Genetically modified crops can help poor farmers and have posed no adverse health or environmental effects so far but should be regulated and further studied, the U.N. food agency said Monday in a report on how biotechnology can help feed the world’s hungry.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization called for greater government regulation and monitoring of genetically modified, or transgenic, products to ensure they are safely used and said more research is needed on their long-term health and environmental impacts.
In a positive report likely to fuel the biotech debate, the agency said the biggest problem with GM technology is that it has not spread fast enough to small farmers and has focused on crops mostly of use to big commercial interests.
U.N. officials stressed that GM products were only one tool to help poor farmers, who still need access to fair markets, credit and decent land. But they said transgenic technology has great potential for increasing crop yields, reducing costs to customers and improving the nutritional value of foods.
'Gains are not guaranteed'
“FAO believes that biotechnology, including genetic engineering, can benefit the poor, but that the gains are not guaranteed,” said Hartwig de Haen, assistant director-general of the FAO’s economic and social department.
“The international community must act decisively if it wants to ensure that this technology can also be accessible and useful to the poor.”
Transgenic crops have spread widely in recent years, accounting for 5 percent of the world’s crop area and increasing by about 15 percent a year, the agency said. The use of GM crops is widespread in the United States, but GM foods face public opposition in parts of Europe and Africa.
The report comes the same week the European Union is to approve imports of genetically modified corn for human consumption, ending a six-year moratorium. Last month, European countries started enforcing the world’s strictest rules on labeling genetically modified foods.
De Haen said one reason the United Nations compiled the report was to give the public and governments sound science about biotech, particularly after Zambia refused U.N. food aid in 2002 because the food was genetically modified.
Proponents of GM foods say plants that can resist insects and be fortified with extra vitamins are a boon to farmers and consumers.
Opponents say the crops pose unknown health and environmental risks, and the ones who benefit most are the multinational corporations that develop and sell GM seeds.
Yet the report found that while private companies have been largely responsible for selling the seeds, “it is the producers and consumers who are reaping the largest share of the economic benefits of transgenic crops.”
The report also said no known adverse health or environmental effects have been recorded.
Scientists differ on the significance of the environmental impact, saying genes from GM crops can be transferred to wild species. However, the report said scientists differ on whether that is a bad thing.
The report also pointed out some environmental and health benefits from using transgenic crops. Foods can be made with reduced allergens or improved nutritional qualities, and the reduction in pesticides has had “demonstrable health benefits” for farm workers in China, it said.
Widening the harvest
However, FAO said the private sector was focusing too much on technology for crops that benefit big commercial interests, such as maize, soybean, canola and cotton, which in 2003 accounted for 99 percent of GM crops. Some examples are GM cotton grown in Africa, and GM corn and soybeans grown in the United States.
Basic food crops for the poor — including cassava, potatoes, rice and wheat — have received little attention from scientists, it said.
One critic of GM foods, Greenpeace, has maintained such crops pose an unacceptable risk to human health and the environment.
“We know there is ample food on the planet,” said Greenpeace science adviser Doreen Stabinsky. “Hunger is not a problem that needs technical solutions. It needs political will and appropriate policies.”
Louise Fresco, assistant director-general for FAO’s agriculture department, said the developing world will need to increase food production to feed its growing population.
Those countries, she said, must figure out how to regulate and monitor biotechnology, noting that the types of GM crops in use and the traits generally applied to them — resistance to pests and diseases — are merely first-generation uses of the technology.
“The next generation is going to be much more important. It’s going to affect many more crops, many more traits, traits that are of dire interest to the poor,” she said.
“This is where the countries have to be prepared to say ’Yes, it’s worth us taking an unquantified, unknown small risk but the benefits are going to be great because it addresses some real needs.”’
The report is online at www.fao.org.