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U.N. Unit Sees Great Promise in Biotech Research on Crops

By Andrew Pollack

May 18, 2004

Original Article:

Genetically engineered crops hold great promise for helping the world's
poor, the United Nations food agency said yesterday. But it said the
promise was not being fulfilled because too little biotech research was
aimed at the basic food crops grown in developing countries.

The United Nations agency, the Food and Agriculture Organization, is the
latest group to weigh in on whether agricultural biotechnology could help
feed the more than 800 million people in the world who are chronically
hungry and cope with the increase of two billion in the world's population
in the next 30 years.

The issue has been caught up in the larger polarized debate over
biotechnology foods. Proponents argue that the technology is essential to
helping feed the world - with the implication that biotechnology's
opponents are against the poor. Opponents say that there are better ways to
end hunger, or that biotechnology might make matters worse by making
farmers dependent on high-price seeds from big companies.

The Food and Agriculture Organization, in a 106-page report, came down on
the side of biotechnology. It said genetic engineering, as part of a
broader program, could help farmers increase their output and, by lowering
food prices, help consumers in developing nations.

The report said that achieving such gains required that the proper crops be
developed and the seeds made available on terms allowing the farmers to
profit. "Thus far, these conditions are only being met in a handful of
developing countries," the report said.

Prabhu Pingali, director of agricultural and development economics at the
agency, which is based in Rome, said that most work on biotech crops was
done by big companies and aimed at the needs of the developed countries.

"The real areas where biotechnology could help poor farmers have generated
very little interest through private-sector investments," he said in a
telephone interview. Public-sector agricultural research, which gave the
world the Green Revolution three decades ago, now pales in size compared
with private biotechnology research, he said.

The biotech crops available are primarily canola, corn, cotton and soybeans
that have been made either insect-resistant or herbicide-resistant.

While some of the crops and traits are useful in developing countries, Dr.
Pingali said, there is a need for biotech potatoes, cassava, rice, wheat,
millet and sorghum. And there is a need for crops that can tolerate
droughts or the poor soils often found in developing countries.

Even now, the report said that some biotech crops, particularly
insect-resistant cotton, "are yielding significant economic gains to small
farmers." And, despite concerns that farmers would become beholden to big
biotech companies, "farmers and consumers so far are reaping a larger share
of the economic benefits of transgenic crops than the companies that
develop and market them."

Reaction to the report tended to follow ideological lines. The
Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade group, hailed it. But Anuradha
Mittal, a critic of such crops at the Oakland Institute in Oakland, Calif.,
said the report followed the "corporate agenda."