RECENT BILATERAL AND MULTILATERAL INITIATIVES IN 24-35
THE FIELD OF BIOTECHNOLOGY IN THE ASIA-PACIFIC REGION
POTENTIAL ISSUES AND CONCERNS 36-57
THE ROLE OF FAO IN THE REGION 58-76
Agriculture must feed an increasing human population forecast to reach 8 000 million by 2020. Although the population growth rate is steadily decreasing, the increase in absolute numbers may be such that the carrying capacity of agricultural lands could soon be reached, using current technology.
The Asia-Pacific region accounts for over 56 percent of the global population and 73 percent of the world’s farming households. It has only 31 percent of the world’s arable land. Per capita arable land availability in the region is 0.28 ha as compared with 1.44 ha in the rest of the world. The region is, however, favourably endowed with the capacity for irrigation. Approximately 61 percent of the area irrigated globally is in this region, where almost one-third of the total arable land is irrigated.
In 1998 agricultural production in the region accounted for 41 percent of global cereal production, 41 percent of global root and tuber production, 36 percent of global fruit production and 60 percent of vegetable production. Between 1988 and 1998, production of these commodities increased at a much faster rate than in other regions; cereal production increased at a rate of 2.1 percent when compared with a 0.8 percent increase in the rest of the world. Meat production in the region accounted for 38.4 percent of global production, while milk production accounted for 26.4 percent of global production. Production of livestock products also increased at higher rates, with a 6.2 percent growth rate for meat and 4.2 percent growth rate for milk, against 0.6 and 0.9 percent growth rates for meat and milk respectively in the rest of the world. In 1997 the region accounted for 45 percent of the world’s fisheries production; not only did it produce most of the world’s aquaculture production (90 percent), it also recorded a high growth rate of 11 percent, against 4.1 percent in the rest of the world, during the decade ending 1997.
The development and adoption of improved technologies, coupled with appropriate government policies and programmes, stimulated the higher production growth rates. Average cereal yield in the region was 3 197 kg/ha against 2 795 kg/ha in the rest of the world. In fact, growth in cereal production in the region during the past decade accrued essentially through an increase in yield, while the area remained stagnant or even declined. This trend needs to be maintained in the future since there is little scope for expansion of arable land.
Despite the region’s impressive growth in food and agricultural production over the past 25 years, 525 million people, i.e. about one-fifth of the region’s population are chronically malnourished. The population of developing Asia is expected to grow to 3 725 million by the year 2010, and to constitute approximately two-thirds of the population of the developing world. Although the growth rate will decline, the annual increment will still exceed 50 million people. By the year 2010, the number of malnourished in East Asia is projected to decline to 70 million and in South Asia to 200 million from 250 million and 270 million in 1988/90, respectively. Therefore, while the number of malnourished in developing Asia will decline considerably, approximately 43 percent of the world’s malnourished people will still reside in the region.
While the need for further intensification of agricultural production in the region is clear, intensification strategies must change in order to avoid adverse effects observed in the past. Widespread use of high-yielding modern varieties, expanded irrigation and increased use of mineral fertilisers have triggered yield increases over the past three decades. Enhanced, but inefficient use of irrigation and mineral fertilisers has however had negative side effects such as soil salinity and nutrient leaching. With intensification, incidences of pests and diseases also increased. Furthermore, about 70 percent of the total cultivated land are rainfed and subject to monsoonal vagaries and other abiotic stresses, and were generally bypassed by the “green revolution”, thus exacerbating inequity.
The indiscriminate razing of forests, in order to meet both the unprecedented demand for food and development needs, has resulted in a host of environmental and soil degradation problems. In Southeast Asia alone, it is estimated that some 5 000 ha of tropical forests are cut daily. The region encompasses megacentres of biodiversity, especially in natural forest ecosystems, which are arguably the single most important repository of terrestrial biodiversity. Widespread adoption of a few often-interrelated modern varieties and deforestation have resulted in rapid erosion of biodiversity within the region. Soil degradation, increasing genetic vulnerability and intensifying insect pest, disease and weed incidences have resulted in increasing examples of levelling-off or even decline of yields, productivity and profitability of the major agricultural systems.
