FAO launches an electronic forum on biotechnology

FAO has added a hot topic to its email conference list - biotechnology in developing countries. The Electronic Forum on Biotechnology in Food and Agriculture opened on 9 March and the first conference is due to start on 20 March. A website giving practical details, rules and background information is online (The Electronic Forum on Biotechnology in Food and Agriculture).

Banana micropropagation at the Centre for Nuclear Energy for Agriculture (CENA), Sao Paulo, Brazil

The forum is designed to address one of the many objections voiced against biotechnology in its various forms: that it caters primarily to the needs of farmers and food producers in developed countries. The figures back this up - in 1999, just 18 percent of the land planted to transgenic crops was in developing countries, and nearly all of this was in Argentina. Yet the FAO Statement on Biotechnnology argues that genetic engineering "could lead to higher yields on marginal lands in countries that today cannot grow enough food to feed their people."

As a result, the new electronic forum will focus specifically on biotechnological tools for use in developing countries. The title of the first conference is"How appropriate are currently available biotechnologies in the crop sector for food production and agriculture in developing countries". This topic will run for two months.

FAO's Senior Agricultural Research Officer, Dr Maria Zimmerman and consultant Dr John Ruane stress that the electronic forum is not just about transgenic or genetically modified crops. "There are lots of approaches to biotechnology, and it holds lots of promises," Dr Zimmerman says. Three major kinds of recently developed biotechnologies that could be used in practice for food production and agriculture in developing countries, are currently available in the crop sector:

  • biotechnologies based on molecular markers,
  • genetically modified crops,
  • micropropagation.

(Go to Conference 1's Background page for more information.)

Micropropagation is currently the crop biotechnology most widely used in developing countries. It allows the rapid cloning of disease-free planting material and is applied for a wide range of crops, including woody and fruit plants. Another example of biotechnology currently applied in the developing world is the planting of herbicide-resistant soybeans in Argentina.

The forum aims to provide an opportunity for the discussion and exchange of experiences and information about the ways biotechnology is or could be used in developing countries. It is open to everyone - NGOs, private industry, researchers, regional networks, private individuals - but the main target group is policy-makers, particularly in developing countries.

"We expect to get a variety of viewpoints and replies. No standard reply will do for all the world," says Dr Zimmerman. "We expect that different regions and different countries in the developing world will have different needs and interests. The forum is intended to be a learning experience for all of us."

The first conference will be accompanied after a month by two further virtual meetings looking at biotechnologies for developing countries in the forestry and livestock sectors; two months later the fish sector will be on the agenda.

"The forum may last for a long time," says Dr Zimmerman. "The discussion topics will change, but the forum will continue as long as there is interest in biotechnology in food and agriculture. The aim is not to provide technical information, but to focus on the social and policy implications of biotechnology and to provide neutral and unbiased information to the debate on the issue."

20 March 2000

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