Seventeenth Session

Rome, 31 March-4 April 2003

Report of the Interdepartmental Working Group on Biotechnology

Table of Contents

I. Introduction

1. At its 15th Session in 1999, COAG made five main recommendations in regard to Biotechnology that were subsequently endorsed by Council and by the 30th Session of the FAO Conference. The Secretariat of the Interdepartmental Working Group (IDWG) on Biotechnology provided in 2001 a report to the 16th Session on progress made (COAG/01/Inf 2), focusing largely on the work conducted by individual departments of the Organization. This report describes progress made since then on each recommendation in bringing an interdisciplinary perspective to FAO’s work on biotechnology.

II. FAO to develop a strategic approach to biotechnology and give high priority to a cross-sectoral programme

2. Biotechnology Applications in Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry was identified as a Priority Activity for Inter-disciplinary Action (PAIA) in the Medium Term Plan (MTP) 2002-20071. In this context, the IDWG on Biotechnology coordinated the planning and delivery of a multidisciplinary cross-sectoral programme aimed at improving the cohesion and effectiveness of FAO’s support to Members in developing and implementing policies and practices that promote safe and responsible applications for enhancing food security.

3. This work was pursued both by identifying and encouraging opportunities for cooperation within and between headquarters divisions and departments and the regional and sub-regional offices. It included joint planning and implementation of synergistic activities with members of other IDWGs set up to promote interdisciplinary cooperation on issues impinging directly or indirectly on development and applications of biotechnology in food and agriculture, most notably those on Biosecurity, Biological Diversity, Trade and Ethics.

4. These efforts resulted in the identification of priorities and key outputs for the MTP 2002-2007 that were subsequently refined for the MTP 2004-20092. These include inter alia provision of analytical and technical reports for intergovernmental technical committees and commissions on trends and developments in biotechnology research and products; technical support to negotiations on a Code of Conduct on Biotechnology as it relates to Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture requested by the FAO intergovernmental Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture; a multilingual website on biotechnology; decision support tools and training materials to facilitate sound management of biotechnology and related issues in food and agriculture; and policy advice and support to countries in formulating and implementing projects involving biotechnology.

III. FAO to undertake activities in the various areas of its mandate including information exchange, capacity-building and policy advice to Members

5. The website on biotechnology ( that was launched in 2000 has been systematically updated and widened in coverage and now provides information in five languages on FAO’s work and international developments regarding biotechnology techniques and products, as well as on related policy and regulatory issues surrounding research and deployment of biotechnology in the agricultural, fisheries and forestry sectors. It is visited by over 15 000 people per month. The site has received positive reviews in terms of coverage and objectivity by a number of sources, including the journals Science and New Scientist. News and events items are also disseminated periodically through FAO-BiotechNews, an e-mail newsletter with over 2 600 subscribers.

6. Some of the activities and outputs achieved through the auspices of the IDWG on Biotechnology include:

    1. Eight moderated e-mail conferences hosted by the FAO Biotechnology Forum, with very active participation from developing countries. The conferences covered the impacts of biotechnology in the crop, livestock, forestry and fisheries sectors, and on hunger and food security in developing countries; the effect of intellectual property rights (IPRs) on agricultural biotechnology; gene flow from Genetically Modified (GM) to non-GM populations in the different sectors; and the role and focus of biotechnology in the agricultural research agendas of developing countries. The report of the first six conferences was published as FAO "Research and Technology Paper 8".
    2. A revised and extended edition of the "Glossary of Biotechnology for Food and Agriculture" was published, containing definitions of about 3 200 biotechnology terms and acronyms used in biotechnology and their application to food and agriculture.
    3. An inventory of biotechnology techniques and products in the plant (crop and tree) sector in use or in the pipeline in developing countries was prepared. The information is available in a dynamic web-based database, FAO- BioDec, with remote entry functionality that provides current information by country, by crop, by technique and by product.
    4. An expert consultation on "Public agricultural research: the impact of intellectual property rights on biotechnology in developing countries", was organized in cooperation with the University of Tor Vergata, Italy, in 2002. More than 30 experts from biotechnology research institutions in nine developing countries, together with UN organizations, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations and the private sector, discussed the main policy issues that IPRs raise for public biotechnology research and made recommendations for action at national and international levels. Participants agreed that the establishment of a network focussed on IPR policy and capacity-building options should be explored. The report is available at:
    5. A workshop on "Policy Planning and Decision Support in Biotechnology, the case of Biosafety" was jointly organized with the International Service for National Agricultural Research (ISNAR) in 2002. It resulted in a decision support toolbox that is currently being tested by national user groups.
    6. A symposium on "Plant Biotechnology: Perspectives from Developing Countries" was organized in 2002 with the Crop Science Society of America, the American Society of Agronomy, and the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project of Michigan State University, and supported by the World Bank and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). It resulted in the establishment of a virtual task force among principle stakeholders involved in responsible applications of all aspects of plant molecular biology to support developing country agriculture.
    7. Papers and information documents on various aspects of biotechnology as it relates to genetic resources for food and agriculture were provided for discussion and/or decision by the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture at its 9th Regular Session.
    8. An integrated programme on “Building capacity for Biotechnology, and Food Quality and Safety, and Phyto- and Zoosanitary Standards” was developed and submitted for consideration to Member Nations. The specific objectives of the programme are to: (i) raise awareness levels of high-level policy and decision-makers concerning the interrelated areas of biotechnology, food quality and safety, and phyto- and zoosanitary standards; (ii) strengthen national capacities to identify, formulate and implement relevant policies; (iii) promote sound governance and standard setting; (iv) develop national and regional capacities for legal and regulatory frameworks; (v) strengthen human resources in related technical and regulatory matters; (vi) and strengthen related regional and national institutions, including the provision of training and scientific equipment.

IV. FAO to develop partnerships with the international agricultural research centres, the national agricultural research systems and other international organizations

7. Dialogue and cooperation with partners have been widened and strengthened. Many of the International Agricultural Research Centres (IARCs), National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) and NGOs contributed to one or more of the electronic conferences hosted by the FAO Biotechnology Forum. A number, most notably the International Service for National Agricultural Research (ISNAR), the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) contributed to consultations on intellectual property rights and biosafety.

8. Dialogue, coordination and cooperation have been substantially enhanced with: the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the Secretariat for the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in relation to biosafety; the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in relation to intellectual property rights; the World Health Organization (WHO) and World Food Programme (WFP) in relation to food aid, including a joint UN statement in August 2002 on the use of GM foods as food aid in Southern Africa; and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) on general aspects of biotechnology as Task Manager for Chapter 16 of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), including the planning of a Global Forum on Biotechnology to be held in Chile in 2003.

V. FAO to help countries draft Biosafety legislation and set up regulatory bodies in collaboration with partner institutions

9. Strengthening of National Biosafety Systems is being addressed through Technical Cooperation Projects currently under implementation; others are in the pipeline.

10. Asian Bio-Net, a regional network financed by Japan and coordinated by the FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, is operational in nine countries. It contributes to strengthening capacities in legislation, regulations, policies and programmes for biosafety; establishing national biosafety systems and improving public awareness; and promoting research and technology development for generation and safe use of GM crops.

VI. FAO to help harmonise Biosafety regulations at the regional and sub-regional levels

11. FAO participated in meetings, workshops and conferences organized by UNEP, GEF and CBD at international and regional levels to foster harmonisation of biosafety legislation and promote international collaboration.

12. Harmonising biosafety regulations within the framework of existing international protocols, conventions, and agreements is one of the objectives of Asian Bio-Net (para 10 above).


1 CL 119/17

2 CL 123/7