International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR)

Open Letter to FAO Director General in Support of SOFA 2003-04 – Biotechnology Report

Dear Director General,

We, the signatories of this letter, are scientists and scholars involved in independent academic research related to the international implications of agricultural biotechnology. We are writing this letter to support FAO’s recent report: The State of Food and Agriculture 2003-04; Agricultural Biotechnology: Meeting the Needs of the Poor? In our opinion the publication provides a comprehensive overview of biotechnology’s potentials and constraints, and it reflects current scientific knowledge on this important subject area.

Genetically modified (GM) crops have been field tested since the late 1980s, and since 1996 they have been grown commercially in over 16 countries, including several developing countries. The FAO report points out correctly that this new technology is associated with certain environmental and health risks, so that effective biosafety and food safety regulations have to be integral components of responsible biotechnology development and utilization. Yet, the evidence so far suggests that environmental and health risks can be managed, so that there is no reason for an outright rejection of GM crops based on safety concerns. Risk assessments have to be carried out and risk management have to be implemented on a case by case for every individual biotechnology product.

In terms of the economic and social impacts in developing countries, independent studies that have been conducted over the last eight years show a fairly consistent picture. Roundup Ready (RR) soybean farmers in Argentina profit from lower costs of weed control. Bt cotton growers in China, South Africa, Argentina, Mexico, and India benefit from significant reductions in chemical insecticides and higher effective yields. In spite of higher seed prices, on average these advantages result in sizeable income gains for GM crop adopters, including resource-poor farmers. Studies even show that the net benefits for small farmers can be bigger than for larger farmers. That the majority of the farmers is highly satisfied with their GM crop experience is reflected in the rapidly increasing adoption rates. Likewise, agricultural consumers can benefit from lower commodity prices. The FAO report provides a good summary of the academic studies available in this direction. Most of these studies were published in high-ranking, peer-reviewed scientific journals. More research is needed before conclusive statements about secondary socioeconomic effects can be made, but the evidence so far demonstrates that GM crop technology can be very suitable for poor farmers and consumers in developing countries.

However, as the FAO report also emphasizes, the examples of small farmers benefiting from GM crops are still very limited in number. Most of the poorest countries lack the scientific and regulatory capacity to adapt available GM technologies to their local needs. Moreover, biotechnology products that are especially designed for poor farmers and consumers have hardly been developed up till now. Without significantly bigger public sector support for research and capacity building and effective public – private cooperation the advantages of agricultural biotechnology will bypass the most vulnerable population groups. Also, the international proliferation of intellectual property rights is an issue that requires closer scrutiny and new institutional mechanisms in order to improve biotechnology access for the poor.

Agricultural biotechnology is not a panacea for developing countries. Technological instruments cannot substitute for other important policies that address the institutional and structural problems of food insecurity and poverty. But, with appropriate policy support, agricultural biotechnology could make an important contribution to sustainable development. The FAO report highlights the major areas where public interventions are needed, in order to bring the “gene revolution” to the poor on a larger scale.

From our perspective, the FAO report currently provides the most comprehensive and up-to-date review of issues related to agricultural biotechnology and developing countries. The potentials and constraints are tackled in a very balanced way. Therefore, this publication will be an important contribution to rationalizing the international debate on this topic.

Click here to read/download:
Agricultural Biotechnology
Meeting the needs of the poor?

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