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U.N. Touts Biotech to Boost Global Food Supply


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By Justin Gillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 18, 2004; Page A02

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 new U.N. report.

But the report, by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, says that 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 says. "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 was released yesterday in Rome, where the Food and Agriculture Organization is based, and in Washington. The FAO is the major international 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 of the controversy swirling around the use of genetic engineering in agriculture. For the first time it puts that body squarely in the camp of those who believe genetic engineering can benefit the world's poorest people.

The report explicitly rejects 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.

"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 says. "On the contrary, some important environmental and social benefits are emerging."

The report cites as examples the sharply reduced use of chemical pesticides to grow gene-altered, pest-resistant cotton, and the rising incomes of small cotton farmers in countries, such as China and South Africa, that have embraced the technology.

The report cautions that the technology is no panacea, however, and it does not dismiss potential risks. While there is broad scientific consensus that current biotech crops are safe to eat, the report says, there is less consensus about their likely environmental effects over the long term, and that issue will require careful monitoring. The report notes that few poor countries have the technical ability to analyze biotech crops -- and that they aren't getting much outside help.

It adds that "science cannot declare any technology completely risk free" and that it is unrealistic to demand certainty about the effects of a technology before deciding whether to use it.

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