BIODIVERSITY CONVENTION BRIEFINGS No. 1
FAO Expert Consultation Calls for Moratorium on Bioengineered Products in Agriculture
PARTICIPANTS at an expert consultation seminar organised by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) have called for a moratorium on the introduction of genetically-engineered products in agriculture until adequate capacity is established to assess their effects.
This was one of the recommendations adopted on the concluding day of the FAO-organised expert consultation on Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development in Asia, held in Bangkok on 13-17 September, 1993. The five-day meeting was attended by over 60 senior government agricultural officials, scientists, non-governmental organisation representatives and senior staff of the FAO, UNDP and other international agencies. The participants came from Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Laos, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
In the meeting's statement of conclusions and recommendations, the participants called on the FAO to initiate an expert group to continually monitor and assess the potential impacts of the new biotechnologies in agriculture. The proposed expert group, which should include relevant NGOs, should especially examine "the relation between genetic engineering, biosafety, environmental effects and socio- economic effects, including the displacement of the agricultural products of developing countries," said the statement.
It added that until adequate assessment capacity is established by national governments, there should meanwhile be a moratorium on introducing genetically-engineered products in agriculture.
In earlier discussions, the participants had examined whether biotechnology could be considered the solution to sustainable agriculture, in light of the increasing ecological problems related to the present dominant Green Revolution techniques. They had concluded that genetically modified plant species could pose serious environmental risks as well as threaten the livelihood of farmers in developing countries whose present crops could be substituted by the bio-engineered varieties.
The experts therefore cautioned against accepting biotechnology as a panacea and agreed that governments in the region should urgently develop the capacity to assess and control research, processes and products in the area of genetic engineering in the agriculture sector.
In the concluding statement, the participants also suggested that a mechanism be set up with the assistance of the FAO, to "ensure that there not be the transfer of hazardous genetic engineering experiments, research and products which are deemed hazardous in the Northern countries, to developing countries of the South, in particular such processes or products that are banned or disallowed in Northern countries."
The statement also dealt with the issues of proprietary rights over genetic materials and moves to patent life-forms. It stated that "genetic materials which are provided by Third World farmers should be considered as local common property, with defined rules for access, to prevent their appropriation by private enterprises." Farmers' rights over these materials should be "fully recognised and supported."
It added: "There should not be any patenting on life-forms, such as plants, animals, micro-organisms and genetic materials, as such patenting will be detrimental to farmers' and consumers' rights in developing countries, and moreover will render sustainable agriculture extremely difficult if not impossible to achieve."
The participants also expressed concern over the increasing problems related to the Green Revolution. Their statement said that "declining yields in the developing world shows that the conventional Green Revolution is in crisis." It added there was a need for a "paradigm shift" in national agricultural policy formulation, to deal with the problems created by the Green Revolution and other related technologies. Up to now there had been only marginal changes in policy which were "inadequate to effect shifts to sustainable agriculture and rural development."
The participants recommended that "the FAO should undertake a comprehensive assessment of the impacts of the Green Revolution agricultural model, which would include studies on productivity as well as yields over time, and environmental effects in the context of sustainability."
The meeting had earlier heard presentations by scientists and FAO staff indicating that in recent years the yields of rice crops grown under the Green Revolution method had been falling in a number of Asian countries. There was evidence of increasing soil infertility, water problems, pest infestation and the diminishing usefulness of mineral fertilisers and chemical pesticides. These ecological problems had contributed to the decline in yields.
The concluding statement recommended that international and national research should be oriented to the development of sustainable agriculture, and that location-specific sustainable agriculture practices should be disseminated by the agricultural extension machinery. The FAO's Asian regional office should establish a research capacity "to collect and analyse information about examples of sustainable agriculture practices, with a view to promoting appropriate sustainable agriculture in the region."
On issues relating to economics and trade, the statement said that: "Global economic trends as well as national policies (which are often imposed through global institutions) may have negative impacts on the transition to sustainable agriculture. The forthcoming trade liberalisation in agriculture through the Uruguay Round may have serious effects on the livelihood of farmers in some countries.
"High external debt continues to be a burden in many Asian countries, and structural adjustment policies have some clearly negative social effects. The global trend towards higher regimes of intellectual property rights may have serious consequences for farmers' rights in relation to patenting which restrict their access to seeds."
The participants recommended that governments in the region conduct national assessments of the impacts and potential impacts of trade liberalisation and the developments in intellectual property rights regimes on the agricultural sector, including on farmers' livelihoods, incomes, access to seeds and on the transition to sustainable agriculture.
They also called on the FAO to "strengthen its capacity in assessment of the impacts of global economic processes such as the Uruguay Round and structural adjustment programmes on agriculture and rural welfare in different categories of developing countries, and in intervening in such processes for the benefit of sustainable agriculture and farmers' rights in developing countries."
The expert consultation was the first such meeting on sustainable agriculture in general that the FAO has organised in the Asian region, although it has previously held seminars on specific aspects of sustainable agriculture, such as organic fertilisers and pest management.
The consultation meeting, which included several NGO participants, reflects the growing concern of the FAO's Asian regional office on the need to find alternatives to the Green Revolution technique which the FAO itself had helped to spread in the region in the past thirty years.
In an interview during the consultation, FAO's assistant director-general and chief of the Asian regional office, Mr. Obaidullah Khan, had said there was a need to move away from the Green Revolution model towards sustainable agriculture practices.
"The rice farming system under the Green Revolution is clearly in decline and we need a new technological paradigm," he remarked.