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Two weeks ago, I led the U.S. delegation to Mexico for the FAO International Biotechnology Conference, where officials from across the world gathered to address the potential of agricultural biotechnologies for improving the livelihoods of small farmers in developing countries. These “smallholders” constitute 75 percent of the world’s poor, and face a disproportionate share of the enormous pressures facing agricultural production systems.
The FAO warns that the combined effects of population growth, strong income growth, and urbanization will require a doubling of food production by 2050. That doubling of production will need to occur despite climate disruptions, critical water shortages in some parts of the globe, increased salinity of soil, the ever present pressure of pests and pathogens, and the necessity to reduce the energy and environmental footprints of agriculture practices. Smallholders will need help to meet these challenges.
Conference delegates from developing countries acknowledged that biotechnology is a crucial tool and opportunity for alleviating hunger and poverty, while also spurring economic development and mitigating climate change. However, the various applications of agricultural biotechnologies are not widely accessible for use in many developing countries, and have not yet substantially benefited small farmers and producers. Three key elements are necessary to make agricultural biotechnology accessible to the developing world: increased investments, international cooperation, and effective and enabling national policies and regulatory frameworks.
The conference identified ways the United States and other nations can encourage developed and developing countries to support appropriate use of agricultural biotechnologies for improving food security and enhancing sustainable agriculture, especially in the context of growing climatic changes and a growing human population. This includes:
- Encourage increased commitment by governments to strengthen human and institutional capacities in biotechnologies in national and regional institutions.
- Improve knowledge sharing and access to and application of biotechnologies.
- Facilitate the exchange of information among and between scientists and policymakers worldwide.
- Help scientists gain knowledge and technical expertise through developing new partnerships and exchange opportunities.
- Develop partnerships and alliances with farmers and farmer organizations, the private sector, international and regional research institutions, foundations and other relevant organizations, to facilitate and enhance the coordination of research activities and strengthen mechanisms for dissemination of best practices and technologies.
President Obama has made global food security, nutrition enhancement, and poverty reduction important priorities for this Administration. Building capacity for the use of modern biotechnologies in developing countries, such as marker assisted selection, tissue culture propagation, and genetic engineering, would help meet these goals and solve a growing worldwide problem.
I believe in USDA’s commitment to solving these global problems while also working toward our goals of sustainable agriculture. Both high crop yields and safe and sustainable practices are critically important and attainable. As USDA’s Chief Scientist and director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, I am excited to see agricultural science and technology work in a way that will meet today’s global challenges, but do so in a way that works toward economic, environmental and social sustainability.
I have every confidence that the women and men in USDA and our partner institutions, who work daily to unlock the secrets of human, plant and animal health, can be equally responsive to the challenge of building a sustainable future for agriculture and forestry that includes access to biotechnology for smallholders and others.
Director, National Institute of Food and Agriculture