Most countries now adopt biotechnology programmes

By Henry Neondo

A new assessment on the status of research and application of crop biotechnologies in developing countries by the Food and Agriculture Organisation, FAO, show several developing countries having well-developed biotechnology programmes.

The assessment released early part of May in Rome says that most are approaching the leading edge of biotechnology applications and have significant research capacity, according to a new FAO assessment.

Based on a review of the information in the FAO database on Biotechnology in Developing Countries (FAO-BioDeC), which covers both genetically modified (GM) crops and non-GM biotechnologies, the assessment suggests that developing countries will soon have new GM crops available such as virus-resistant papaya, sweet potato and cassava as well as rice tolerant to abiotic stresses (salinity and drought).

Most of the GMOs commercialized so far in developing countries have been acquired from developed countries and focus on a limited number of traits (mainly herbicide tolerance and insect pest resistance) and crops (commodities such as cotton, soybean and maize).

However, the FAO assessment reveals that several developing countries have been conducting research on a wider range of crops, such as banana, cassava, cowpea, plantain, rice and sorghum, and on traits relevant for food security, such as abiotic stress tolerance and quality.

Argentina, Brazil, China, Cuba, Egypt, India, Mexico and South Africa have taken the lead. A second group of countries has medium-scale agricultural biotechnology programmes, usually in a few key areas. Other developing nations have relatively limited research capacity, according to the FAO report.

"We hope that research activities in developing countries will increasingly focus on issues important for food security," said Andrea Sonnino, from FAO's Research and Technology Development Service.

The assessment says however, that there are some noticeable gaps in research. For example, no research is reported in the field of nematode resistance despite the considerable losses caused by these plant parasites. Another fundamental but neglected research problem concerns post-harvest losses.

The study also notes that biosafety capacity building is needed to enable many countries in Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Near East to fully benefit from GMO technology.

Regarding non-GM biotechnologies, many are being used on a commercial scale but only a few studies have been carried out to assess their socio-economic impacts.

The report highlights that this is an area needing urgent attention as it is likely to help guide research and technology policies and investments towards wider and efficient utilization of all biotechnologies.

Launched in 2003 as an online searchable database, FAO-BioDeC currently has about 2 000 entries from 71 developing countries, including countries with economies in transition.

It is regularly updated and has recently been expanded to include extensive data from the forestry sector and some initial data on livestock.

The assessment presents a first analysis of the information contained in the database as of 31 August 2004.

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