A groundbreaking conversation about agricultural biotechnology

©FAO/Giuseppe Carotenuto

On Capitol Hill this week, the Senate Agriculture Committee addressed a red-hot issue: Should individual states develop their own labeling standards for food products and, specifically, for food containing ingredients derived from agricultural biotechnology, or should there be a national standard?

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If Congress doesn't act soon on a proposed national standard for food labeling, a Vermont law will go into effect on July 1, setting off a patchwork of labeling standards across the United States that will confuse rather than effectively inform consumers about the ingredients and nutritive value of their food. The bill that was passed out of the Senate Agriculture Committee on a 14-6 vote proposes to make labeling of biotechnologies in food voluntary, and will now be taken up in the full Senate for consideration in the coming month.

Ironically, this debate is taking place while global discussions are moving toward greater understanding of the benefits of biotechnology to meeting world food needs while conserving natural resources.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has initiated a groundbreaking conversation to explore how the rapidly emerging, broad-based field of agricultural biotechnology can complement agro-ecological approaches to sustainably increase productivity, especially for smallholder farmers.

From Feb. 15 to Feb. 17, FAO hosted a neutral, open forum, "The Role of Agricultural Biotechnologies in Sustainable Food Systems and Nutrition," attended by nearly 500 participants. Farmers from Asia, Africa, North America, South America and Europe shared their experiences using a broad range of agricultural biotechnologies to grow food. Joining them were scientists, policymakers, civil society organizations and agriculture industry participants.

Foremost on the minds of the participants was creating sustainable food systems and improving nutrition in the face of climate change and a global population that will expand by 2.4 billion over the next 35 years. Panelists shared how biotechnology and good agricultural practices are helping to conserve the environment while meeting the growing demand for food, feed, fiber and fuel.

A wide spectrum of current and emerging biotechnologies were discussed at the conference, such as improved tissue culture in plants and new vaccine technologies in livestock. Use of molecular markers and genetic modification for crops are ways of boosting resilience to climate change, disease and drought.

Biotechnologies are also used to fortify the nutritional content of staple crops like sorghum, making more Vitamin A, zinc and iron available in the food that 300 million resource-poor consumers eat every day across dryland zones of Africa. Other biotech benefits include improving the shelf life of agriculture products, thereby reducing food loss and waste, as well as harnessing natural microbes to reduce methane emissions from livestock.

Most promising is that biotechnology, including genetic engineering (GE), has great potential to help smallholder farmers in developing countries produce more food per hectare, even in areas where drought, pests and floods have been continual challenges. Tested technologies are available that can be customized for local agro-ecological conditions. When regulatory and biosafety systems are in place, along with stewardship training for farmers, national governments can forge more sustainable agricultural systems.

The director general of FAO, José Graziano da Silva, observed at the closing plenary: "What we have done in this symposium was unexpected. ... We started to bridge the gap between biotechnology and agro-ecology."

The symposium was the first step in a process that will continue to convene dialogue in a number of countries and regions. The willingness of all participants to listen and to bridge the "trust gap" between all parts of the agriculture and food value chain — and across different methods of production — will help realize the promise of agricultural biotechnologies for farmers, consumers and our natural resource base.

Zeigler is executive director of the Global Harvest Initiative.

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