CURRENT STATUS AND PROSPECTS OF AGRICULTURAL
BIOTECHNOLOGY IN THE ASIA PACIFIC REGION
Keeping the above developments and challenges in mind, it is clear that while the process of intensifying food and agricultural production must continue in order to feed the people of the region, current production technologies must be improved substantially. Encroachment on marginal lands and fragile ecosystems, deforestation, erosion of biodiversity and environmental deterioration must not only be avoided, but also reversed, in order to attain enhanced and sustained agricultural production. The “green revolution” was responsible for accelerating food and agricultural, in particular, cereal production. However, the impact of the “green revolution” is now on the wane. Biotechnology, if properly integrated with other technologies for food production, may offer a means of triggering the next “green revolution”. It offers great opportunities for enhancing food and agricultural production, quality and nutritional improvement, prevention of pre- and post-harvest losses and bioremediation and environmental improvement.
Within the context of intensifying the use of biotechnology in Asian agriculture, several features confer comparative advantages to the region. First and foremost is the richness of biological and ecosystem diversity. Moreover, several countries in the region possess trained human resources and satisfactory infrastructure for undertaking advanced biotechnological research and development. In addition, the large population, in particular women who are capable of handling simple biotechniques such as tissue culture, provides a huge and relatively inexpensive labour force. Finally, the most important industrial feedstock of the rural areas of most Asian countries is the agricultural biomass resources of plant, animal, fish or tree origin, which provide vast opportunities for preparing value-added products.
Future increases in agricultural production in the region must accrue essentially through increases in yields. Yields can be increased by (i) minimising pre- and post-harvest losses; (ii) increasing actual yields closer to the current production potential; and (iii) increasing the production potential. Along with yield increases, judicious improvements in quality, productivity, profitability and sustainability must be ensured.
Biotechnology is already being applied to the above options in the region. Examples include the use of in vitro culture techniques in potatoes, cassava and plantation crops, haploids in rice, diagnostic kits for disease identification, new and recombinant vaccines and embryo transfer. Other examples are, increased productivity of fish through sex reversal, chromosome set manipulation for polyploidy induction, and improved breeding induction and hypophysation, hybridisation e.g. of catfish, use of probiotics in feed and fish pond and fish health management. In some countries in the region, commercial production of transgenic cotton and soybean is increasing fast. These techniques should further be refined, standardised and rendered more cost-effective to improve their transfer to and adoption by the majority of small farmers.
Plant tissue culture techniques are particularly suitable for improving agricultural production in the region. Transgenics for improved yields, adaptability and quality are being designed in several crops not only in developed countries, but also in several developing countries of the region, and may be commercialised in the future. The first contribution of biotechnology towards improving yields will be realized by protecting plants from diseases and pests, thereby decreasing losses and minimising the use of toxic agrochemicals. For instance, in 1997 Australian cotton growers planted 60 000 ha of Bt Cotton – INGARD, which led to a nearly 70 percent reduction in the number of insecticide sprays needed to control heliothis, let alone the overall yield increase.
Rice, a major crop of the region, is likely to benefit most from biotechnological development. Haploid production and embryo rescue techniques are already being widely researched and exploited in improving rice production. Genetic engineering has produced a genetically modified line with rice kernels containing beta-carotene, a compound that is transformed in vitamin A within the human body. Scientists have also developed transgenic rice plants with increased iron content in the endosperm. The combination of pro-vitamin A and iron in rice could improve the health of billions of poor people in Asia and the Pacific. Studies into molecular marker-aided selection, DNA fingerprinting for the identification of genetic variation in pests, pathogens and rice populations, protoplast transformation and production of transgenics for introduction of novel genes are in progress. Genetically engineered tungro-resistant and bacterial blight resistant rice lines are being engineered at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). Other expected early successes include transgenic hybrids of brassica and sunflower, and virus-resistant potatoes and soybeans. Molecular markers for tagging genes for rust resistance and leaf blight resistance in wheat have been identified and are being used for pyramiding the resistance genes for developing durable and multiple resistant lines at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI). Distinct possibilities also exist for biotechnologically derived biopesticides, biocontrol agents and biofertilizers. Transgenics for enhanced shelf life and reduced post-harvest losses, particularly in fruits and vegetables, have also been developed.
