Poul Nielson: Towards sustainable agriculture for developing countries: options from life sciences and biotechnologies, Stakeholders' Conference, Brussels

February 3, 2003

Brussels, 31 January 2003

The challenge we are now facing is to make sure that present and future discoveries will be accessible to those who need them most, particularly the poor. It is our responsibility as decision-makers to facilitate this process and to ensure greater equity in the sharing of science and technology.

As Jean Jaures, a famous French political leader, philosopher, historian and strong peace activist, declared: "science creates the possibility of new societal forms, but it creates only the possibility. Progress in science is not sufficient to achieve justice" (1) .

Ladies and gentlemen,

The Community development policy is grounded on the principle of sustainable, equitable and participatory human and social development. Promotion of human rights, democracy, the rule of law and good governance are an integral part of it.

This Conference is focused on

  • "Sustainable agriculture" which is one of the main objectives we are pursuing through the EC Development policy, and

  • "Life sciences and biotechnologies": one of the most promising technologies for present and future generations.
The subject is thus extremely relevant to our daily concerns. Moreover, the topics you discussed yesterday and this morning demonstrate very clearly the potential that life sciences and biotechnologies have for developing countries. But they also identified the associated risks and underlined the necessity to ensure that these technologies are made safe and effective.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The European Union has clearly spelled out its policy in a recent Communication, issued in January 2002, referred to as COM (2002) and entitled "Life sciences and biotechnologies: a strategy for Europe". It has been largely supported by the Council of Ministers of the Union and by the European Parliament at the end of last year.

The main messages related to developing countries could be summarised as follows:

  • Whatever policies and strategies Europe elaborates regarding life sciences and biotechnologies, they will have major impacts on developing countries . Therefore the interests of developing countries must be taken fully into account by the EC when main "routes" for the future are considered.

  • Life sciences and biotechnology will not be the panacea to solve all problems in Developing countries but will be one of the important tools in contributing to solving some issues.

  • Developed and developing countries have common fields of interest in life sciences and biotechnology. New informed, democratic, ethical and transparent partnerships should be encouraged amongst developed and developing nations to take full advantage of both promising technologies available primarily in the North and an extraordinary bio-diversity potential primarily in the South.

  • Demand-driven and tailored solutions for poor small-scale farmers require co-ordinated commercial investments and public funding at national, regional and international levels to work out technological packages adapted to local conditions and affordable to the poor.

  • Environmental and health concerns are paramount when considering life sciences and biotechnologies and they must be fully integrated in strategic choices contributing to sustainable development, in accordance with international commitments and Conventions and the precautionary principle.
In other words, I would look at life sciences and biotechnologies as tools among others that can contribute to poverty reduction in developing countries. They should in all cases be utilised in accordance with the precautionary principle and in full respect of national sovereignty and international commitments.

I would like to refer now to the action plan of the Communication I mentioned earlier. It details what Europe will do, within its mandate and its obligations under international agreements, to reach the objective of future Community support, i.e. to ensure the safe and effective use of modern life sciences and biotechnologies in developing countries .

The activities foreseen in the action plan of the Communication will be carried out in close collaboration and co-ordination with the Member States of the Union. In the agricultural sector , the main areas of support will include:

  • Research at local, national, sub-regional, regional and international levels in a co-ordinated manner with the participation of all stakeholders, particularly from civil society as well as from the private sector.

  • Conservation and sustainable use of genetic resources in developing countries and their equitable sharing in benefits arising from their use.

  • Support to developing countries for responsible and careful use of modern life sciences and biotechnologies, based on their autonomous choice and on their national development strategies, and including capacity building and appropriate administrative, legislative and regulatory measures.
Several of these activities are already ongoing.

Just to mention a few, I would like to indicate some of the activities supported by DG DEV and the Europe-Aid Co-operation Office.

In the field of agricultural research for development , our; strategy document on support for Agricultural Research for Development leads us towards three strategic choices:

  • Support for setting up and strengthening National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) at national level ,

  • Support for research activities of sub-regional interest and their co-ordination mechanisms at sub-regional level ,

  • Support for co-ordination and / or implementation of research of international public goods nature at global level .
Even if the national level is not the one where the Commission has the best comparative advantages compared for example to bilateral co-operation, several EC projects supporting agricultural research in developing countries are on going or under preparation, such as in Kenya and Niger for about €10M each.

