FAO International Symposium on “The Role of Agricultural Biotechnologies in Sustainable Food Systems and Nutrition”

The latest State of Food Insecurity in the World report estimates that almost 800 million people are chronically undernourished in 2014-16, meaning that around one out of every nine people in the world is currently unable to consume enough food for the energy needed to conduct an active and healthy life.  

Even when people have access to sufficient amounts of food for their energy needs, it may not always provide them with all the vitamins and other nutrients that they require. Indeed, it is estimated that over two billion people worldwide suffer from micronutrient deficiencies (also known as hidden hunger). In addition, about 500 million people are affected by obesity. In recent years, the importance of reducing malnutrition has been increasingly recognized, which has generated growing political support and commitment. Evidence of this is seen, inter alia, by the increasing number of countries that have joined the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement and the successful convening in 2014 of the Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2).

The world continues to be in a phase of exceptional population growth. The global population rose from about 1.6 billion people in 1900 to 3 billion in 1960 and up to 7.3 billion today. It is expected to pass 9 billion by the year 2050. The demand for food is therefore expected to increase substantially as the global population increases and as higher incomes drive dietary pattern changes towards more livestock products. The agriculture sectors, including forestry and fisheries, are also expected to produce more non-food products, for energy and feed. At the same time, the natural resources upon which agriculture depends, such as land, water and soil, are increasingly threatened by environmental degradation and climate change. 

Climate change has already begun to significantly affect agriculture. Due to climate change, key variables - such as temperature, rain patterns, water availability, frequency and intensity of ‘extreme events’, sea levels and salinization - will all change and have profound impacts on the crop, livestock, forestry and fishery sectors. Many of the countries and populations that are most affected by climate change are those that are already food insecure and malnourished.

It is imperative then to move towards sustainable food systems that produce more food that is also of greater nutritional value, with less environmental damage and doing this in the face of climate change. 

FAO believes that science and technology can play a substantial role in providing solutions to these tremendous challenges. The suite of technologies available to producers for this purpose should be as broad as possible, including all of the conventional technologies, such as those used to improve water management in irrigated and rainfed production systems, as well as the wide range of agricultural biotechnologies. This symposium focuses on the role of agricultural biotechnologies. Note that while the broad range of agricultural biotechnologies encompassed by the symposium includes genetic modification, its focus is not on genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Building on the outcomes of the 2010 FAO international technical conference on Agricultural Biotechnologies for Developing Countries (ABDC-10), FAO is acting as a neutral broker and convening the symposium to examine how the application of science and technology, particularly agricultural biotechnologies, can be of benefit to smallholders in developing sustainable food systems and improving nutrition in the context of climate change. The investments required and other issues related to the acquisition and use of these technologies will also be addressed.