In a major report released Monday, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said the main problem with agricultural biotechnology to date is that it hasn't spread fast enough to the world's poor farmers and has focused on crops that are mostly of use to big commercial interests.
The report "Agricultural Biotechnology: Meeting the Needs of the Poor?" is likely to fuel the debate about genetically modified, or transgenic crops, at a time when the technology continues to face public opposition in some European and African countries.
The European Union last week announced that ita variety of genetically modified corn, ending a six-year moratorium on biotech crops that the U.S. had challenged. The first product on the market will be canned sweet corn.
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 say the ones who benefit most are the multinational corporations who develop and sell GM seeds.
Dr. Hartwig de Haen, assistant director-general of FAO's economic and social department, said Monday that biotechnology isn't a panacea to fight world hunger, but that it can help in three major ways: by raising farmers' production and incomes, by increasing food supplies and thus reducing prices, and by contributing to the nutritional quality of crops.
But he said greater regulation was needed and that governments, not just private corporations, must be more involved in the research and development of new seeds to ensure the poor benefit.
"FAO believes that biotechnology, including genetic engineering, can benefit the poor, but that the gains are not guaranteed," he told a news conference.
The United Nation's policy to date had been that it recognized the potential of transgenic crops to help fight world hunger but that case-by-case studies were needed to assess the risks. While that position hasn't changed, the report gives an altogether positive vote to GM technology.
It said transgenic crops currently on the market are safe to eat. It said scientists differ on the environmental impact, noting that genes from GM crops can be transferred to wild species.
However, it said scientists differ on whether that in itself is a bad thing and said what's needed most is more research to asses the environmental consequences of this so-called "gene flow."
The report also pointed out some environmental and health benefits from using transgenic crops. It said reduction in pesticides and toxic herbicides that come with transgenic crops has had "demonstrable health benefits" for farm workers in China.
In addition, it said some GM crops, especially insect-resistant cotton, "are yielding significant economic gains to small farmers."
It noted that while private companies have been largely responsible for selling transgenic seeds, "it is the producers and consumers who are reaping the largest share of the economic benefits of transgenic crops."
"This suggests that the monopoly position engendered by intellectual property protection does not automatically lead to excessive industry profits," it said.
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. Basic food crops for the poor, such as cassava, potato, rice and wheat have received little attention from scientists, it said.
In fact, FAO said that 99 percent of the world's land planted with transgenic crops in 2003 is in just six countries: Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, South Africa and the United States.
In addition, it said, there are only four main transgenic crops —maize, soybean, canola and cotton — and they are engineered for only two traits, insect resistance and herbicide tolerance.
The report is likely to be met with criticism from the anti-biotech camp, including Greenpeace, which has maintained that transgenic crops pose an unacceptable risk to human health and the environment.
"We know there is ample food on the planet. Most of the problems are not technical, they're about access to markets, access to credit, land," she said in a telephone interview. "Hunger is not a problem that needs technical solutions. It needs political will and appropriate policies."
While Stabinsky said she hadn't read the report, she said it appeared to be a political statement by FAO and another attempt by the biotech industry "to convince Europe that they ought to be eating the GM food that's being developed by American companies."