The state of food and agriculture. Agricultural biotechnology: meeting the needs of the poor?

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Abstract or Summary

The cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops is changing agriculture practices in a number of developed and developing countries. The area of GM crops planted worldwide continues to increase. As agriculture is intrinsically linked to the environment, FAO invited sixteen technical experts in their individual capacities, from a wide range of countries, to a three-day Expert Consultation on ''Environmental Effects of Genetically Modified Crops''. The aim of the consultation was to assess the current understanding of the effects of GM crops on ecosystems, identify gaps and priorities and indicate the role of FAO in this context.

The experts discussed the environmental effects of major GM crops, including those used for pest management, drought and salinity tolerance. They evaluated the potential environmental impacts with respect to both above and below ground effects. The scale and pattern of effects were examined at the field level, for crop-associated biodiversity and in larger landscapes. The discussions led to the recognition of environmental effects that need to be considered during introduction of GM crops within a specific agro-ecosystem.

The Consultation highlighted the following important and linked aspects:
- The cultivation of GM crops with their benefits and potential hazards to the environment should be considered within broader ecosystems and their effects on the environment should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
- The scientific understanding of the effects of GM crops at the agro-ecosystem level remains limited. This is partly due to the limited number of crop seasons and numbers of generations of crop-associated species for which data have been collected so far.
- The possible long-term and large-scale environmental effects of GM crops need to be quantified. Some of the main areas of interest would be: a) Gene flow and introgression into populations of plants other than crops, b) Changes in agricultural inputs and practices associated with GM crops, and c) Changes beyond agro-ecosystems (e.g. other biota located within common landscapes).
- Practical tools and appropriate information are needed to evaluate and address the possible environmental effects and farm-scale management of GM crops. The potential hazards of GM crops with novel traits like pharmaceutical products need to be better characterised.
- FAO has a unique role and responsibility to assist member countries with scientifically robust guidance, including in the context of standard-setting processes, information dissemination and capacity building to realize the common goals of environmental safety and sustainability. FAO should undertake and facilitate a consultative process, through partnerships with a wide range of stakeholders, to ensure internationally agreed methodologies, global commitment and financial resources for realising the common goals. .

Paper reproduced by permission of FAO

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