World Food Summit: five years later
Promises to Boost Poor
U.S. cosponsors biotech meeting during food summit
June 12, 2002
by Kathryn McConnell (Washington File Staff Writer)
Rome -- A group of agricultural biotechnology experts and practitioners meeting during the World Food Summit: Five Years Later has concluded that biotechnology, along with improved traditional agricultural practices, can help increase agricultural production in developing countries while raising them out of poverty.
As important, participants said, is that developing countries have the capability to define how they will adopt biotech and other methods to increase agricultural production and increase incomes in their largely rural populations.
The meeting held June 11 in connection with the Rome summit was co-sponsored by the United States and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).
CGIAR is a consortium of agricultural research centers in developing countries sponsored by the World Bank, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).
The FAO called the food summit to determine progress made so far on meeting the 1996 internationally accepted goal to cut world hunger in half by 2015 and to discuss ways to achieve more hunger reduction at a sustainable level and at a faster rate.
"Biotechnology has and will play a role" in improving agricultural development, said Ian Johnson, CGIAR chairman, at the meeting's opening. He said building the capacity for developing countries to use new technologies effectively is an "urgent need."
The meeting reiterated a message that the United States has brought to the World Food Summit -- that biotech is an important part of needed capacity to increase agricultural productivity in developing countries.
The event led off with Norman Borlaug, credited as the "father of the green revolution," and praised by Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman for "saving more lives than anyone." Borlaug said that skepticism about biotech -- opposition based on the idea that "science is leading us into grave trouble" -- is misplaced. He said scientists should speak out more about the actual risks and benefits of biotech and other technologies.
Borlaug said biotechnology is already producing crops with higher resistance to pests. He said the approach that would integrate biotechnology with improvements in traditional agricultural practices to increase food production "is being lost in the debate" with biotech opponents.
Borlaug said one promising biotechnology application is nutrient-fortified maize (corn), one of the most important foods in southern Africa. He said he thinks biotech will someday be able to stop rust spongi, a prevalent disease of small grains such as millet and barley.
Addressing the concerns of biotech's opponents, Per Pinstrup-Anderson, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute, said people who are satisfied with the "status quo have no right to interfere" with developing countries who are choosing to adopt biotechnology. Acknowledging that risks are involved in any technology, he said developed countries should help developing countries establish biosafety standards.
He said the goal of biotechnology is not to "increase the global pile of food" but to increase food availability and incomes in developing countries through higher yields per person and per hectare.
"What if people in developing countries told people in the north that we couldn't use medical biotechnology to treat diseases?" Pinstrup-Anderson said. "We wouldn't want that."
Many developing countries are looking to biotechnology because most of the developing world's population is rural-based, depending "directly or indirectly on agriculture," he said. "We need to move ahead at deliberate speed" with additional biotech research, Pinstrup-Anderson said.
Examples of the promise of biotechnology include two provinces in China that have been planting Bt cotton since 1997. (Bt cotton contains a gene obtained from an organism called Bacillus thuringiensis.) Huang Jikun of the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy said that, in addition to producing increased incomes from higher yields, Bt cotton requires less labor, has lower production costs because fewer pesticides are needed and results in fewer deaths of farmers caused by pesticide poisoning. Small farmers typically use backpack applicators of pesticides, often leading them to come into direct contact with the substances.
Africa is taking a regional approach to adopting biotechnology, establishing the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa, said Nigeria Agriculture Minister Mallam Bello. He said one of the association's priorities is to establish regional research centers and biosafety regulations. Increasing populations and land degradation resulting in the significant loss of soil and its plant nutrients have led the region to look to the promises of new agricultural technologies, including biotech, he said.
Alan Larson, U.S. under secretary of state for economic, business and agricultural affairs, said that while biotechnology may not solve all the world's agricultural productivity challenges, "it does make a contribution."
He added that "no one on either side of the debate should make the decision for developing countries" about whether to adopt biotechnology to meet their agricultural productivity needs.
(The Washington File is a product of the Office of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)