Background to the Conference

The developing world is currently facing a situation of growing food insecurity, a situation that is further threatened by climate change that will worsen the living conditions of farmers, fishers and forest-dependent people who are already vulnerable and food insecure. The challenges posed by hunger and poverty are particularly difficult for the rural poor, who make up about 75 percent of the world’s 963 million malnourished people. No segment of humanity depends more directly on environmental resources and services than the rural poor. Their lives are interwoven with the surrounding environment in ways that make them both particularly valuable as custodians of environmental resources and particularly vulnerable to environmental degradation. In recent years, the area under agriculture has declined as also has the rate of growth in agricultural productivity while the demand for food continues to escalate. According to the recent report by the UN Secretary-General on world demographic trends, the world population now stands at 6.8 billion, more than two and a half times the level in 1950, and, according to the medium projection variant, is expected to reach 8 billion in 2025 and 9 billion in 2045.

There are no easy solutions to these challenges. However, since agriculture has a direct impact on the rural economy, investment in food and agriculture is vital and must be at the heart of any strategy for the alleviation of hunger and poverty. While the measures needed extend well beyond the issue of producing more food and agricultural products, boosting productivity of smallholders, fishers and foresters through appropriate application of good practices and improved technologies must be a key ingredient of development policies of developing countries to eliminate food insecurity and become economically competitive.

Biotechnology encompasses a wide range of technologies and they can be applied for a range of different purposes, such as the genetic improvement of plant varieties and animal populations to increase their yields or efficiency; genetic characterization and conservation of genetic resources; plant or animal disease diagnosis; vaccine development; and improvement of feeds. Some of the technologies may be applied to all the food and agriculture sectors, such as the use of molecular DNA markers or genetic modification, while others are more sector-specific, such as tissue culture (in crops and forest trees), embryo transfer (livestock) or triploidization and sex-reversal (fish). When appropriately integrated with other technologies for the production of food, agricultural products and services, biotechnology can be of significant assistance in meeting the needs of an expanding and increasingly urbanized population.

There are large differences between developed and developing countries with respect to biotechnology capacity and financial investments. In some developing countries and regions, application of biotechnologies is quite limited, something which is clear from FAO-BioDeC, a database developed by FAO containing information on the development, adoption and application of biotechnologies in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Near East. Because agricultural biotechnology research is primarily being carried out in developed countries and by the private sector in these countries, the research and the biotechnology products being developed or released are directed primarily to the needs of farmers in the developed (and not developing) countries and of rich (and not poor) farmers that can afford the products.

Consequently, research in developing countries should be intimately linked to the problems and requirements of local communities. The need for a "bottom-up" approach in agricultural research and development is crucial which takes into consideration, through participatory approaches, the needs, aspirations and circumstances of smallholders, fishers and foresters. This can only succeed if communication channels exist to take the needs of producers to researchers and for the two to meaningfully interface.