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Agricultural biotechnology:
meeting the needs of the poor?

Section A: Framing the debate

1. Can biotechnology meet the needs of the poor?

Introduction and overview

Biotechnology in food and agriculture, particularly genetic engineering, has become the focus of a “global war of rhetoric” (Stone, 2002). Supporters hail genetic engineering as essential to addressing food insecurity and malnutrition in developing countries and accuse opponents of “crimes against humanity” for delaying the regulatory approval of potentially life-saving innovations (Potrykus, 2003). Opponents claim that genetic engineering will wreak environmental catastrophe, worsen poverty and hunger, and lead to a corporate takeover of traditional agriculture and the global food supply. They accuse biotechnology supporters of “fooling the world” (Five Year Freeze, 2002). This issue of The State of Food and Agriculture surveys the current state of scientific and economic evidence regarding the potential of agricultural biotechnology, particularly genetic engineering, to meet the needs of the poor.

Agriculture in the twenty-first century is facing unprecedented challenges. An additional 2 billion people will have to be fed over the next 30 years from an increasingly fragile natural resource base. More than 842 million people are chronically hungry, most of them in rural areas of poor countries, and billions suffer from micronutrient deficiencies, an insidious form of malnutrition caused by the poor quality of, and lack of diversity in, their habitual diet. The Green Revolution taught us that technological innovation - higher-yielding seeds and the inputs required to make them grow - can bring enormous benefits to poor people through enhanced efficiency, higher incomes and lower food prices. This virtuous cycle of rising productivity, improving living standards and sustainable economic growth has lifted millions of people out of poverty (Evenson and Gollin, 2003). But many remain trapped in subsistence agriculture. Can the Gene Revolution reach those left behind?

At the same time, a rapidly urbanizing global population is demanding a wider range of quality attributes from agriculture, not just of the products themselves but of the methods used in their production. The agriculture sector will need to respond in ways beyond the traditional focus on higher yields, addressing the protection of environmental common goods, consumer concerns for food safety and quality, and the enhancement of rural livelihoods both in the South and in the North. Is the rhetoric of war deafening us to a more reasoned debate regarding the hazards and opportunities posed by biotechnology?

There is clear promise that biotechnology (Box 1) can contribute to meeting these challenges. Biotechnology can overcome production constraints that are more difficult or intractable with conventional breeding. It can speed up conventional breeding programmes and provide farmers with disease-free planting materials. It can create crops that resist pests and diseases, replacing toxic chemicals that harm the environment and human health, and it can provide diagnostic tools and vaccines that help control devastating animal diseases. It can improve the nutritional quality of staple foods such as rice and cassava and create new products for health and industrial uses.

But biotechnology is not a panacea. It cannot overcome the gaps in infrastructure, markets, breeding capacity, input delivery systems and extension services that hinder all efforts to promote agricultural growth in poor, remote areas. Some of these challenges may be more difficult for biotechnology than for other agricultural technologies, but others may be less difficult. Technologies that are embodied in a seed, such as transgenic insect resistance, may be easier for small-scale, resource-poor farmers to use than more complicated crop technologies that require other inputs or complex management strategies. On the other hand, some biotechnology packages, particularly in the livestock and fisheries areas, require a certain institutional and managerial environment to function properly and thus may not be effective for resource-poor smallholders.

The safety and regulatory concerns associated with transgenic crops constitute a major hurdle for developing countries, because many lack the regulatory frameworks and technical capacity necessary to evaluate these crops and the conflicting claims surrounding them. Although the international scientific community has determined that foods derived from the transgenic crops currently on the market are safe to eat, it also acknowledges that some of the emerging transformations involving multiple transgenes may require additional food-safety risk-analysis procedures. There is less scientific consensus on the environmental hazards associated with transgenic crops, although there is general agreement that these products should be evaluated against the hazards associated with conventional agriculture. There is also wide consensus that transgenic crops should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, as is the case with pharmaceuticals, taking into consideration the specific crop, trait and agro-ecological system. Because very few transgenic crops have been evaluated for their ecological impacts in tropical regions, a major research effort is required in this area.