In animal production, since several countries in the region have standardised multiple ovulation and embryo transfer technology and have the ability to produce adequate breeding populations, a cooperative regional network on nucleus herd breeding systems should be initiated. Considering that buffaloes are of great socio-economic importance primarily in the Asian countries, a cooperative programme in these countries on buffalo biotechnology, including improved efficiency of embryo transfer and initiation of a buffalo genome project would be most appropriate.
In fisheries, the regional capability for production and sharing of information on genetic technologies and fish health management, e.g. vaccines and diagnostic techniques, should be improved to promote cost-effective and widespread use of these products. The use of biotechnology for the production of fish feed using local resources would further boost and sustain the booming aquaculture industry in the region.
In forestry, including agroforestry, the relevance and cost-effectiveness of modern biotechniques, including those used for micropropagation for various purposes, should be critically analysed, in light of the intrinsic genetic quality and adaptation of reproductive materials. In the forestry field, modern biotechnologies are of value only when used as tools within the framework of sound conservation, selection or breeding programmes. When such long-term programmes are established, generally for commercially important species, such as poplars, biotechnologies can provide attractive additional options, especially for pest and disease management.
Microbiological biotechnologies offer opportunities for adding value to agricultural biomass resources and for diagnostic purposes in research and development geared towards improving the quality and safety of foods, in particular fermented foods which are widely consumed by the rural poor. In Thailand for example, Random Amplified Polymorphic DNA (RAPD) techniques are being applied in the precise identification and selection of microbial strains for the development of starter cultures and cell banks for the production of fermented foods.
A major scientific breakthrough has been realized in decoding of the rice genome sequence to the level of a ‘working draft’. First to be accomplished for a crop plant, and that too for the world’s foremost food and livelihood crop, the discovery will provide a new level of understanding of almost all the genes in rice, although certain details are yet to be determined. The decoding provides vast opportunities for genetic improvement of rice. Our understanding of the control of yield, pest resistance, hybrid vigour, quality and adaptability to veritable environments will be greatly enhanced. The gene sequencing in rice, based on the concept of syntyny, is a key to understanding the genomic structures of wheat, corn, barley, pearl millet, sorghum and other grasses.
It is interesting to note that the rice genome sequencing achievement was realized through a partnership between an academic institution and a private company. This company will freely provide its rice sequence files as well as the tools used in the process of its sequencing, to the International Rice Genome Sequence Project (IRGSP) through the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries of the Government of Japan, the lead agency of the IRGSP. Other nine members of the IRGSP are Canada, China, France, India, the Republic of Korea, Taiwan Province of China, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States. The ‘working draft’ will help the IRGSP in completing the entire sequence of the rice genome much sooner and at a lower cost.
The region is a major producer of commodities such as coconuts, oil palm, pigeonpea, jute and buffaloes. Commodities of high food and non-food values in local settings, but of little economic significance to the capital-intensive markets of industrialised countries, often referred to as “orphan” commodities, should receive due attention from local biotechnologists.
The public sector in several Asian countries has considerable budgetary and resource allocations for strengthening biotechnology research and development. Since biotechnology research is very costly, and indigenous capacity in frontline research is essential for sustained progress in the application of new technologies, governments must allocate adequate budgets to biotechnology development and ensure the most judicious utilisation of funds in accordance with well-chosen priorities.
The private sector is also active in biotechnology in some countries. Appropriate policies and measures must be established to promote private-sector involvement in this field and to forge synergistic links between the private and public sectors. The important role of the private sector and the proprietary nature of many of the new products and processes are significant in the context of biotechnology research and development and have implications for the use and development of biotechnology in developing countries. In order to promote equity and synergistic collaboration between public and private sectors, mechanisms should be developed and adopted for recognising and rewarding both formal and informal innovations.
Notwithstanding its high potential, especially pace and precision in achieving the desired result, biotechnology should be seen essentially as a tool to complement the efficacy of conventional approaches to solve existing problems. Countries should have mechanisms for prioritising and blending the most appropriate technologies to attain their goals. In this respect, appropriate capabilities, policies and infrastructures must be created in each country to exploit new and emerging technologies judiciously and rationally so as not to miss new opportunities.
