Basic food crops of the poor such as cassava, potato, rice and wheat receive little attention by scientists, FAO said.
"Neither the private nor the public sector has invested significantly in new genetic technologies for the so-called 'orphan crops' such as cowpea, millet, sorghum and tef that are critical for the food supply and livelihoods of the world's poorest people," said FAO Director-General Dr Jacques Diouf.
"Other barriers that prevent the poor from accessing and fully benefiting from modern biotechnology include inadequate regulatory procedures, complex intellectual property issues, poorly functioning markets and seed delivery systems, and weak domestic plant breeding capacity," he added.
Biotechnology, one of the tools of the gene revolution, is much more than genetically modified organisms (GMOs), sometimes also called transgenic organisms.
While the potential benefits and risks of GMOs need to be carefully assessed case by case, the controversy surrounding transgenics should not distract from the potential offered by other applications of biotechnology such as genomics, marker-assisted breeding and animal vaccines, FAO said.
Food and Income Needed for an Additional Two Billion People
Agriculture will have to sustain an additional 2 billion people over the next 30 years from an increasingly fragile natural resource base. The challenge is to develop technologies that combine several objectives - increase yields and reduce costs, protect the environment, address consumer concerns for food safety and quality, enhance rural livelihoods and food security, FAO said.
Agricultural research can lift people out of poverty, by boosting agricultural incomes and reducing food prices.
More than 70 percent of the world's poor still live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for their survival. Agricultural research - including biotechnology - holds an important key to meeting their needs.
Biotechnology should complement - not replace - conventional agricultural technologies, FAO said. Biotechnology can speed up conventional breeding programmes and may offer solutions where conventional methods fail.
It can provide farmers with disease-free planting materials and develop crops that resist pests and diseases, reducing use of chemicals that harm the environment and human health. It can provide diagnostic tools and vaccines that help control devastating animal diseases. It can improve the nutritional quality of staple foods such as rice and cassava and create new products for health and industrial uses.
But poor farmers can only benefit from biotechnology products if they "have access to them on profitable terms," the report said. "Thus far, these conditions are only being met in a handful of developing countries."
Research and commercialization data on transgenic crops show that many crops and traits of interest to the poor are being neglected.
"There are no major public- or private-sector programmes to tackle the critical problems of the poor or targeting crops and animals that they rely on," the report said.
A large part of the private-sector investment is concentrated on just four crops: cotton, maize, canola and soybean.
Six countries (Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, South Africa and the US), four crops (maize, soybean, canola/rapeseed and cotton) and two traits (insect resistance and herbicide tolerance) accounted for 99 percent of the global area planted in transgenic crops in 2003, the report said.
Where the Research Money Goes
One of the key constraints many developing countries are facing in adopting and adapting biotechnology innovations is their lack of agricultural research capacity particularly in plant and animal breeding, FAO said.
The private-sector research dominates global biotechnology. The world's top ten transnational bioscience corporations spend nearly $3 billion per year on agricultural biotechnology research and development. Private biotech research in most developing countries is negligible.
Brazil, China and India, which have the largest public agricultural research programmes in developing countries, spend less than half a billion dollars each annually.
The largest international public supplier of agricultural technologies, the CGIAR, has a total annual budget of only about $300 million for crop improvement.
Transgenic Crops - An Economic Success
In the few developing countries where transgenic crops have been introduced, small farmers have gained economically and the use of toxic agro-chemicals has been reduced, FAO said.
"Transgenic crops have delivered large economic benefits to farmers in some areas of the world over the past seven years," the report said. In several cases, per hectare gains have been large when compared with almost any other technological innovation introduced over the past few decades.
In China, for example, more than four million small farmers are growing insect-resistant cotton on about 30 percent of the country's total cotton area. Yields for insect-resistant cotton were about 20 percent higher than for conventional varieties and pesticide costs were around 70 percent lower.
Pesticide use was reduced by an estimated 78 000 tonnes in 2001, an amount equal to about one-quarter of the total quantity of chemical pesticides used in China. As a result, cotton farmers experienced fewer pesticide poisonings than those growing conventional varieties.
Even though transgenic crops have been delivered through the private sector in most cases, the benefits have been widely distributed among industry, farmers and consumers.
"This suggests that the monopoly position engendered by intellectual property protection does not automatically lead to excessive industry profits," the report said.
The scientific evidence concerning the environmental and health impacts of genetic engineering is still emerging, the report said.
"Scientists generally agree that the transgenic crops currently being grown and the foods derived from them are safe to eat, although little is known about their long-term effects," said FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf.
"There is less scientific agreement on the environmental impacts of transgenic crops. The legitimate concerns for the safety of each transgenic product must be addressed prior to its release. Careful monitoring of the post-release effects of these products is essential,"
FAO recommends a case-by-case evaluation that considers the potential benefits and risks of individual transgenic crops.
The report says that, while some benefits have been observed, adverse environmental effects have not been detected in commercial production. Continued monitoring is needed, FAO stressed.
The report stresses the need for science-based biosafety assessments.
"Where crops have not been cleared through biosafety risk assessments, a greater risk of harmful environmental consequences exists. Unauthorized varieties may not provide farmers with the expected level of pest control, leading to continued need for chemical pesticides and a greater risk of the development of pest resistance."
Furthermore, neither private companies nor public research institutes can be expected to develop transgenic crops for poor producers in countries that lack reliable, transparent regulatory procedures.
The FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission has agreed on principles and guidelines for assessing health risks related to foods derived from modern biotechnology.
Members of the International Plant Protection Convention are developing guidelines for pest-risk analysis for living modified organisms. These agreements can help harmonize regulatory procedures globally.
Contributed by Erwin Northoff. Reprinted with permission from FAO.
To read another Global Envision article about genetically modified food, see Genetically Modified Organisms - the Last Thing the Developing World Needs.