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U.N. urges caution with biotechnology

Genetically engineered barley carries a gene that may help the plants resist attack by barley yellow dwarf virus   
January 26, 1999
Web posted at: 2:45 PM EST

By Environmental News Network staff

(ENN) -- The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization set the tone for an agriculture conference this week when it said that biotechnology is a powerful tool to feed an increasing world population. However, the organization urged caution when evaluating the positive and negative aspects of biotechnology.

"All concerns must be clearly balanced, respecting ethical aspects but reflecting the actual and potential possibilities of increasing food supplies and alleviating hunger," the organization said in a report prepared for the Committee on Agriculture.

Committee delegates from 100 countries will meet this week in Rome to discuss issues such as organic farming, urban agriculture and the monitoring of land and fresh water resources.

World population is forecast to reach 7.5 billion people by 2020, with 6.3 billion living in developing countries. Even though the population growth rate is decreasing, the increase in the absolute number of people to feed combined with current technology may cause us to reach the carrying capacity of agricultural lands.

Biotechnology, which includes the application of tissue culture, immunological techniques, molecular genetics and recombinant DNA techniques in all facets of agricultural production and agro-industry, together with other technologies, could provide solutions for some of the old problems hindering sustainable rural development and achievement of food security, the Food and Agriculture Organization said.

According to the organization, biotechnology-derived solutions built into the genotype of plants could reduce the use of agrochemicals and promote sustainable yields. The application of pesticides and fungicides could be reduced through plants with genetic pest resistance. Plants with a high tolerance for conditions of salinity or high iron toxicity could help to improve agricultural production in marginal areas.

Some biotechnological techniques, like in-vitro culture, are very helpful for maintenance of germplasm collections of species with low fertility and of species that are hard to keep as seeds or in field gene banks, according to the report.

"Biotechnology may reduce genetic diversity indirectly by displacing landraces and their inherent diversity as farmers adopt genetically uniform varieties of plants and other organisms. At the same time, it increases the potential to preserve and sustainably use diversity. In the case of endangered animal breeds, cryopreservation and somatic cloning can strengthen traditional conservation strategies," the report said.

The report calls for biotechnology research and policy efforts focused on the needs of the poor who depend on agriculture, especially in marginal areas where it will be difficult to achieve productivity increases.

"Adequate biosafety regulations, risk assessment of biotechnology products, mechanisms and instruments for monitoring use and compliance to ensure that there will be no harmful effects on the environment or for people" are also required, according to the report.

Some of the potential environmental risks concern plant pests. Gene escape from genetically modified organisms may result in increased weediness in wild species, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.

The inclusion of novel genes for herbicide resistance in plants may increase the occurrence of weeds with resistance to certain agrochemicals, the report warned.

"The inclusion of pest resistance in plants should be carefully evaluated for potential development of resistance in pests and possible side-effects on beneficial organisms."

The report encourages the Food and Agriculture Organization help members to optimize their capacity to develop, adapt and utilize biotechnology and its products to suit their needs and environment, and thus enhance global food security and improve living standards for all.

Copyright 1999, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved

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