Public- and private-sector transgenic crop research and development are being carried out on more than 40 crops worldwide and dozens of innovations are being studied, but there is clear evidence that the problems of the poor are being neglected. Barring a few initiatives here and there, there are no major public- or private-sector programmes to tackle the critical problems of the poor or targeting crops and animals that they rely on. Concerted international efforts are required to ensure that the technology needs of the poor are addressed and that barriers to access are overcome.

Scope of the report

Agricultural biotechnology encompasses a range of research tools scientists use to understand and manipulate the genetic make-up of organisms for use in agriculture: crops, livestock, forestry and fisheries. Biotechnology is much broader than genetic engineering, including also genomics and bioinformatics, marker-assisted selection, micropropagation, tissue culture, cloning, artificial insemination, embryo transfer and other technologies. However, genetic engineering, particularly in the crop sector, is the area in which biotechnology is most directly affecting agriculture in developing countries and in which the most pressing public concerns and policy issues have arisen. It is also an area in which a body of economic evidence regarding the impact of biotechnology on the poor is beginning to emerge. Therefore, although this report touches on the full range of agricultural biotechnology tools and applications, particularly in Chapter 2, the focus is on transgenic crops and their impact on poor people in poor countries. Many of the challenges to securing the benefits of transgenic crops for the poor will be equally or more difficult for other biotechnology applications in livestock, fisheries and forestry. For more information on FAO's programme of work on agricultural biotechnology, see the FAO biotechnology Web site at:

Key lessons from the report

Biotechnology - including genetic engineering - can benefit the poor when appropriate innovations are developed and when poor farmers in poor countries have access to them on profitable terms. Thus far, these conditions are only being met in a handful of developing countries.

Biotechnology should form part of an integrated and comprehensive agricultural research and development programme that gives priority to the problems of the poor. Biotechnology can complement but not substitute for research in other areas such as plant breeding, integrated pest and nutrient management, and livestock breeding, feeding and disease management systems.

The public sector - developing and developed countries, donors and the international research centres - should direct more resources to agricultural research, including biotechnology. Public-sector research is necessary to address the public goods that the private sector would naturally overlook and to provide competition in technology markets.

Governments should provide incentives, institutions and an enabling environment for public- and private-sector agricultural biotechnology research, development and deployment. Public-private partnerships and other innovative strategies to mobilize research and technology delivery for the poor should be encouraged.

Regulatory procedures should be strengthened and rationalized to ensure that the environment and public health are protected and that the process is transparent, predictable and science-based. Appropriate regulation is essential to command the trust of both consumers and producers, but duplicative or obstructionist regulation is costly and should be avoided.

Capacity building for agricultural research and regulatory issues related to biotechnology should be a priority for the international community. FAO has proposed a major new programme to ensure that developing countries have the knowledge and skills necessary to make their own decisions about the use of biotechnology.

Summary of the report

Chapter 2 explores the frontiers of agricultural biotechnology and places it in the broader context of the production, conservation and management goals that researchers are addressing. Most of the controversies surrounding biotechnology focus on transgenic crops, but these innovations represent only a tiny fraction of the technical possibilities offered by biotechnology in crops, livestock, forestry and fisheries. Genetic engineering is both a more precise extension of breeding tools that have been used for decades and a radical departure from conventional methods. It is the ability of genetic engineering to move genes across species barriers that gives it its tremendous power and that makes it so controversial.

Chapter 3 recalls the role of public-sector research at the national and international levels in generating the technologies that produced the Green Revolution. By contrast, most transgenic crop research is being performed by the private transnational sector. This has important implications for the kind of research that is being performed and the products that are being developed. Research trends and commercialization data confirm that the crops and traits of concern to the poor are being neglected. Six countries (Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, South Africa and the United States of America), four crops (maize, soybean, canola/rapeseed and cotton) and two traits (insect resistance and herbicide tolerance) accounted for 99 percent of the global area planted in transgenic crops in 2002. These same crops and traits are the subject of most of the transgenic crop research under way in both developed and developing countries and in the public and private sectors. One of the key constraints developing countries face in adopting and adapting biotechnology innovations developed elsewhere is their own lack of national agricultural research capacity.

