U.N. report sees benefits of biotechnology

by Emily Wilson
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Advances in biotechnology can potentially make major contributions to reducing poverty and hunger worldwide, the United Nations Development Programme said in its "Human Development Report 2001," released in July. The 274-page report, subtitled "Making New Techologies Work for Human Development," concluded that many of the most important developments in technology, including information, medicine and genetically modified organisms, have not benefitted the world’s poor because of lack of market demand and inadequate public financing.

While agriculture biotechnology has "huge potential," this opportunity only will be tapped if the science is used to address "key challenges of poor countries," the report said.

"Plant breeding promises to generate higher yields and resistance to drought, pests and disease. Traditional cross-breeding takes a long time, typically eight to 12 years. Biotechnology speeds the process of producing crops with altered traits by using a specific genetic trait from any plant and moving it into the genetic code of any other plant."

The report said biotechnology "offers the only or the best ‘tool of choice’ for marginal economical zones — left behind by the green revolution but home to more than half of the world’s poorest people, dependent on agriculture and livestock."

The report said technology "is created in response to market pressures — not the needs of poor people, who have little purchasing power." It added, "The current debate in Europe and the United States over genetically modified crops mostly ignores the concerns and needs of the developing world."

The report acknowledged that the cost of establishing a regulatory framework for new technologies can place a severe financial demand on poor countries. "Stronger policies and mechanisms are needed at the regional and global levels, and should include active participation from developing countries," the report said.

In the foreward to the report, Mark Malloch Brown, UNDP administrator, said, "If the development community turns its back on the explosion of technological innovation in food, medicine and information, it risks marginalizing itself and denying developing countries opportunities that, if harnessed effectively, could transform the lives of poor people and offer breakthrough development opportunities to poor countries."