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Sharing the benefits of biotechnologies

While there are many opportunities to make large increases in intensification that do not rely on biotechnologies, the intensification of agriculture, fisheries and forestry is sometimes depicted as depending largely on advances in bio-technologies. The Panel here underlines the importance of avoiding the singular term ‘biotechnology’, which tends to lump together many different biotechnologies. Such language causes confusion in the debate over the relative usefulness or risks of the many different technologies. Many modern biotechnologies, such as tissue cultures, cell isolation and molecular diagnostics, are not controversial and can safely be used to increase food security. With genetically modified organisms (GMOs), however, the situation is somewhat more difficult (see the section entitled “GMOs and ethics in decision-making: participation, monitoring and accountability”, below). Biotechnologies provide many alternatives to GMO products, and such alternatives should be preferred where there are significant uncertainties or risks from using GMOs, particularly when the expected benefits are few.

Biotechnologies give rise to a number of ethical questions. Many provide substantial benefits, and a key issue is therefore how access to beneficial technologies is distributed throughout the world. Traditional and modern biotechnologies, including selection, recombination through cross-fertilization and other techniques, have been essential to progress; without them the earth could not have sustained its present population. A mixture of traditional and modern biotechnologies may be needed to solve contemporary problems such as shortage of water for irrigation, particularly for rice crops; land degradation as a result of excessive pesticide use; and the dependency of high-yielding crops on huge quantities of fertilizers, which cause river pollution, eutrophication and environmental degradation.

A major ethical concern is how to share the benefits from advancements in science and technology. Most research and resulting biotechnologies are produced in the North, while the genetic resources that are the building blocks to which they apply are found mainly in the South, although it should be recognized that in some developing countries significant biotechnological research has been carried out and has resulted in important new products. The general picture, however, shows a serious imbalance between North and South, and ethics should provide guidance on how to share the benefits resulting from the interaction between research and the use of the genetic resources.

Under international human rights law, everyone has the right to share in scientific advancement and benefit from its applications (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 27.1; International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article 15(1)(b)). At present, however, the control of modern biotechnologies is very unevenly distributed, owing to broad differences in research and development capacity as well as to extensive patenting, which gives rise to monopolies.

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