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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."