The main entry points of the EC into Agricultural Research for Development are the sub-regional and the global levels . Our support is always closely co-ordinated with the EU member states and the other donors, particularly through the "European Initiative for Agricultural Research for Development" (EIARD).

  • At sub-regional level , we proposed an innovative approach that has been extensively discussed with many partners in developed and developing countries. It has been endorsed and will be applied in the coming months in the Western and Central, Eastern and Southern sub-regions of Africa where we are implementing or preparing research programmes for a total amount of about €70M.

    This approach is based on research networks and competitive funding mechanisms, taking advantage of experiences gained at national level (for example in Senegal) and at international level, particularly by our colleagues from the INCO-DEV programme in the Research Directorate-General. Projects on conservation and sustainable use of genetic resources and equitable sharing in benefits arising from their use can very well be included when the sub-regional organisations so wish.

  • At international level , the EC is one of the main donors (number 3 or 4 depending on the year, out of more than 60 contributors) to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research CGIAR . Again our strategy document guides us to support the CGIAR activities related to genetic resources (conservation, characterisation, conservation, improvement and use) and to international policies . Again these actions are very much part of the Communication plan of action, as indicated before. Our annual contribution to the CGIAR projects related to these two topics amounts at about €22M.

    Likewise, we are preparing our support for the Global Forum on Agricultural Research GFAR - hosted by FAO. It aims at "Strengthening the Participation of Farmers' Organisations and of Non-Governmental Organisations in the Global Agenda of Agricultural Research for Development".

In the field of responsible and careful use of modern life sciences and biotechnologies , the Commission is working on terms of reference for a study to prepare detailed guidelines to steer the EU in supporting the setting up and implementation of appropriate national and/or regional policies in developing Countries.

The results of this study will provide us with clear ways and opportunities to better identify the most appropriate strategy and tools to be mobilised in responding to possible requests for support from developing countries. The draft terms of reference will be posted soon on the Conference website and I would encourage you to comment on these TOR in the coming weeks.

The public debate has been often narrowly restricted to Genetically Modified Organisms and this has hampered the full recognition of the great potential of biotechnologies. Of course, issues surrounding GMOs are very important as these can have huge implications on human and animal nutrition, health, the environment and bio-diversity, trade and property rights. A thorough scientific assessment is therefore a pre-condition for the acceptance of GMOs in the EU.

But if health concerns are not predominant in the GMO debate, it is a different story when it comes to discussing their use in agriculture and their release into the environment. The on-going discussions regarding GM maize and the food crisis in Southern Africa is one of many examples of a polarised debate that is likely to occur again and again if we all do not respect local sensitivities and concerns.

In the Southern Africa crisis, the EC position has been very clear: the decision on whether or not to accept GM food must be made locally , by local authorities who alone can fully appreciate local conditions, habits, policies, needs, ethics, etc. Models cannot be simply transferred from developed countries as blueprints.

We therefore respect the Zambian decision not to accept GM maize because their impact has not been adequately assessed in the African context. Respecting this legitimate right will increase the chances of biotechnologies being more broadly accepted and play a useful role to fight hunger and poverty.

The Commission fully recognises also the right of third countries to adopt the legislation they deem necessary with respect to GMOs, in line with the provisions of international agreements such as the SPS and the Cartagena Protocol that the Commission ratified in August 2002. We will support developing countries in establishing the national, and more appropriately regional, capacity required to deal with the complex issue of legislation and regulation.

Most of all, GMO research has yet to produce substantial results of interest for developing countries. In particular, developing varieties more resistant to abiotic stresses (drought tolerance or salinity for example) may contribute to changing the a priori negative public perception of GMOs in some developing countries.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The preparation of the Communication I mentioned previously, as well as this Conference, are good examples of policy coherence amongst the various Directorates-General and Member States of the Union.

Your presence today shows also how the EU can contribute to development objectives through an initiative carried out in Europe, involving the European society and developing countries at the same time.

It is my sincere hope that this Conference will help to better integrate developing countries into the European and global knowledge society, to enrich the debate about the use of life sciences and modern technologies and to foster the dialogue between developed and developing countries.

I thank you all for your kind attention.
(1) La science cr ée la possibilit é de formes soci étales nouvelles, mais elle n en cr ée que la possibilit é. Non, il ne suffira pas que la science progresse pour que la justice soit.

DN: SPEECH/03/39 Date: 31/01/2003

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