III. RECENT BILATERAL AND MULTILATERAL INITIATIVES IN THE FIELD OF BIOTECHNOLOGY IN THE ASIA PACIFIC REGION
National biotechnology programmes of developing Asian countries are being strengthened through various bilateral and multilateral programmes. The bulk of external assistance is country-specific and mainly directed towards the provision of infrastructure, equipment and postgraduate training. Multilateral assistance from UNDP, FAO, the World Bank, UNIDO and the Asian Development Bank is most important. Additionally, the overseas development cooperation agencies, such as JICA (Japan), ACIAR (Australia) and USAID (United States) are quite active. The following regional/international biotechnology activities are important.
FAO/UNDP Farmer-Centred Agriculture Resources Management (FARM) Programme – Asian Biotechnology and Biodiversity Component
Launched in September 1993, the FARM Programme aimed to empower farmers to judiciously exploit and conserve their natural resources in an integrated manner through the use of appropriate technologies to ensure sustainable development. The biotechnology biodiversity component had three main objectives: (i) establishment of a regional bioinformatics network; (ii) assessment and application of biotechnology for integrated pest management, rainfed farming systems and agroforestry; and (iii) linking the application of biotechnology with the conservation and rational use of biodiversity. Eight countries (China, India, Indonesia, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam) participated in this regional network with the Department of Biotechnology of the Government of India as the coordinating agency. UNIDO was one of the cooperating/implementing agencies and played an oversight role in the bioinformatics component. The FARM programme terminated in October 1998.
FAO/UNDP Biotechnology Development Network for Animal Production and Health Project
This regional project was operational from 1989 to 1993. Eight countries (China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippines, the Republic of Korea and Thailand) participated. The project had the following immediate objectives:
establishment of a network of biotechnology centres in eight countries to share the responsibility of research, training and information exchange essential to biotechnology development in the region;
development of a core of suitably trained personnel at various levels for research and development in new techniques in biotechnology in eight countries;
establishment of pilot projects in order to strengthen the research capabilities in one or more of the specialised subjects of the selected national centres in each of the eight countries; and
preparation of at least one manual on each of the following subjects – use of recombinant DNA techniques in animal improvement, embryo transfer technology, biotechnology and animal disease diagnosis, biotechnology and development of vaccines, biotechnology and modification of rumen microbial ecosystem, biotechnology and production-related hormones as well as biotechnology and improvement of feeds.
The Rockefeller Foundation’s Rice Biotechnology Network
Operational since 1984, the network has been a very active and successful programme in the region. The programme has two objectives: to create biotechnology applicable to rice and with it produce improved rice varieties suited to developing country needs; and to ensure that scientists in developing countries know how to use the techniques and adapt them to their own objectives. A network of about 200 senior scientists and 300 trainee scientists are participating in all the major rice producing countries of Asia and a number of industrialised countries.
UNIDO's International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB)
The centre has two laboratories, one in Trieste, Italy, and the other in New Delhi, India. The New Delhi laboratory has an active agricultural biotechnology programme, especially in plant molecular biology, and is seeking applications of biotechnologies to biotic and abiotic stresses on rice and other important crops of the region. Since 1994, the centre has become autonomous and develops its programme and strategy under the direction of its board of trustees and other bodies.
An ASEAN biotechnology project (supported by the ASEAN member countries and the Australian Government) has been active in recent years. It provides support to several integrated subprojects in ASEAN countries. These subprojects are concerned with the utilisation of carbohydrates produced as agricultural by-products, and the identification of valuable natural products from indigenous plant species, such as starch from sago palm (Metroxylon sagus).
The Cassava Biotechnology Network, sponsored by the Netherlands Directorate General for International Cooperation, is another international initiative of high relevance to Asian countries. It aims to bring the tools of biotechnology to modify cassava so as to better meet the needs of small-scale cassava producers and processors.
Two of the International Agriculture Research Centres (IARCs) of the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR), namely IRRI and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), both with substantive biotechnology programmes, are located in the Asia-Pacific region. IRRI has a strong rice biotechnology programme and interacts with the National Agricultural Research System (NARS) in the region and the Rockefeller Rice Biotechnology Network. Apart from training activities, it has shared its breeding lines derived through the use of advanced technologies, including hybrid rice materials. ICRISAT has been concentrating on developing in vitro culture protocols for its mandate crops and in producing pre-breeding materials through distant hybridisation. The two centres are using embryo rescue, anther culture, molecular marker-aided selection and transformation techniques to varying degrees. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), although based in Mexico, has been training Asia-Pacific scientists in maize and wheat biotechnology and participating in regional biotechnological networks.
