Developing Country Perspectives"
Center for International Development at Harvard University
One of the most important environmental challenges facing the developing world is how to meet current food needs without undermining the ability of future generations to meet theirs. Viewpoints vary on the role of technology in the transition towards sustainable agriculture. One approach starts with the premise that technological development is the source of many of the world's environmental problems. This view has led to proposals that seek to curb the use of modern technologies, especially those derived from advances in molecular biology.
An alternative view accepts the negative role that certain technologies have played but argues that transition towards sustainable development will require greater use of innovative technologies, not less. Advances in molecular biology have made it possible to combine traditional and modern techniques in sustainable agriculture. The field of genomics, for example, has opened new avenues for increasing agricultural productivity while enhancing environmental conservation.
Sustainable agriculture will require that developing countries makes prudent choices and that they are not restricted to using only the technologies available today. Making such choices requires access to a wider range of technologies, especially those resulting from advances in molecular biology. Undue restriction of the use of these technologies is inconsistent with sustainable agriculture and would undermine long-term ecological and human welfare.
The debate over genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) has so far focused on risks to human health and the environment. While these concerns are important, the debate does not adequately reflect the interests of the developing countries. This is mainly because the issues are framed in the context of industrialized country concerns.
International negotiations over GMOs continue to focus on risks and pay little attention to potential benefits. The Convention on Biological Diversity, for example, has extensive provisions dealing with the benefits of biotechnology. However, efforts under the convention to adopt a risk-based protocol have overshadowed discussions on the benefits of biotechnology.
One of the main policy goals of developing countries is to enhance food security. While biotechnology cannot solve all the problems associated with agricultural production, it has the potential to address specific problems. These include (1) increasing crop productivity; (2) diversifying crops; (3) enhancing nutritional value of food; (4) reducing environmental impacts of agricultural production; and (5) promoting market competitiveness.
Crop yields have grown slowest in many parts of the developing world, especially in Africa. It is estimated that cereal yields in Africa have increased by nearly half of the rate in Latin America since 1970. Poor soils, low rainfall, high temperatures and the prevalence of pests continue to undermine food security in many parts of Africa. In some countries cereal yields have fallen because of soil nutrient decline. These challenges are compounded by the high costs of imported agricultural inputs. Improving the situation will require greater investment research and reliance on emerging technologies.
One of the ways to ensure food security is to broaden the crop base. Currently, most of the agricultural research in the developing countries focuses on a narrow range of crops and many of the crops used by local communities have not benefited from modern research. One of the reasons for this focus is the heavy investment and long timeframes needed to develop new varieties of crops. Modern biotechnology offers the best available options for diversifying agricultural production by speeding up the development of new varieties, including those of underutilized crops.
Enhancing the nutritional value of crops is another important aspect of food security. Modifying rice to enhance its vitamin A content is a good example of this. United Nations projections show that while chronic malnutrition will decline in Asia and Latin America in the coming decades, the numbers for Africa will increase significantly. Biotechnology will make it easier to maintain traditional diets while improving their nutritional value.
Finally, modern biotechnology could help in enhancing the competitiveness of agricultural products from the developing countries and thereby promoting their integration into the global economy. Efforts to diversify agricultural production in the developing world will not only promote food security in those regions, but it will also add new crops to world food market.
The main limiting factor to the ability of the developing countries to benefit from advances in modern biotechnology is the lack of scientific and technological capacity and the low level of enterprise development in most of these countries. The responsibility to formulate policies and strategies for the wider use of biotechnology lies with these countries. However, international cooperation and partnerships are essential in promoting sustainable agriculture in the developing world.
Such arrangements should focus on: (1) building capacity in biotechnology through research and training programs; (2) forging corporate alliances; (3) promoting private-public partnership; (3) encouraging enterprise development; and (4) strengthening regulatory capacities in the developing world. These measures are needed to enable developing countries to become genuine players in the safe use of biotechnology.
In conclusion, the broadening of technological choices for the developing countries should go hand in hand with a commitment to safety and social responsibility. Such a commitment should be part of biotechnology policies and strategies of the developing countries and not simply an extension of debates designed for different purposes.
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Last Updated on 5/28/99
By Karen Lutz