. The Joint FAO/IAEA Division operates a number of regional and interregional coordinated research programmes dealing with a variety of biotechnology applications in crop breeding and nutrition, animal production and health was held in 1991. FAO has also been collaborating with CGIAR in several biotechnology-related matters. For instance, it has been a member of the CGIAR Task Force on Biotechnology (BIOTASK) in discussing CGIAR-wide issues on biotechnology, including IPR and biosafety. FAO also organized a workshop for African biotechnologists in collaboration with IITA in 1990. FAO will interact with non-UN professional societies, such as the American Fisheries Society, that debate and develop review and position papers on biotechnology in their respective fields. FAO will continue to seek further active and effective international links in the field of biotechnology.

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