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Heads of state and other leading politicians from around the world have endorsed the “responsible” use of genetically modified (GM) crops to help meet the food needs of the world’s poor.

At the same time, they have heard complaints from leading food policy experts that agricultural research that would benefit small farmers in developing countries is severely underfunded in comparison with research that meets the needs of rich nations and large corporations.

The support for GM crops came in a declaration agreed at the end of a meeting held at the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) in Rome to review progress since the World Food Summit of 1996.

The declaration calls on the FAO, working in conjunction with international research institutes, to advance agricultural research and research into new technologies, “including biotechnology”.

It adds that “the introduction of tried and tested new technology, including biotechnology, should be accomplished in a safe manner and adapted to local conditions to help improve agricultural productivity in developing countries”.

There was no explicit mention of biotechnology in the conclusions of the earlier meeting. In contrast, the signatories to the document, which was endorsed by all countries represented at the Rome Meeting, say that they are committed “to study, share and facilitate the responsible use of biotechnology addressing development needs.”

Earlier in the meeting, Per Pinstrup-Andersen, director of the International Food Policy Research Institute, and last year’s winner of the World Food Prize, had endorsed the use of genetic engineering “where that is the most appropriate solution” to produce new crops.

Pinstrup-Andersen said that, in order to address the problems faced by farmers, research should combine indigenous knowledge with “all appropriate scientific tools and methods”, which included not only conventional research methods but also “acri-ecology and agricultural biotechnology”.

At the same time, he warned that the kind of agricultural research that might benefit small farmers was “severely underfunded”. Even though the gains to society and poor people from such research are high, he said, the private sector does not undertake such research “because the expected financial gains do not cover the costs”.

Pinstrup-Andersen pointed out, for example, that the Low-Income Developing Countries invest less than one half of one per cent of the value of their agricultural output in agriculture research; in comparison, higher-income countries invested 2 to 5 per cent of the value of farm production in research.

A further call for greater involvement by scientists in helping to tackle the food needs of developing nations came from Jeffrey Sachs, who recently left his post as professor of economics at Harvard University to head the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York.

In a plenary address to the Rome meeting, Sachs emphasised the need, in addition to the need to boost the productivity of subsistence agriculture, for “better seeds that are resistant to drought and salinity, and we will need advanced biotechnology”.

At the same time, substantial additional investment is required in rural development in poor countries to increase productivity in agriculture, health and education. “We also require leadership from poor and rich countries, from industry, from non-governmental organisations and from scientists,” he said.

The final declaration of the Rome meeting acknowledged that progress in alleviating hunger “had not been adequate” to reach a target agreed in the 1996 meeting of halving the number of hungry people in the world by 2015. However the meeting declared its determination to accelerate the implementation of action needed to reach this goal.

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