The Biotechnology Service of the International Service for National Agricultural Research (ISNAR), with Japan’s sponsorship, has been assisting selected Asian countries in developing appropriate human resources for managing biotechnology research programmes or institutions. Specialised courses have been developed to enhance the managerial capacity and competency of managers with focus on strategy building, priority setting, managing biosafety and regulatory aspects, resource generation and deployment, product delivery, information sharing as well as establishment and management of linkages.
An Asian programme for small-scale agricultural biotechnology, sponsored by Appropriate Technology International (ATI), in cooperation with Nitrogen Fixation for Tropical Agricultural Legumes (NifTAL) project, the Small Enterprise Development and Appropriate Technology Europe (SATE), and the Department of Biology and Society, Free University, Amsterdam, is developing a lab to land programme on biotechnology with a focus on small farmers. The overall objective of the programme is to facilitate the movement of mature agricultural biotechnologies from research institutions into farmers’ fields. The programme is headquartered in Nepal while Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam are the participating countries. The technologies selected for transfer include plant tissue culture for micropropagation, plant and soil inoculants, biological pesticides, and mushroom spawn production.
A meeting on Seed Policies and Programmes for Asia and the Pacific held in Bangkok, Thailand from 2 to 6 May 1999, organized by the Asia and Pacific Seed Association (APSA) and the Thai Department of Agricultural Extension with financial and technical support of FAO’s Seed and Plant Genetic Resources Services established the Seed Network for Asia and the Pacific (SNAP). This technical cooperation network, placed under the aegis of FAO, will play a role in harmonising and strengthening on-going initiatives dealing with Plant Genetic Resources’ conservation and use as well as seed production and distribution in the region. The activities of its technical working groups on the Harmonisation of Seed Rules and Regulations and on Seed Technology are directly linked to the application of biotechnology in plant breeding and planting material production and marketing.
Although all of these regional cooperative networks on biotechnology have been or are operational in the region, they are supported through external funding and are likely to collapse with the termination of external support. Mechanisms to sustain such activities therefore need to be established. One such mechanism may be the continuation of selected activities under the umbrella of the FAO-sponsored regional associations such as the Asia-Pacific Association of Agricultural Research Institutions (APAARI), the Asia-Pacific Association of Forestry Research Institutions (APAFRI) and Animal Production and Health Commission for Asia and the Pacific (APHCA), with member countries specifically contributing to agreed activities coordinated through a regional working group on biotechnology.
IV. POTENTIAL ISSUES AND CONCERNS
A. Priority setting
Countries need to make decisions as to which biotechnologies are relevant and appropriate to their requirements. Biotechnology expertise should complement existing technologies and be output-driven. Since biotechnology research is more expensive than conventional research, it should therefore be targeted to solving specific problems where it offers a comparative advantage. Biotechnology research and policy must also address the needs of the majority poor who depend on agriculture for their livelihood, particularly in marginal areas where productivity increases are difficult to achieve.
In addition to technical considerations, priority setting should take into account national development policies, private sector interests and market possibilities. A diversity of stakeholders should be involved in the formulation of national biotechnology strategies, policies and plans.
Agricultural problems are multidisciplinary in their nature and biotechnology in isolation is unlikely to solve them. Each country should decide how much of the technology should be developed nationally and how much imported and adapted. A good mix of the two can be synergistic and could reduce both the time and cost of developing biotechnologies and their products for the market. However, the import and commercialization would be dependent on regulatory measures in place, particularly biosafety and intellectual property rights.
B. Infrastructure and capacity
Biotechnology research requires skilled staff, backed up by well-equipped laboratories with proper working conditions, organized institutional support and access to other international networks and databases. A minimal technology base is required even to adapt technology tried and tested elsewhere to local ecological and production conditions and to meet national obligations for biosafety, release of GMOs and the sale of products derived from them. Skilled human resource to handle regulatory aspects is generally inadequate in most developing countries. This gap should be filled to enable countries to judiciously utilize biotechnological products. In deciding to adopt biotechnology a country must be prepared therefore to commit itself to guaranteeing substantial ongoing financial support.