Chapter 4 reviews the evidence to date regarding the socio-economic impacts of transgenic crop adoption, particularly in developing countries. With the exception of those in China, all transgenic crops commercialized to date have been developed and distributed by private companies. Nevertheless, some of these crops, especially insect-resistant cotton, are yielding significant economic gains to small farmers as well as important social and environmental benefits through the changing use of agricultural chemicals. The evidence so far suggests that small farmers are just as likely as large farmers to benefit from the adoption of transgenic cotton. The evidence also suggests that, despite fears of corporate control of the sector, farmers and consumers so far are reaping a larger share of the economic benefits of transgenic crops than the companies that develop and market them. It must be considered, however, that this evidence is based on only two or three years of data for a relatively small number of farmers in just a few countries. These short-term gains may not be sustained as larger numbers of farmers adopt the technologies. Time and more carefully designed studies are required to determine what the level and distribution of benefits from transgenic crops will be.

Chapter 5 reviews the scientific concerns and evidence associated with transgenic crops and summarizes the international scientific consensus where it exists. Scientists have determined that the transgenic products currently on the market are safe to eat, although they recommend ongoing monitoring and concur that newer, more complex products may need additional food safety procedures. The potential environmental impacts of transgenic crops provoke greater disagreement among scientists. They generally agree on the types of hazard that exist, but they disagree on their likelihood and severity. Thus far, none of the major environmental hazards potentially associated with transgenic crops has developed in the field. Scientists agree that transgenic crops must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis taking into consideration the crop, the trait and the agro-ecosystem in which it is to be released. Scientists also agree that regulation should be science-based, but that judgement and dialogue are essential elements in any science-based regulatory framework. International harmonization through the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) or the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC), for example, can help ease international tensions in this area. Developing countries must enhance their national capacity to regulate these crops and comply with their national and international obligations.

Chapter 6 reviews global public opinion research on the use of biotechnology in food and agriculture. Whatever scientific or regulatory consensus emerges, genetic engineering in food and agriculture cannot succeed unless the public is convinced of its safety and usefulness. Views on these subjects vary widely both within and across countries, but a careful examination of the internationally comparable survey data reveals that people in all countries take a nuanced view of biotechnology, differentiating among technologies and applications according to their perceived usefulness and acceptability. Very few people take a doctrinaire position for or against all biotechnology. Labelling has been proposed as a way to bridge differences of opinion on the acceptability of transgenic foods by allowing the individual consumer to choose. Others argue that labelling is appropriate only if the product - not just the process used to produce it - differs from its conventional counterpart. Member governments of the CAC are debating the role of labelling for transgenic foods.

Chapter 7 looks at the kind of agricultural biotechnology research that is needed to address the needs of the poor, particularly poor farmers in poor countries. This includes research on the crops that provide the bulk of their food supply and livelihoods: rice and wheat, of course, but also a variety of so-called “orphan crops” such as sorghum, pearl millet, pigeon pea, chickpea and groundnut that are largely neglected in conventional or biotechnology research programmes. Traits of particular interest to the poor include resistance to production stresses such as drought, salinity, disease and pests, as well as nutritional enhancement. This chapter also explores a range of institutional options and incentives that could help promote public- and private-sector research on the problems of the poor.

Chapter 8 addresses the capacity-building needs of developing countries and countries with economies in transition. All countries need strong and dynamic capacity at the technical, institutional and management levels for the successful and sustainable application of biotechnology in food and agriculture. Several international initiatives to build capacity are reviewed, but a great deal more needs to be done if all countries are to be empowered to make their own decisions about these technologies for the benefit of their own people.

Chapter 9 draws together the essential conclusions from the report and recommends specific steps to ensure that biotechnology helps meet the needs of the poor.

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