WASHINGTON – Biotechnology and genetically modified organisms can help to increase the supply, diversity and quality of food products and reduce costs of production and environmental degradation, as the world still grapples with the scourge of hunger and malnutrition, Jacques Diouf, director-general of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said in a May 14 speech in Stockholm.
The environmental risks of biotechnology, however, should be openly addressed and the new technology should not be allowed to widen the gap between rich and poor nations, he said.
Diouf was addressing the international conference on “Genetically Modified Crops, Why? Why not?” organized by the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry.
“All our efforts must be directed to ensure the potential benefits of biotechnology, with the necessary safeguard measures for health and the environment, are brought to within the reach of everybody, including the poor and the most disadvantaged,” Diouf said.
Food safety is key.
“Nor can we ignore food safety as an integral and most critical part of this research and development process.”
Diouf said that each GMO application must be fully analyzed on a case-by-case basis.
“Through complete and transparent assessment of GMO applications, and recognition of their short- and long-term implications, the debate can be less contentious and more constructive. The scientist has a fundamental ethical responsibility in this regard,” he added.
“Widely communicated, accurate and objective assessments of the benefits and risks associated with the use of genetic technologies must be made available to all stakeholders.”
Properly harnessed, biotechnology and genetic engineering can help to alleviate food insecurity and malnutrition, Diouf said.
“More than 800 million people around the world are going to bed without food or awakening from that dreadful restless sleep of the hungry.
“Furthermore, thousands of children suffering from malnutrition will not live to see the end of this day.
“It is now widely recognized that we are at a post-Green Revolution standstill and that yield ceilings of the main food crops have already been reached in conventional breeding programs,” he said.
Biotechnology and genetic engineering could help to overcome this problem and increase yield ceilings.
Diouf called the new Golden Rice variety “perhaps the most significant genetic engineering breakthrough which has direct relevance to malnutrition and food insecurity.”
Golden Rice is a transgenic rice variety that produces pro-vitamin A and has increased levels of iron.
“There is strong and justifiable interest to make this transgenic plant available to farmers in developing countries, especially to combat premature death and blindness arising from Vitamin A deficiency.
“It is estimated that 180 million people are Vitamin A-deficient, and that each year two million of them die, hundreds of thousands of children go blind and a significant number of women suffer from anemia, which is a major cause of death in women of childbearing age,” Diouf said.
He called for new investments in research systems, for training and technical assistance across the developing world.
“Developing countries need assistance, not only in laboratory facilities and know-how to undertake the field testing of GM crops and the other products of biotechnology research.
“They also need assistance in research policy and management issues pertaining to biotechnology and genetic engineering research.”
In this context, governments and the international donor community should strongly support national agricultural research systems, Diouf said.
“The private sector and in particular the large multinational Life Science companies have a very important role to play in this regard, not only in openly sharing the results and products of their research, but also in engaging in specific partnerships (research and training) with the national research systems so as to harness advances in biotechnology and genomic research in the fight against poverty and food insecurity”.
Diouf emphasized that the consumer has the right to informed choice.
“The right to informed choice derives from the ethical concept of the autonomy of individuals. This principle can be applied, for example, in the debate on labeling food derived from GMOs to ensure that consumers know what they are consuming and are able to make informed decisions,” he said.