Dr. Diouf was addressing the international conference on 'Genetically Modified Crops, Why? Why not?' organized by the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry (Stockholm, 14-15 May).
"All our efforts must be directed to ensure that the potential benefits of biotechnology, with the necessary safeguard measures for health and the environment, are brought to within the reach of everybody, including the poor and the most disadvantaged," Dr. Diouf said. "Nor can we ignore food safety as an integral and most critical part of this research and development process."
Dr. Diouf said that each GMO application must be fully analysed on a case-by-case basis. "Through complete and transparent assessment of GMO applications, and recognition of their short- and long-term implications, the debate can be less contentious and more constructive. The scientist has a fundamental ethical responsibility in this regard," he added. "Widely communicated, accurate and objective assessments of the benefits and risks associated with the use of genetic technologies must be made available to all stakeholders."
Properly harnessed, biotechnology and genetic engineering can help to alleviate food insecurity and malnutrition, Dr. Diouf said. "More than 800 million people around the world are going to bed without food or awakening from that dreadful restless sleep of the hungry. Furthermore, thousands of children suffering from malnutrition will not live to see the end of this day."
Dr. Diouf said "we can no longer depend on bringing significant new areas of virgin lands into the food production chain and further expansion of food production must come from increased yields on the lands already farmed by the poorest of small farmers and the larger farms alike. This raises the twin challenges of raising productivity on the more fertile lands farmed by the better-off farmers together with an improvement in the output and range of food crops that can be grown on the less well-endowed fragile marginal lands," he said.
"It is now widely recognised that we are at a post-Green Revolution standstill and that yield ceilings of the main food crops have already been reached in conventional breeding programmes," he said. Biotechnology and genetic engineering could help to overcome this problem and increase yield ceilings.
Dr. Diouf called a new variety named 'Golden Rice' "perhaps the most significant genetic engineering breakthrough which has direct relevance to malnutrition and food insecurity." 'Golden Rice' is a transgenic rice variety that produces pro-vitamin A and has increased levels of iron.
"There is strong and justifiable interest to make this transgenic plant available to farmers in developing countries, especially to combat premature death and blindness arising from Vitamin A deficiency. It is estimated that 180 million people are Vitamin A-deficient, and that each year two million of them die, hundreds of thousands of children go blind and a significant number of women suffer from anemia, which is a major cause of death in women of childbearing age," Dr. Diouf said.
Dr. Diouf called for new investments in research systems, for training and technical assistance across the developing world. "Developing countries need assistance, not only in laboratory facilities and know-how to undertake the field testing of GM crops and the other products of biotechnology research; they also need assistance in research policy and management issues pertaining to biotechnology and genetic engineering research."
In this context, governments and the international donor community should strongly support national agricultural research systems, Dr. Diouf said. "The private sector and in particular the large multinational Life Science companies have a very important role to play in this regard, not only in openly sharing the results and products of their research but also in engaging in specific partnerships (research and training) with the national research systems so as to harness advances in biotechnology and genomic research in the fight against poverty and food insecurity".
The FAO Director-General emphasized that the consumer has the right to informed choice. "The right to informed choice derives from the ethical concept of the autonomy of individuals. This principle can be applied, for example, in the debate on labelling food derived from GMOs to ensure that consumers know what they are consuming and are able to make informed decisions," he said.
"There are very many men and women, particularly the poor and powerless, with little education and no social entry point to influence decisions about GMOs. Their concerns and well being must be reflected in the debate about the impact of GMOs on their lives and livelihoods, and about any benefits or risks involved. Also of concern is the fact that future generations have no voice in decisions about GMOs."
"Whereas, GM technologies offer great opportunity to develop a world that is truly food secure, we must not forget that we all - the scientific community, the international community, the multinational life science companies and the donor community together with national governments - bear a fundamental responsibility to ensure that the developing countries can equitably share in these exciting advances that science offers in a way that is safe for their population and environment," Dr. Diouf said. "This calls for a more open, integrated and collaborative involvement of all the stakeholders engaged in developing country agriculture and food production."
More information on FAO's position on biotechnology and agriculture can be found at: http://www.fao.org/ag/guides/subject/b.htm