Brussels, 18 May 2004
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has given its support to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) with the provision that biotechnology is backed by government money rather than multinational corporations if it is intended to bring benefits to the developing world
The 17 May report 'Agricultural Biotechnology: Meeting the Needs of the Poor?' states that transgenic technology has great potential for increasing crop yields, reducing costs to customers and improving the nutritional value of foods. It stresses, however, the need for a crop-by-crop approach to assess the risks as well as the importance of more funding by national governments.
According to the report, the key problem is that most of the benefits go to multinational corporations and farmers from developed countries.
So far, investment by the private biotech industry in agricultural biotechnology research and development (R&D), which amounts to nearly 2.5 billion euro every year, has concentrated on four commodity crops: cotton, soya, maize and canola. Those transgenic crops are engineered for only two traits, insect-resistance and herbicide-tolerance. They are grown in rich countries and mainly benefit commercial interests.
The report deplores the fact that food crops for the poor have received little attention from scientists.
Jacques Diouf, FAO Director-General, said: 'Neither the private nor the public sector has invested significantly in new genetic technologies for the so-called 'orphan crops' such as cowpea, millet, sorghum and teff that are critical for the food supply and livelihoods of the world's poorest people.'
The report also claimed that biotechnology could speed up conventional animal breeding programmes and provide diagnostic tools and vaccines to help control diseases. Furthermore, it could reduce the use of chemicals that harm the environment and human health, improve the nutritional quality of staple foods, and create new products for health and industrial uses. An associated reduction in pesticides and toxic herbicides has had 'demonstrable health benefits' for farm workers in China, the report argues.
However, 'there are no major public or private sector programmes to tackle the critical problems of the poor, or targeting crops and animals that they rely on,' the report adds.
Brazil, China and India, which have the largest developing country public agricultural research programmes, spend less than 450 million euro each annually, while private research in most developing countries is negligible.
Research on improving crops for the poor is a public responsibility, says the report. However, public spending on agricultural research meant to benefit the poor has been falling in recent years.
The report points out that biotechnology is much more than genetically modified organisms, and says it should complement, not replace, conventional agricultural technologies.
GM crops currently on the market are safe to eat, the report adds, and notes that scientists differ with regard to their opinions on their environmental impact. The report therefore calls for more research to measure the environmental consequences of the so-called 'gene flow'.
The report concludes that 'science cannot declare any technology completely risk free.' It says that it is unrealistic to demand complete certainty about the effects of a technology before deciding whether to use it.
The report comes during the same week in which the European Union is to set to approve imports of genetically modified BT-11 sweet corn for human consumption, ending a six-year de facto moratorium. The corn, however, will be approved only for import, not for growing in Europe. To read the full report, please visit: http:///www.fao.org/