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.
Opposition to genetic engineering in agriculture has been particularly strong in Europe, where many countries have imposed de facto moratoriums on such crops. There are signs that opposition may be weakening, with the European Commission scheduled to approve a type of genetically altered corn this week.
But the corn is slated to be approved only for import, not for growing in Europe, and it remains unclear how many European countries will comply with the EC's ruling. The United States has sued Europe in the World Trade Organization, claiming the moratoriums violate trade rules.
William Freese, an analyst at Friends of the Earth in Washington, criticized the U.N. report yesterday on the ground the FAO is too eager to embrace a high-tech solution to a low-tech problem. Instead of advocating biotechnology, he said, the agency should push for more funds for conventional crop research. Biotechnology for poor countries "would be like introducing an SUV plant to a country where people don't even have bicycles," he said. "There are other, cheaper solutions that desperately need research funds."
The new report, "The State of Food and Agriculture," is the latest in a string of reports on the world food system that the United Nations has published annually since 1947, and the first to deal in depth with biotechnology. In the report, the FAO rejects both extremes of the ideological argument over genetic engineering.
"It is not appropriate to be either 'for' or 'against' biotechnology," Prabhu Pingali, director of agricultural and development economics for the FAO, said at a briefing yesterday in Washington. "Biotechnology is a tool, nothing more and nothing less. The impact . . . depends on how it is used."
Poor farmers have yet to benefit from the technology on a broad scale, the report said. Most of the benefits have gone to the Western companies working on the new crops and to farmers in wealthy countries with ready access to them. Money and research effort are going mainly into crops such as soybeans and corn that are grown in the rich countries, the report says.
Genetic engineering could be used to improve crops such as bananas, cassava, sorghum, cowpeas and rice on which billions of poor people depend, the report says, but those efforts have been scattered and poorly funded. That is especially alarming given that global population is projected to hit 10 billion by 2050, up from 6.3 billion today, the report said.
Corporations are spending 10 times as much money, about $3 billion a year, to improve crops for wealthy countries as governments and other donors are spending to fund research that focuses on crops important to the poor, the report says. But it says it is unrealistic to expect corporations to spend large sums on crops offering little hope of profit. Such research is a public responsibility, the report says -- but public spending on agricultural research meant to benefit the poor has been falling in recent years.
In a companion essay to the report, Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for leading the "Green Revolution" that used conventional technologies to improve crop yields in many parts of the world, calls for more investment and a sharper focus.
"The world has the technology . . . to feed on a sustainable basis a population of 10 billion people," he writes. "However, access to such technology is not assured."