Biotechnology research should not end with a laboratory product. Useful results are achieved only when the end user is reached. Biotechnology research requires strong and organized outreach services and suitable institutions and infrastructures for facilitating its application. A variety of institutions may be required, depending on the technology. An efficient and effective feedback mechanism is needed to maintain the relevance of ongoing researches and technology development processes.
Biotechnology research generates large amounts of data that require analysis and interpretation. Analysis software is available but requires adequate computer facilities. Access to informatics technology via Internet and existing databases is also needed to minimise duplication of effort, such as comparing DNA sequencing data.
For any research to be truly productive there must be a critical mass of expertise, knowledge and facilities. Biotechnology is no exception. Individuals working in isolation are unlikely to produce either a process or a product; thus collaboration within and outside the region is required.
C. Intellectual property rights (IPRs)
With the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995 all members are bound by the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). TRIPS Article 27, on patentable subject matters, requires countries to grant patents for “inventions whether products or processes, in all fields of technology, provided that they are new, involve an inventive step and are capable of industrial applications”. Article 27.3 allows for the exclusion of diagnostic, therapeutic and surgical methods for animals and humans; and of plants and animals other than micro-organisms, but it obliges members to provide protection to plant varieties either by patents or by “an effective sui generis* system, or a combination thereof”. The provisions of the subparagraph were to be reviewed in 1999.
Most processes and many products of biotechnology research are therefore patentable: “Patents shall be available and patent rights enjoyable without discrimination as to the place of invention, the field of technology, and whether products are imported or produced locally.” Following entry into force of the agreement in 1995, developed countries had a one-year transition period to allow the necessary legislative changes; developing countries have five years; and the least developed countries have eleven years, with the possibility of an extension.
Property rights regimes and laws were created with the intention of stimulating invention and, in exchange for disclosing inventions, they provide a temporary monopoly over the patented information or product. Most research geared towards the development of methods and procedures in biotechnology has taken place in industrialised countries, very often by private companies, and the results are patented. Developing countries are therefore faced with a situation where they may have to pay for the use of a procedure or product.
IPRs are critical for growth of the biotechnology industry. Lack of patent protection in a country can limit access to the results of biotechnology originating elsewhere, thus blocking inward investment. The issues are complex, with implications for trade, technical investment and access to biotechnology outputs. Countries need to carefully evaluate their positions and, as appropriate, to introduce legislation as foreseen in the WTO Agreement. In particular, they will need to evaluate the most appropriate form of protection to be given to plant varieties in the light of these implications.
D. Biosafety, food safety and the environment
Biosafety means the safe and environmentally sustainable use of all biological products and applications for human health, biodiversity and environmental sustainability in support of improved global food security.
Adequate biosafety regulations, risk assessment of biotechnology products, mechanisms and instruments for monitoring use and compliance are required in order to ensure that biotechnology and its products do not have harmful effects on the environment or people. Potential environmental hazards from new products of biotechnology, mainly GMOs, have raised concerns that, in the absence of adequate legislation, companies may use developing countries as test sites for these products.
Some of the potential environmental risks concern plant pests. Gene escape from GMOs may result in increased weediness in sexually compatible wild species. Inclusion of novel genes for herbicide resistance in plants may increase the occurrence of weeds having resistance to certain agrochemicals. 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. Should a GMO be classified as a plant pest, it would fall within the jurisdiction of the International Plant Protection Convention.
Another concern about GMOs is the possible inadvertent production of toxins and allergens. The Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) was formed in 1962 to implement the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme, the purpose of which is “to protect the health of consumers and ensure fair practices in the food trade”. Codex standards, guidelines and other recommendations are explicitly recognised under the WTO Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS Agreement) and also qualify as “international standards” under the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT Agreement). The CAC is considering the development of a general standard, which would apply basic food safety and food control disciplines to foods derived through biotechnology. The advice of prior FAO/WHO expert consultations in this area will be used as guidance for the conditions required for foods prepared through biotechnology. Foremost among these are considerations of potential allergenicity, possible gene transfer from GMOs, pathogenicity deriving from the organism used, nutritional considerations and labelling.
