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This edition of The State of Food and Agriculture explores the potential for agricultural biotechnology to address the needs of the world's poor and food-insecure. Agriculture continues to face serious challenges, including feeding an additional two billion people by the year 2030 from an increasingly fragile natural resource base. The effective transfer of existing technologies to poor rural communities and the development of new and safe biotechnologies can greatly enhance the prospects for sustainably improving agricultural productivity today and in the future. But technology alone cannot solve the problems of the poor and some aspects of biotechnology, particularly the socio-economic impacts and the food safety and environmental implications, need to be carefully assessed.

Developing biotechnology in ways that contribute to the sustainable development of agriculture, fisheries and forestry can help significantly in meeting the food and livelihood needs of a growing population. The study of genomics and molecular markers, for example, can facilitate breeding and conservation programmes and provide new tools in the fight against plant and animal diseases. It is clear from the survey of current and emerging applications of biotechnology in this report that biotechnology encompasses far more than genetic engineering. But it is the ability to move genes between unrelated species that gives genetic engineering its enormous power and elicits such profound concern. FAO recognizes the need for a balanced and comprehensive approach to biotechnological development, taking into consideration the opportunities and risks.

Biotechnology offers opportunities to increase the availability and variety of food, increasing overall agricultural productivity while reducing seasonal variations in food supplies. Through the introduction of pest-resistant and stress-tolerant crops, biotechnology could lower the risk of crop failure under difficult biological and climatic conditions. Furthermore, biotechnology could help reduce environmental damage caused by toxic agricultural chemicals. Following a first generation of genetically engineered crops, which aimed primarily at reducing production constraints and costs, a second generation now targets the bio-availability of nutrients and the nutritional quality of products. Examples are found in the production of varieties of rice and canola that contain appreciable amounts of beta-carotene. This precursor of vitamin A is in short supply in the diets of many, particularly in the developing world where it could help to alleviate or reduce chronic vitamin A deficiencies. Research is under way to raise levels of other vitamins, minerals and proteins in crops, such as potatoes and cassava.

This issue of The State of Food and Agriculture reviews the historical record of agricultural research in promoting economic growth and food security. The Green Revolution, which lifted millions of people out of poverty, came about through an international programme of public-sector agricultural research specifically aimed at creating and transferring technologies to the developing world as free public goods. The Gene Revolution, by contrast, is currently being driven primarily by the private sector, which naturally focuses on developing products for large commercial markets. This raises serious questions about the type of research that is being performed and the likelihood that the poor will benefit.

The emerging evidence on the economic impact of transgenic crops surveyed in this report suggests that resource-poor smallholders in developing countries can benefit in terms of both enhanced incomes and reduced exposure to toxic agricultural chemicals. But so far only a few farmers in a few developing countries are reaping these benefits. Neither the private nor the public sector has invested significantly in new genetic technologies for the so-called “orphan crops” such as cowpea, millet, sorghum and tef that are critical for the food supply and livelihoods of the world's poorest people. Other barriers that prevent the poor from accessing and fully benefiting from modern biotechnology include inadequate regulatory procedures, complex intellectual property issues, poorly functioning markets and seed delivery systems, and weak domestic plant breeding capacity.

FAO is well aware of the potential environmental and food safety risks posed by certain aspects of biotechnology, particularly genetically modified organisms (GMOs). This issue of The State of Food and Agriculture reviews the latest scientific evidence contained in several independent, authoritative reports from around the world. Reports from the International Council for Science, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, the United Kingdom GM Science Review Panel and numerous national academies of science form the basis of this review. The scientific evidence concerning the environmental and health impacts of genetic engineering is still emerging. Scientists generally agree that the transgenic crops currently being grown and the foods derived from them are safe to eat, although little is known about their long-term effects. There is less scientific agreement on the environmental impacts of transgenic crops. Scientists generally agree on the nature of the potential environmental risks, although they differ regarding their likelihood and consequences. There is strong consensus among scientists concerning the need for a case-by-case evaluation that considers the potential benefits and risks of individual GMOs compared with alternative technologies. The legitimate concerns for the safety of each transgenic product must be addressed prior to its release. Careful monitoring of the post-release effects of these products is essential.

With this report, I wish to take the opportunity to assure the international community that, through holistic and multidisciplinary scientific approaches of risk evaluation, including risk assessment, risk management and risk communication, FAO will continue to address all issues of concern to its constituents regarding biotechnology and its effects on human, plant and animal health. In view of the importance of harmonizing regulations related to the testing and releasing of GMOs, FAO will continue, at the national, subregional and regional levels, to strengthen its normative and advisory work, in coordination and cooperation with other international organizations. I am particularly pleased to note that the Codex Alimentarius Commission, for which FAO and the World Health Organization (WHO) jointly provide the secretariat, has recently adopted landmark agreements on principles for the evaluation of food derived from modern biotechnologies and on guidelines for the conduct of food safety assessment of foods derived from recombinant-DNA plants as well as from foods produced using recombinant-DNA micro-organisms. These principles and guidelines, when properly implemented, will enhance capacities to assess the risks of transferring toxins from one life form to another, of creating new toxins or of transferring allergenic compounds from one species to another.

FAO will continue to provide member countries with objective, science-based information and analysis regarding biotechnology and its applications in crops, livestock, fisheries and forestry. FAO technical cooperation will encompass advising Member Governments on regulatory issues including harmonization at regional and international levels, offering legal advice for the establishment of any required regulatory bodies, improving national capacity for risk assessment, mobilizing donor funding and cooperating with other relevant organizations.

I therefore appeal to the international community to join FAO in its continuing efforts towards alleviating poverty and hunger through the promotion of agricultural development, the improvement of nutrition and the pursuit of food security throughout the world. With your help, success is at the end of our efforts, perseverance and commitment.

Jacques Diouf

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