The FAO international symposium on “The role of agricultural biotechnologies in sustainable food systems and nutrition” took place 15-17 February 2016 at FAO Headquarters in Rome. Eduardo Trigo, from the Argentinian Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, was both a speaker and a co-chair of one of the parallel sessions there. Here, he presents his reflections and perspectives about the symposium.
The biotechnology symposium has mobilized a convergence of views on a number of aspects for the future exploitation of biotechnology as a key tool for addressing many of the challenges associated with food security and poverty reduction in the decades to come.
A first aspect to mention, and by no means minor, is that significant progress was made towards a broad agreement that biotech is more than genetically modified organisms (GMOs). There tends to be a limited view that prevails which categorizes biotechnological solutions as a euphemism for GMOs. Focusing the discussion on the latter may have prevented the R&D community, and agriculture in general, from taking full advantage of the potential benefits of the new tools emerging from modern biology. When discussing biotechnology there is the need to consider a wide number of technologies, such as monoclonal antibodies, cell/tissue culture, cloning, bioprocessing, biosensors, protein engineering, the different “omics” (genomics, metabolomics, …..), molecular breeding (marker-assisted selection & genome-wide selection), and genetic engineering (transgenesis, intragenesis, cisgenesis), among others.
Together with this broader view, participants also agreed that this set of technologies is too important to let it pass us by, because of the wide range of benefits it offers. Although different views were expressed on different issues – i.e. the role of intellectual property rights – many of the discussed technologies are recognized as having strategic potential for meeting food security, nutrition and poverty reduction objectives.
All existing future scenarios point in the direction of more pressure on innovation systems. Increased population and incomes will require more production – even in the event of substantive reductions in food losses. This will have to come from increased productivity, as farm land is becoming increasingly scarce and further horizontal expansion can only be at the expense of existing forests, which are already under extreme threat. At the same time, climate change will demand technologies to more rapidly adapt to changing conditions. In the future there will be the need for more productive varieties, better monitoring of more rapidly changing conditions and a faster rate of technological replacement; all of which could not be achieved without a full and responsible exploitation of the potential of biotechnology.
Through the above, and other approaches, biotechnology was also acknowledged as an essential tool to better understand the logic and functioning of living systems, and, as such, not seen as contradictory, but, actually, quite complementary to other approaches, such as that of agroecology. Genomic information can contribute not only to better understanding of how the ecosystem works, but also to identifying the better fitting species and varieties in different landscapes or combinations of activities and inputs in time and space, allowing much more precise and effective efforts at increasing and improving the provision of goods and services from agriculture, fisheries and forestry in a sustainable manner.
Current scale and capacities
The symposium extensively discussed biotech-based alternatives in the context of smallholder agriculture. The cases presented stressed that knowledge and technologies are being developed for many different types of problems and covering very diverse production situations. Most contexts do not even involve GM tools, yet are relevant for a wide variety of food security, nutrition and smallholder issues. Nevertheless, there was also ample evidence presented of many cases where smallholders greatly benefited from GMO technologies. Access issues, particularly those emerging from the application of intellectual property rights to the emerging technologies, remain an issue of concern and discussion.
Also connected to access there is an emerging issue related to R&D capacities and policies. A rapid overview of capacities – although the issue as such was not discussed in the symposium; maybe one of its weaknesses – renders a very uneven situation. Just a few of the larger developing countries have the capacities required to be participants in the future, and most appear to be essentially dependent on international cooperation. This lack of capacities is also reflected in other areas such as biosafety and intellectual property protection, where many countries have formal regulations in place, but lack the needed implementation and enforcement infrastructures.
A related issue that came into the discussion several times was that of the weaknesses in the technology delivery systems – namely seed markets, but not only – and the negative impact that this would have on future capacities to access the benefits of the new technologies. Many of the biotech-based innovations that were discussed, and also the ones that could be anticipated to be of importance in the near future, require specific technology deliverance mechanisms in the forms of seeds and other input and service providers. In many cases, these mechanisms are absent or very weak. Any policy to improve access to the new technologies should consider this as a key area of work.
Considering the wider system
In discussing the issues above, it also emerged that biotechnology cannot and should not be discussed in isolation to what happens in the overall agricultural research and technology development system. The “new biology” is but an addition to the tool-kit of these systems, it cannot be addressed as a separate and alternative component. It is, and will probably never cease to be, a tool for improving the effectiveness and efficiency of R&D to address the issues and problems that need to be confronted. This is not a minor issue, as agricultural R&D systems in the developing world continue to lag both in investments and capacities. We still face an environment where it is very difficult to anticipate whether technological solutions could effectively develop to play the role they should in addressing the challenges of ending hunger, achieving food security and improved nutrition and promoting sustainable agriculture.
FAO’s role in the enabling environment
In this sense, in spite of existing capacity issues – that certainly exist and need to be addressed – the issue ahead is political: to bring technology in general and biotechnology in particular, back to the front line of the development agenda. Only if countries commit to the long-term effort that is required in terms of investments, does it make sense to start looking at the human resources, infrastructure and regulatory issues that need to be addressed.
In the context of an improved political environment for agricultural research and technology development, a number of other capacity development dimensions become relevant: promoting a better integration of agricultural R&D policies and programs into national science, technology and innovations policies and systems (so as to reflect more effectively the “horizontal” multidisciplinary nature of biotech-based technology systems); helping countries improve their biosafety (risk assessment capacities) and intellectual property regulations and implementation/enforcement infrastructures; and supporting the improvement of seed and other inputs and technological services markets.
FAO should take the cue to play a critical role in helping build up the political consensus necessary, as well as serve as a platform for improving regulations and other aspects affecting the access to technologies by smaller countries.
This is a guest blog by Eduardo Trigo, Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation of Agentina.
Photo credit: FAO