Since 1995, a Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Biosafety Protocol has been under negotiation, and has focussed on the transboundary movement of living modified organisms. The protocol was recently finalised. Countries must be assisted in the development of appropriate legislation and in setting up proper regulatory bodies for all aspects of biosafety. National legislation must be consistent with international instruments and reflect national needs, aspirations and positions.
Biodiversity is the primary source of useful variation in breeding and biotechnology and is an important component of sustainable agriculture. Without biodiversity, biotechnology becomes academic. New techniques have made it possible to transfer genes between species and even between kingdoms. Biotechnology can contribute to the conservation, characterisation and use of biodiversity, thus increasing its usefulness.
Techniques such as in vitro culture are very useful for the maintenance of ex situ germplasm collections of crop species that are asexually propagated (bananas, onions, garlic), polyploid species of low fertility, and species that are difficult to maintain either as seeds or in field gene banks. Related techniques are also important for the preservation of animal biodiversity through cryopreservation of semen and embryos, coupled with embryo transfer and artificial insemination. However, all of these techniques presuppose the existence of an effective infrastructure.
Biotechnology may indirectly reduce genetic diversity by displacing, as farmers adopt genetically uniform varieties of plants and other organisms. At the same time it increases the potential for the preservation and sustainable use of diversity. In the case of endangered animal breeds, for example, cryopreservation and somatic cloning can strengthen traditional conservation strategies.
F. Export substitution
Products, such as food additives, flavours, food colouring, vegetable oils and fats, which command a high export value for some developing countries, might be substituted for by products with similar properties but obtained either through genetic modification (e.g. copra-quality oil from rapeseed) of other crops or through in vitro techniques. Such products could alter the competitive position of traditional crops, affecting existing trade patterns and consequently adversely affect the food security of many developing countries that rely on foreign exchange revenues generated from the export of those crops.
G. Ethical aspects
Biotechnology development is more than just a scientific issue. Biotechnology is capable of engendering disagreement and controversy as well as highlighting moral and ethical concerns that are difficult to resolve. These concerns include or arise from uneasiness over the fact that biotechnology is seen by some to “interfere with the workings of nature and creation”, and that it might involve risk-taking for commercial profit. However, in priority setting, all concerns must be clearly balanced, respecting ethical aspects but reflecting the actual and potential possibilities of increasing food supplies and alleviating hunger.
Many ethics-related issues are now being debated in the context of IPR legislation, but other issues remain unresolved. Since such issues are largely related to cultural background and to the level of public perception and awareness, decisions on the use of specific technologies should take into account socio-economic realities.
V. THE ROLE OF FAO IN THE REGION
FAO recognises that biotechnology offers powerful tools for research and ultimately for accelerating agricultural development. It considers that modern biotechnology should be used as an adjunct to – and not as a substitute for – conventional technologies in solving problems and that their application should be need-driven rather than technology-driven.
FAO's strategy is to keep biotechnology in a balanced perspective by undertaking activities within the framework of existing national research agendas and priorities through consultations, monitoring and programme initiatives, rather than to support development of new independent programmes and structures around technologies which, in fact, are tools to be used by diverse disciplines and programme areas.
Each country has a responsibility to formulate its own policies, priorities, strategies and programmes for harnessing biotechnology, and to weigh expected benefits, not only against possible negative effects but also against the risk of not taking advantage of the technology. Commensurate with these responsibilities, countries must have the necessary infrastructure, financial support and expertise. A majority of FAO member countries in the region lack these prerequisites and will need assistance in strengthening their overall capabilities in biotechnological research and development in order to meet the potentials and challenges of the new technologies.
In line with its mandate, FAO will provide, on request, policy advice for issues related to food and agriculture, promote information exchange and render technical assistance to its members. Within available means and resources, FAO seeks to fully realize the positive impact of biotechnology and to minimise possible negative effects. It is proposed that FAO concentrate on the areas below, acting as facilitator in concert with appropriate entities.
A. Policy advice
Components of policy advice include priority assignment, resource allocation and regulatory legislation and international standards. Actions that can be undertaken by FAO within these main thrusts are proposed below.
Assist developing member countries of the region in establishing priorities for biotechnology within the broad context of their agricultural research needs and policies. Assist in identifying appropriate technologies for immediate use and in providing guidance on their implementation and associated risks. Policies should also be developed for promoting private sector involvement in biotechnology in developing countries and for forging synergistic interactions between public and private sectors.
