Biotechnology holds great promise for agriculture in developing countries, but so far only farmers in a few developing countries are reaping these benefits, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) said in its annual report The State of Food and Agriculture 2003-04, released today.
Basic food crops of the poor such as cassava, potato, rice and wheat receive little attention by scientists, FAO says.
"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," says FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf.
"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.
Biotechnology, one of the tools of the gene revolution, is much more than genetically modified organisms (GMOs), sometimes also called transgenic organisms. While the potential benefits and risks of GMOs 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, FAO states.
Agriculture will have to sustain an additional 2 billion people over the next 30 years from an increasingly fragile natural resource base. The challenge is to develop technologies that combine several objectives -- increase yields and reduce costs, protect the environment, address consumer concerns for food safety and quality, enhance rural livelihoods and food security, FAO says.
Agricultural research can lift people out of poverty, by boosting agricultural incomes and reducing food prices. More than 70% of the world's poor still live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for their survival. Agricultural research -- including biotechnology -- holds an important key to meeting their needs.
Biotechnology should complement -- not replace -- conventional agricultural technologies, FAO says. Biotechnology can speed up conventional breeding programs and may offer solutions where conventional methods fail.