The topics addressed in this book are of vital importance to the survival of humankind. Agricultural biodiversity, encompassing genetic diversity as well as human knowledge, is the base upon which agricultural production has been built, and protecting this resource is critical to ensuring the capacity of current and future generations to adapt to unforeseen challenges. Agricultural biodiversity underpins the productivity of all agricultural systems and is particularly important for poor and food-insecure farmers, who maintain highly diverse production systems in response to the marginal and risky production conditions they operate under. Understanding the importance of agricultural biodiversity in the livelihoods of the food insecure and enhancing its performance through the use of a variety of tools, including biotechnology, is a critically important issue in the world today, where over 800 million people have insufficient food to meet minimum needs. A strong theme that runs throughout the book is the importance of good public policy interventions to promote the provision of public goods associated with agricultural biodiversity conservation and directing biotechnology development to meet the needs of the poor. The book's primary innovation is that it describes the relationship between biotechnology and plant genetic diversity and puts these in the context of agricultural development. Both the conservation of plant genetic diversity and agricultural biotechnology have received extensive examination, but the linkages between the two have not, despite the apparently obvious relationship between the two. Biotechnologies, which cover a wide range of techniques and products, represent a valuable new tool for utilizing genetic resources. If applied with due precaution and risk analysis, they can increase the value of maintaining genetic diversity by reducing uncertainty about the characteristics and values of genetic resources. Biotechnology allows greater precision in the human manipulation of plant genetic resources, and even transfers of individual traits between species. However there are several potential risks associated with this technology and its application in agricultural development, which form an important part of the analysis presented in this volume.

One controversy addressed in the book is the potential of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to benefit poor agricultural producers in developing countries. Various aspects of the debate are covered in this book, many of which were also discussed in the 2004 State of Food and Agriculture Report, which focused on the potential of biotechnology to meet the needs of the poor. Concerns about the risks associated with the technology are both technical and socioeconomic. There is uncertainty about the long-term impact of releasing transgenic species into existing gene pools and concern that irreversible and ultimately negative impacts may ensue. This uncertainty gives rise to the need for biosafety regulations which can be expensive and difficult to implement, particularly in developing countries with limited regulatory capacity. Increased privatization and concentration of agricultural research associated with the development of biotechnologies has also been raised as a potential problem, with fears of a loss of control of genetic resources on the part of farmers and developing countries. Against these concerns is weighed the evidence that transgenics can provide an effective means of addressing some of the most difficult and persistent problems in increasing agricultural productivity in developing countries, as well as a means of significantly reducing other environmental problems, especially those associated with pesticide use. Another controversial issue raised in this book is how best to approach the in situ conservation of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. FAO estimates that about three-quarters of the genetic diversity found in agricultural crops have been lost over the last century. Of 6,300 animal breeds, 1,350 are endangered or already extinct (Scherf, 2000).

This rapidly diminishing gene pool is cause for great concern and a pressing need to design effective conservation strategies. Defining what should be conserved, its value to various groups in society as well as future generations, how much conservation is needed, where it should take place, and the most effective means of attaining it, are all controversial topics which are being debated today, and which several chapters in this book shed light on. A key issue raised is the relationship between in situ conservation and agricultural development. At present, the primary providers of in situ conservation are developing country farmers located in areas of high native diversity and who, in many cases, do not have the opportunity to adopt more homogenous utilization patterns of crop genetic resources because no suitable modern varieties have been developed to meet their conditions. These producers are likely to be the least cost sources of in situ conservation at present. However, is it fair and appropriate to rely upon their lack of access to improved genetic materials to provide cheap conservation in the future— at the expense of their own potential for productivity increases and improvements in their welfare? Developing strategies, which rely on diversity to achieve productivity and livelihood improvements, is one way to avoid this dilemma. Possible candidates for such strategies have been identified in the book; examples include broadening the genetic base of modern breeding programs, participatory plant breeding, and using biotechnology to insert important traits into traditional varieties.

A third controversial issue the book covers is the justification for, and means of, sharing benefits from the utilization of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. Questions such as: the amount of compensation due to farm communities that have preserved traditional varieties, which embody the crop genetic resources upon which new varieties are built and sold for profit, are addressed in several chapters. The kinds of mechanisms can be established to facilitate benefit-sharing without reducing access to the resources or incentives to develop new means of utilizing them is another important issue examined. The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources, which came into force in June, 2004, is an important step forward in resolving these questions. The Treaty brings governments, farmers, and plant breeders together and offers a multilateral framework for accessing genetic resources and sharing the benefits derived from them. Farmers' rights are an important concept under the Treaty, recognizing that farmers around the world, particularly those in low-income countries, have developed and conserved plant genetic resources over the millennia. There are moral, political, and economic justifications for rewarding farm communities that provide in situ conservation. These rights do not conflict with other forms of intellectual property rights such as patents; rather, they are complementary. There are still many issues to resolve in the design of mechanisms to implement the Treaty, many of which have been raised and addressed in this volume.

One single book cannot give a satisfactory reply to all these questions, but the authors in this book have raised a wide range of provocative thoughts and proposed potential solutions and ways to move forward on several aspects of these important questions. Stimulating the ongoing debate on these topics is a critical part of identifying solutions, and this is our key purpose in promoting efforts such as this book.

HARTWIG DE HAEN Assistant Director General Economic and Social Department Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN

Scherf, B., 2000, World Watch List for Domestic Animal Diversity, Part 1.9 - databases. FAO/UNDP, 3rd ed„ Rome, Italy.


This book is an outcome of a FAO research project on agricultural biotechnology and biodiversity that was initiated by Joseph Cooper and managed under his leadership while at FAO, and then by Leslie Lipper after his departure. This book would not have been possible without the continuing support of Kostas Stamoulis, the Chief of ESAE Service at FAO, for whose patience the editors of this book are very grateful. The editors gratefully acknowledge the support and input of Hartwig de Haen, Prahbu Pingali, Willie Meyers of the FAO, Robbin Shoemaker, Kitty Smith, and Keith Wiebe of ERS. We would like to acknowledge the encouragement and support we received from Vittorio Santaniello, of the University of Rome "Tor Vergata," and the input and inspiration we got from the members of the International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR) during their meetings in Rome and Ravello.

We would like to acknowledge the financial support of the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics and the Giannini Foundation at the University of California at Berkeley, and thank wholeheartedly Laurie Lyser for her assistance in formatting the chapters and Amor Nolan for her tireless editorial effort.


The views presented herein as those of the authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Economic Research Service, the United States Department of Agriculture, or the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment