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Biotech Holds “Enormous Promise” for Developing World, says U.N.

Date: 2.2.2006 

Report calls for more public investment in agricultural research to help the poor. Agricultural biotechnology holds "enormous promise" for helping poor people around the world — just as technological innovation from the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 70s launched a "virtuous cycle of rising productivity, improving living standards and sustainable economic growth … lifted millions of people out of poverty." But biotechnology is "no panacea" and is not enough to overcome existing gaps in infrastructure, markets, delivery systems, public sector research and agricultural extension services that continue to block some innovations from reaching the poor in the developing world. Those are among the findings from a May 2004 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization titled, "The State of Food and Agriculture 2003-04." A large section of the report specifically addressed the question of whether agricultural biotechnology can help meet the needs of the poor. While the report concluded that biotechnology can indeed help raise living standards in the developing world, it said more public sector research is needed on staple crops in the developing world. "Agricultural biotechnology holds enormous promise for addressing a range of technical challenges facing poor farmers in poor countries," it said. "We know from the Green Revolution that agricultural research can stimulate sustainable economic growth in developing countries, but the paradigm for research and technology delivery have broken down." Where the system that sparked the Green Revolution was specifically designed to develop improved varieties of wheat and rice and transfer them to Asia and other areas of need, the biotech "gene revolution" is dominated by private companies. "Who will develop biotechnology innovations for the majority of developing countries that are too small in terms of market potential to attract large private-sector investments in scientific capacity to develop their own innovations?" asked the report. The good news, however, is that biotechnology has helped to raise living standards in the countries where it has been introduced and several programs are underway to share biotech innovations in areas where they are needed most. An estimated 7 million farmers in 18 countries — more than 85 percent resource-poor farmers in the developing world — now plant biotech crops, up from 6 million in 16 countries in 2002, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, The ISAAA is an international network of centers in Kenya, the Philippines and the United States whose mission is to help alleviate hunger and poverty by sharing crop biotechnology applications. Almost one-third of the global biotech crop area was grown in developing countries — up from one-quarter in 2002. Among the global farmers who have benefited from biotech seeds are: Edwin Paraluman and Carlos Andico from the Philippines, who have seen their incomes rise since they began planting Bt corn, which is genetically enhanced to resist insect pests. Mahalingappa Shankarikoppa of India, who has seen his income triple after planting Bt cotton, which is enhanced with a naturally occurring soil protein (Bacillus thuringiensis) to ward off insect pests. Lucian Buzdugan of Romania, whose income and yields have doubled since he began planting herbicide tolerant soybeans. And Thandi Myeni and T.J. Buthelezi of South Africa, whose yields in the Makhathini Flats increased dramatically after switching to Bt cotton. Biotech crops, "especially insect resistant cotton, are yielding significant economic gains to small farmers as well as important social and environmental benefits through the changing use of agricultural chemicals," said the FAO report. Because biotechnology is imbedded in the seed, it's particularly well-suited to the needs of resource-poor farmers in the developing world who actually stand to gain more from the technology than the companies that produced the improved seeds, said the report. "Overall, it is the producers and consumers who are reaping the largest share of the economic benefits of transgenic crops, not the companies that develop and market them. Research evidence from Argentina, China, Mexico and South Africa suggests that small farmers have had no more difficulty than larger farmers in adopting the new technologies. In some cases, transgenic crops seem to simplify the management process in ways that favor small farmers." Focus on subsistence crops As important as these gains are, however, more needs to be done to improve other crops, said the report. Investment by the private sector in genetically enhanced crops has focused on four crops: canola, corn, cotton, and soybeans. But biotechnology shows great potential for improving staple crops such as cowpea, millet, sorghum and tef that sustain millions of the poor, but neither the public nor private sector has invested significantly in these critical "orphan crops," according to the FAO. In addition, biotechnology could also help improve the nutritional profile of mainstay foods such as potatoes, cassava and rice that could aid billions of the world's poor. Transferring these agricultural innovations is hindered by the lack of research in the developing nations where the benefits of biotech crops are most desperately needed. Together, the developing nations that have invested the most in agricultural research — Brazil, China and India — spend less than $1.5 billion annually on agricultural research. In contrast, the top 10 international bioscience corporations spend nearly $3 billion per year on biotechnology research and development. The FAO advocates for incentives that would encourage public-private partnerships whereby technologies developed by the private sector could be licensed to the public sector for use in economically impoverished countries. One of the success stories for collaboration between the public and private sectors to transfer biotechnology to the developing world is the African Agricultural Technology Foundation. Four biotech companies are partnering with the foundation to increase food production in Africa, where the world's largest concentration of the chronically hungry live. The new foundation will concentrate on enhancing crops vital to millions of Africans, including bananas, cassava, chickpeas, corn, cowpeas and sweet potatoes. The hard reality is that agriculture will have to sustain a growing world population, expected to increase by 2 billion over the next 30 years, while relying on a dwindling natural resource base, said the FAO report. Technology alone can't solve the problems of the poor in developing nations, but, says FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf, "…effective transfer of existing technologies to poor rural communities and the development of new and safe biotechnologies can greatly enhance the prospects for sustainably improving agricultural productivity today and in the future." "Source":[ http://www.whybiotech.com/index.asp?id=4573]


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