By Justin Gillis Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 17, 2004; 5:00 AM
Genetic engineering and other forms of agricultural biotechnology are benefiting poor farmers in a handful of countries and hold "clear promise" to alleviate global hunger and help millions of people achieve better lives, according to a United Nations report released this morning.
But the report, by the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization, said this promise is still more theory than reality, largely because far too little money is being spent to use the new techniques in ways likely to benefit subsistence farmers.
"Barring a few initiatives here and there, there are no major public- or private-sector programs to tackle the critical problems of the poor or targeting crops and animals that they rely on," the report said. "Concerted international efforts are required to ensure that the technology needs of the poor are addressed and that barriers to access are overcome."
The 200-page report is being released this morning in Rome, where the Food and Agriculture Organization is based, and in Washington. The FAO is the world's major body dealing with long-term issues of food supply and is an influential voice in setting global food policy.
The report is the FAO's most detailed analysis to date of the controversy swirling around the use of genetic engineering in agriculture. And it puts that body, for the first time, squarely in the camp of those who believe genetic engineering can benefit the world's poorest people.
The report explicitly rejected as too extreme the position embraced by many environmental and advocacy groups that have called for bans on genetic engineering of plants and animals. Many of these groups are opposed in principle to a technology in which genes are deliberately transferred from one species to another to confer new traits -- and those organisms are then released into the environment.
"Thus far, in those countries where transgenic crops have been grown, there have been no verifiable reports of them causing any significant health or environmental harm," the report said. "On the contrary, some important environmental and social benefits are emerging."
The report cited, as examples, the sharply reduced use of chemical pesticides to grow gene-altered pest-resistant cotton, and the improving incomes of small cotton farmers in countries like China and South Africa that have embraced the technology.
The report did not entirely dismiss the risks of the technology, however. While there's broad scientific consensus that current biotech crops are safe to eat, the report said, there's less consensus about their likely environmental effects over the long term, and that issue will require careful, case-by-case analysis and monitoring of each new crop.
But the report added that "science cannot declare any technology completely risk free." It said it was unrealistic to demand perfect certainty about the effects of a technology before deciding whether to use it.