Biotech foods could help fight hunger, but poor farmers need more attention - UN
Biotechnology holds "great promise" for farmers and agriculture in the developing world, but so far, very few poor countries and only a handful of crops receive its benefits, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said today.
The world's poor are missing out on the benefits from genetically modified food because research and technology is concentrated on big money crops - cotton, maize, canola and soybean - rather than on poor country staples like potatoes, cassava, rice and wheat, according to FAO's annual report, The State of Food and Agriculture 2003-04, released today.
"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 tef that are critical for the food supply and livelihoods of the world's poorest people," FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf said.
"Other barriers that prevent the poor from accessing and fully benefiting from modern biotechnology include inadequate regulatory procedures, complex intellectual property issues, poorly functioning markets and seed delivery systems, and weak domestic plant breeding capacity," he added.
Drought and insect-resistant crops could boost yields and incomes while reducing food prices, the report says. And with the world population set to rise by two billion over the next 30 years, such crops could help meet food needs. The challenge is to develop technologies that combine several objectives - increased yields and reduced costs, environment protection, consumer concerns for food safety and quality, enhanced rural livelihoods and food security.
The report stresses that biotechnology is much more than genetically modified organisms (GMOs), sometimes also called transgenic organisms. And while the potential benefits and risks need to be carefully assessed case by case, the controversy surrounding transgenics should not distract from the potential offered by other applications of biotechnology such as genomics, marker-assisted breeding and animal vaccines.
Still, biotechnology should complement - not replace - conventional agricultural technologies, the report says. Biotechnology can speed up conventional breeding programmes and may offer solutions where conventional methods fail.
It can provide farmers with disease-free planting materials and develop crops that resist pests and diseases, reducing the use of chemicals that harm the environment and human health. It can provide diagnostic tools and vaccines that help control devastating animal diseases, as well as improve the nutritional quality of staple foods and create new products for health and industrial uses.
But poor farmers can only benefit from biotechnology products if they "have access to them on profitable terms," the report says. "Thus far, these conditions are only being met in a handful of developing countries."