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2-Plants: FAO - Shaping the future of agriculture

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TITLE:  Shaping the future of agriculture
SOURCE: Agriculture 21, FAO Magazine, Italy
DATE:   Jan 2003

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Dear GENET-news readers,
when I read this sentence: "But much of the public alarm overlooks the
fact that biotechnology's greatest potential is not in GMOs but in
biotechnology processes - molecular markers, proteomics and so on," I was
rather astonished. Louise O. Fresco should know that it had been the GE-
protagonists who began to talk of biotechnology instead of genetic
engineering. So they are to blamed if their PR strategy of green washing
words now backfires and people think that biotechnology is the same as
genetic engineering.

Hartmut Meyer


Shaping the future of agriculture

November was a hectic month for Louise O. Fresco, head of FAO's
Agriculture Department. It began in Manila, where she represented FAO at
the CGIAR's annual general meeting. From there, it was off to Dublin for
the inaugural consultation of the International Assessment on the Role of
Agricultural Science and Technology, convened by World Bank. The month
ended in The Hague as guest of the Netherlands government for a public
debate on the future of Netherlands diplomacy and foreign relations.
December at FAO headquarters, in Rome, promises to be more "business as
usual" - which means managing FAO's largest department and its $90
million biennial programmes on crops, livestock, natural resources,
biotechnology and agricultural support systems. To the background chimes
of incoming emails (average 100 messages a day), she talked with
Agriculture 21 about the future shape of agriculture...

The year is drawing to a close on a world facing conflict and
uncertainty. In times like these, how difficult is it to keep a focus on
issues like poverty and hunger, let alone agriculture?
"Along with the tension and a sense of insecurity, there is also an acute
awareness of our collective responsibility for the well-being of global
society. If anything, the past year has seen a deepened sense of global
ownership of problems that are all closely linked to agriculture, poverty
and hunger - from economic globalization and trade relations to the use
of biotechnology and conservation of the environment. In times like
these, we have to look for opportunities, and reshaping agriculture for
the common good presents just such an opportunity."

But some see ahead of us a period of continuing friction over many of the
problems you mention. How do you see it?
"The world is more complex than in the past, and it is being made ever
more so by globalization. Categories like 'developed' and 'developing'
countries are probably not useful anymore. We could say there are three
'worlds'. One more or less coincides with the OECD group - 1,000 million
people for whom food security is not an issue, who are removed from their
agricultural roots, who are increasingly conscious of environmental
issues but for whom international aid and development are low on the agenda.

"At the other extreme are more than 1,000 million people who live on less
than $1 day. These people are mainly rural, and they are chronically
malnourished either quantitatively - the 800 million or so who simply
don't get enough to eat - or through micronutrient deficiencies. They
live in countries where the free market economic model does not work, or
at least not adequately. They are the ones who qualify most for
humanitarian assistance, but the whole approach to development needs to
be reformulated, because at present we don't have good answers for these

Trends in undernourishment (in millions of people)

1996-98 2015 2030
Sub-Saharan Africa 186 184 165
Near East/North Africa 36 38 35
Latin America/ Caribbean 55 45 32
Asia 514 309 168
Developing countries 791 576 400

Source: The state of food insecurity in the world (FAO, 2000)

"Between those extremes of wealth and poverty, you have 4,000 million
people in countries where the state and the market economy generally
don't function very well. On the positive side, however, many of these
countries really want to participate in the market economy, and those are
the ones that are pressing us for assistance in accessing world markets,
protecting their food chains, implementing good agricultural practices,
applying biotechnology, and so on.

"That global panorama correlates with how we look at agriculture
developing in the future. The first is that the challenge is still
definitely about food quantities. But we have not looked enough yet at
food quality, which means not only food safety aspects - unwanted
residues, hormones, pollution, etc. - but also the very strong link
between food and human health. It's increasingly evident that many
chronic diseases, such as cancer and cardiovascular diseases, are closely
related to diet. The question: is how can we ensure that in 10 years time
everyone has access to a healthy diet? We are not yet there at all - in
many countries, the agriculture sector isn't geared to produce sufficient
lean proteins and vegetables, let alone produce it in a way that reaches
everyone at a reasonable price. Part of the solution may be plant and
animal breeding programmes that select for health-related
characteristics, not just for yield, which means re-thinking our whole
approach to technological advances in agriculture."

Globalization seems to have a bad name particularly in the sector of food
and agriculture. What are its implications for agricultural development?
"Like it or not, the world is going to be evermore interconnected. There
are massive movements of people and goods and it's unlikely it will stop.
But the major paradox of the market economy model is that the more you
globalize and the more you leave the market free, the more you need to
regulate it, to correct its negative effects on public goods - such as
the environment, equity and public health. That is why we need
agreements, guidelines, standards and standard-setting authorities, and
this is the area where FAO has a rapidly growing role: in advising the
middle group of countries, in shaping the thinking of the richer
countries, and protecting the most vulnerable at the bottom end of the
scale. What we should aim for is 'globalization with a human face', one
that respects diversity. To achieve that, we might take the advice of the
economist, Joseph Stiglitz, to 'scan globally and re-invent locally'.
Local adaptation often amounts to reinventing best practices in a new context.

