Brussels, 31 Jan 2003
Commissioner for Research, Philippe Busquin said that Europe has a strong moral obligation towards the people of developing countries to help combat poverty and disease, as he launched a debate on the life sciences and biotechnology in sustainable agriculture on 30 January.
The European Commission, assisted by the European Group on Life Sciences (EGLS), organised a two day conference, at which a group of expert panellists were present to give theirs views, in particular on the consequences of current agricultural practices and the impact of biotechnology on sustainable agriculture in developing countries.
'There is an obvious problem of food supply in many parts of the world,' said Commissioner Busquin. 'It would be irresponsible not to assess and debate the potential held by life sciences and biotechnology to ensure sustainable agriculture in developing countries.'
'Some 40,000 people die every day worldwide from hunger-related causes, [...] the demands for food to meet the expanding global population are growing faster than the ability of food producers to meet those demands,' said Professor Ismael Serageldin, Director of the Library of Alexandria.
With the world population expected to exceed eight billion by 2025, Professor Serageldin outlined the need to find a way to increase food production and reduce poverty and at the same time protect the environment.
Methods such as slash and burn farming and inefficient irrigation systems are detrimental to the people and the environment in developing countries. 'Poverty is the worst polluter and destroyer of biodiversity,' claimed Dr Florence Wambugu, executive director of Harvest biotech foundation international.
Both speakers agreed that increases in food production would have to come from increasing biological yields, and not from area expansion and more irrigation.
Africans spend up to 60 per cent of GDP on food while Europeans spend only 25 percent. According to Dr Wambugu, harnessing technology is the most effective way to reduce food prices.
The application of biotechnology can create plants that are more drought resistant, more salt tolerant and more resistant to pests without the use of pesticides. Plant characteristics can be genetically altered for earlier maturity, increased transportability, reduced post-harvest losses, and improved nutritional quality. Vaccines against diseases afflicting livestock are already important products of biotechnological research.
While the application of new technologies will help sustainable development, Dr Wambugu stressed the need to develop technologies that are user friendly and conducive to cultural practices.
However, there are many obstacles and challenges facing the development of biotechnology in farming in developing countries. As Professor Serageldin pointed out, it is not just a question of developing new high-productivity and environmentally sustainable production systems, it is also a question of political will. 'An essential aspect of the response to this challenge is to harness all instruments of sustainable agricultural growth.'
Dr Wambugu voiced her concerns about how to protect intellectual property rights (IPR) without impeding free access to research tools and the equitable sharing of benefits with the poor who cannot afford to pay.
Similarly Professor Serageldin warned that without a strong regulated IPR system, science and technology apartheid could develop, thus increasing the marginalisation of developing countries.
Panellists also discussed public acceptance of biotech products. According to Dr Wambugu, fears among the public about genetically modified products in particular have been fuelled by misinformation. She added that increased expenditure in biotech outreach is crucial to diffuse fear and to improve dialogue.
Dr Wambugu also called for an end to Europe's de facto moratorium on GM products. As Mr Busquin illustrated, farmers in developing countries are faced with a dilemma: If they use genetically modified techniques, they cannot export to Europe. But if these techniques are not applied, farmers suffer from losses and increased competition.
Professor Serageldin concluded by urging stakeholders to differentiate between ethics, economics and science when assessing the impact of biotechnology and life sciences on sustainable agriculture in developing countries.