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Biotechnology Can Help Feed an Increasing World Population -
Its Positive and Negative Aspects Need to Be Balanced

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
January, 1999

Biotechnology is a powerful tool to feed an increasing world population, but its "positive and negative potential" should be carefully evaluated, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said today. "All concerns must be clearly balanced, respecting ethical aspects but reflecting the actual and potential possibilities of increasing food supplies and alleviating hunger," FAO said in a report prepared for the Committee on Agriculture.

The Committee will meet on 25-29 January in Rome. Delegates from some 100 countries will discuss issues such as organic farming, urban agriculture and the monitoring of land and freshwater resources.

World population is forecast to reach 7.5 billion people by 2020, with 6.3 billion living in developing countries. Although the rate of population growth is decreasing, the increase in absolute numbers of people to be fed may be such that the carrying capacity of agricultural lands could soon be reached given current technology.

Biotechnology (*), together with other technologies, could provide new solutions for some of the old problems hindering sustainable rural development and achievement of food security, FAO said.

"Biotechnology-derived solutions built into the genotype of plants could reduce use of agrochemicals, thus promoting sustainable yields." The application of pesticides and fungicides could be reduced through plants with genetic pest resistance. Plants with high tolerance for conditions of salinity or high iron toxicity could help to improve agricultural production in marginal areas.

Some biotechnological techniques, like in vitro culture, are very helpful for maintenance of germplasm collections of species with low fertility and of species that are hard to keep as seeds or in field gene banks, according to the FAO report.

"Biotechnology may reduce GENETIC DIVERSITY indirectly by displacing landraces and their inherent diversity as farmers adopt genetically uniform varieties of plants and other organisms. At the same time it increases the potential to preserve and sustainably use diversity. In the case of endangered animal breeds, cryopreservation and somatic cloning can strengthen traditional conservation strategies," the report said.

"In many developing countries funding for research in agriculture is being reduced, and often research is being privatized with the risk that it could be aimed mainly at resource rich farmers", the report said.

"Biotechnology research and policy should also address the needs of the poor who depend on agriculture, particularly in marginal areas where productivity increases will be more difficult to achieve."

"Much biotechnology is more expensive than conventional research, so it should be used only to solve specific problems where it has a comparative advantage," the report said.

To be truly productive, knowledge and infrastructure are required to apply biotechnology, according to the report. Biotechnology research requires skilled scientists, well-equipped laboratories, a constant supply of good quality water, reliable electricity and access to the Internet and other international networks.

The report called for "adequate BIOSAFETY REGULATIONS, risk assessment of biotechnology products, mechanisms and instruments for monitoring use and compliance to ensure that there will be no harmful effects on the environment or for people." Countries must be helped to develop appropriate legislation and to set up proper regulatory bodies for all aspects of biosafety, FAO said.

Some of the potential environmental risks concern plant pests. Gene escape from Genetically Modified Organisms may result in increased weediness in wild species, according to FAO. The inclusion of novel genes for herbicide resistance in plants may increase the occurrence of weeds with resistance to certain agrochemicals, the report warned. "The inclusion of pest resistance in plants should be carefully evaluated for potential development of RESISTANCE IN PESTS and possible side-effects on beneficial organisms."

"It is vital that developing countries are not left at the edge of development nor in a disadvantaged position," the report said. FAO should help members to optimize their capacity to develop, adapt and utilize biotechnology and its products to suit their needs and environment, and thus enhance global food security and improve living standards for all. (*) This covers the application of tissue culture, immunological techniques, molecular genetics and recombinant DNA techniques in all facets of agricultural production and agro-industry.

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The complete FAO COAG document on Biotecnology is available on Internet at: http://www.fao.org/unfao/bodies/COAG/COAG15/x0074e.htm