The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety was adopted by more than 130
countries in January 2000. Upon entry into force, this first Protocol to
the Convention on Biological Diversity will provide a framework for
addressing environmental impacts of living modified organisms that cross
international borders. More...

"We definitely need to continue working on multilateral agreements. Since
the Rio summit, there's been a flood of treaties and protocols, some of
which have been ratified, but many which haven't been. There is a
Convention on Biological Diversity, but some important countries are not
party to it, and its Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety has not yet been
ratified by enough countries for it to come into force. There is a
Convention on Climate Change, but no Kyoto Protocol yet. Implementation
of these agreements is an issue everywhere. A lot of effort is needed to
make them work, and that requires a forum where countries can discuss and
exchange views."

Biotechnology arouses both enthusiasm and alarm. How do you see its role
in agriculture?
"There is no consensus in most countries on how biotechnology and, in
particular, genetically modified organisms [GMOs], should address the key
challenges in food and agriculture. FAO recognizes both the great
potential, and the complications, of these new technologies. Some of the
reactions to biotechnology are irrational, but the important message is
that people feel they have not been adequately consulted on the question
of what shape their food production, food supply and agriculture should
take. But much of the public alarm overlooks the fact that
biotechnology's greatest potential is not in GMOs but in biotechnology
processes - molecular markers, proteomics and so on.

"Taking a long-term view, biotechnology may offer some interesting
alternatives for major regions of the world where agriculture will be the
economic mainstay for the foreseeable future. For example, in marginal,
dry areas, could goats and sheep produce pharmaceutical or other chemical
products in their milk? At the moment that presents both technical and
ethical problems - it would be mean some biological change in the makeup
of those sheep and goats - but it would certainly help these areas
produce something with a very high value per unit of product. Of course,
such an approach is not acceptable to large parts of the public right
now, although the use of biotechnology for medical purposes has become
more acceptable. 

Risks and opportunities... FAO has joined a consultative process, led by
the World Bank, that will review risks and opportunities of using
agricultural science to reduce hunger and poverty. Launched at the World
Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa in August, the process
covers a broad range of issues, including organic farming, traditional
plant breeding, new farming technologies and biotechnology. Details...

"Because biotechnology raises all kinds of possibilities, we need to get
a better idea of what is technically possible and also look at the
ethical issues and at how we can involve producers and consumers in the
discussion. This is one of the crucial questions being addressed by the
World Bank's International Assessment of Agricultural Science and
Technology, which FAO is co-chairing. What should we do with
biotechnology - what part can it safely play in increasing productivity
and improving crop traits, what role will classical breeding play? But,
just as importantly, how we can put in place sufficient safeguards to
ensure that biotechnology is not going to be dominated by a very small
number of private companies, how to ensure adequate access for poor
countries and devise checks and balances on the safety side? Here we
should be worried about the weakening of the state. Where the market
fails - or, in a way, is too successful - there must be a role for the
state to regulate, both internationally and nationally. A weak state is
going to be disastrous for poor people, and this is where the main risk
of biotechnology lies."

The most controversial aspect of biotechnology is the introduction of
GMOs in crop production. How is the Agriculture Department addressing
that concern?
"We have far more evidence of their effects (or absence of effects) on
human health than we have understanding, let alone evidence, on the
environmental implications. One of the main environmental concerns is
'outcrossing events', for example the risk of a herbicide-tolerant crop
transferring genes to a wild relatives, which would then have a selective
advantage as weeds - i.e. they would be resistant to herbicides. Early in
May 2003 we'll be holding an expert consultation to look at those
environmental questions - not only gene transfer, but longer term
effects. For example, what might be the effect of 'Bt crops' [containing
genes from Bacillus thuringiensis, a soil bacterium that produces a
protein toxic to some insects] on soil flora and bacteria? Or, if we
develop salt-resistance in rice, could that lead to massive destruction
of mangrove forests for rice cultivation? So we're asking 20 of the
world's leading experts on GMOs to advise us on three points: the
ecosystem and evolutionary impacts of GMO introductions, good
agricultural practices regarding them, and the scientific basis for
informed regulatory decisions, especially in developing countries.

The Department has also been working on "Good Agricultural Practices". At
point are they?
"Good Agricultural Practices is our way of translating all the wishful
thinking on sustainable agriculture into very concrete recommendations
for countries and production systems - and also for consumers so they
know what they're buying. We already have proven methodologies such as
Integrated Pest Management and Conservation Agriculture which address
specific production issues, and Codex Alimentarius, for food safety
standards. But the agricultural sector as a whole lacks a unifying
framework that can guide national action on the policies and methods
needed to achieve sustainable agriculture. So the purpose of this
initiative is to present basic principles of good practice in areas such
as soil and water, crop and animal production, on-farm processing, energy
and waste management, human welfare, and wildlife and landscape. So far
we have prepared a framework with the focal points for stakeholder
groups, and we'll seek guidance on that from FAO's Committee on
Agriculture in April 2003.

* More on Gentically modified crops, Biotechnology, Biosecurity and
Climate change
* Read FAO's framework document on Good agricultural practices, June 2002
(PDF, 134K)
* Information on FAO's Major Programme for Agricultural Production and
Support Systems