Promote research and development, including appropriate biotechnology, for orphan crops and commodities, indigenous and minor livestock breeds, which are important in the ecosystems, agriculture and nutrition of local and tribal communities, but which lack major national or regional initiatives.
Advise and assist countries in preparing suitable biotechnology-related project proposals for donor funding.
Regulatory legislation and international standards
Promote biosafety by assisting countries in devising suitable biosafety regulations.
Promote sharing of biotechnological processes and products, including assisting developing countries to establish effective sui generis plant variety protection systems.
Through appropriate bodies, help countries to achieve regional synergy and harmonisation in the regulations and procedures related to biosafety of GMOs for food and agriculture.
B. Promoting information exchange
Developing countries of the Asia-Pacific region need to know which technologies are available, what they can be used for, how they can be applied, and what are the cost-benefit implications of using them. Maintaining awareness and brokering information are important roles for FAO.
Promote the use of cost-effective modern electronic information tools, building on networks which cater to shared ownership of information, peer-reviewed interactive databases, topical E-mail conferences, etc.
C. Technical assistance
Components of technical assistance include institutional collaboration and capacity building. Actions that can be undertaken by FAO in collaboration with other institutions having special expertise and with the CGIAR are:
Establish a regional biotechnology network (Asia-Pacific Bionet) through which, assist in the establishment of active research and development partnerships and linkages among biotechnology institutions and between countries, emphasising closer cooperation between the private and public sectors.
Promote, through networks and expert advice, the use of biotechnology in plant and animal husbandry, pest and disease detection and eradication, such as in support of the Emergency Prevention Systems (EMPRES) for Transboundary Animal and Plant Pests and Diseases, vaccine development and investigations of genetic diversity.
Assist with other partners in building the capacities of member countries in biotechnology and related issues through technical cooperation and training. In this context, FAO should concentrate on helping strengthen national capabilities in biotechnology research and application as an integral element of overall agricultural research, focusing on increasing and sustaining agricultural production, including marginal conditions. Training in biotechnology should have as its objective the resolution of actual constraints and the exploitation of real opportunities.
Promote seminars, meetings, visits, workshops and courses on the use of emerging technologies for technology transfer and access to biotechnology outputs.
Assist in capacity building in biosafety, including risk assessment, IPR matters, compliance-monitoring and related issues, in accordance with international guidelines.
Novel technologies offer opportunities for the enhancement of agricultural productivity today and in the future. Biotechnology could help solve many of the problems that limit crop, livestock and fisheries production in developing countries of the Asia-Pacific region. However, national programmes need to ensure that all sectors – including resource-poor rural populations, particularly those in marginal areas where productivity increases will be more difficult to achieve – benefit from biotechnology.
Biotechnology expertise should complement that of existing technologies, be output-driven, and used only to solve specific problems where it offers a comparative advantage. Priority setting in the region should also take into account national development policies, private sector interests and market possibilities. Various stakeholders should be involved in the formulation of national biotechnology strategies, policies and plans.
Since most biotechnology research is conducted in industrialised countries, very often by private companies, countries of the region may have to pay for the use of a new procedure or product. Intellectual property rights (IPRs) are critical for growth of the biotechnology industry and lack of patent protection can limit access to the results of biotechnology originating elsewhere. The issues are complex, with implications for trade, technical investment and access to biotechnology outputs. Consequently, countries of the region need to evaluate carefully their positions and, when appropriate, introduce legislation foreseen in the WTO Agreement. In particular, they will need to evaluate the most appropriate form of protection for plant varieties.
Developing countries of the region may need assistance in developing appropriate legislation and setting up regulatory bodies for all aspects of biosafety. Legislation developed in the region must be consistent with international instruments and reflect national positions.
Despite concerns over negative aspects of biotechnology it is vital that developing countries of the region are not left at the edge of development nor in a disadvantaged position. FAO, together with partners, is ready to help member countries to optimise their capacity to develop, adapt and use biotechnology and its products to suit their needs and environment and thus enhance global food security and improved living standards for all.
* In this context, sui generis means any plant variety protection system that is different from patents.
For reasons of economy, this document is produced in a limited number of copies. Delegates and observers are kindly requested to bring it to the meetings and to refrain from asking for additional copies, unless strictly indispensable.