The European Group on Life Sciences, including eminent scientists advising European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin, is inviting stakeholders to participate in a conference examining how life sciences and biotechnology can foster sustainable agriculture in developing countries. The event will take place in Brussels on 30-31 January 2003. Participating in the meeting are Commissioner Busquin and Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid Poul Nielson, together with representatives of civil society and developing countries, development experts, scientists and other interested parties.
"There is an obvious problem of food supply in many parts of the world" said Commissioner Busquin. "It would be irresponsible not to assess and debate the potential held by life sciences and biotechnology to ensure a sustainable agriculture in developing countries. With this conference, I want to offer a platform for scientists to participate in an informed debate with the interested public, including many representatives from developing countries. The aim should not be to rush to conclusions. Instead I hope the event will enable a constructive exchange of views. This will help the EU make its choices and find responsible ways to make scientific progress benefit populations in need. We should in any case adapt our biotech policy to the needs of developing countries."
Ensuring sustainability is widely accepted as a global priority. Decision makers recognise that sustainable development cannot be separated from other issues such as combating poverty, hunger, malnutrition, and infectious diseases, or from allowing developing countries to manage their integration into the world economy. Topics such as access to education and trade liberalisation have also to be addressed in this context.
The food production challenge
The demand for food will rise significantly in the next few years, especially in developing countries. The option of increasing the area under cultivation is limited by the need to safeguard vital natural environments and will only contribute to one fifth of the increase in global cereal production needed to feed the world's growing population. This makes it necessary to increase crop yields.
A role for life sciences?
To respond to such a challenge, human and financial resources must be mobilised. Progress in life sciences and biotechnologies holds potential to help sustainable agriculture in developing countries. This is particularly the case when life sciences enable these countries to reduce the use of damaging mechanical and chemical methods.
Public concerns over the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) for instance, have of course to be duly considered, although these only form part of the wider debate. There are also other options from life science. Equally important are soil and crop health, knowledge relating to bio-diversity, water and climate, as well as technological development in rural areas.
To meet this goal, the European Commission, assisted by the European Group on Life Sciences (EGLS), organised this discussion platform. The aim is to critically review the options that life sciences and biotechnology offer to developing countries. The conference brings together representatives of these countries, scientists, representatives of the biotechnology industry, non-governmental organisations, international organisations, education and media specialists, officials from several governments, and European citizens, and particularly the younger generation.
This effort to openly debate issues related to life sciences, which are critical for scientific governance and for the benefit of society, follows earlier discussions organised by the EGLS. A debate on "Genetics and the Future of Europe" took place in November 2000, and one on "Stem Cells: Therapies for the Future?" in December 2001.
It is also in line with the Commission Communication on "Life sciences and biotechnology a strategy for Europe" in which Europe's responsibilities towards the developing world are set out in an action plan. These include agriculture, genetic resources, health and the responsible and careful use of biotechnology (actions 25 to 28).
Addressing seven challenges
The discussion platform will examine how life sciences can contribute to seven key challenges:
- food production under marginal conditions,
- improving the economic viability of food production,
- improving health and nutrition without compromising food safety and the environment,
- reducing poverty through income generation and by creating new markets,
- reducing the use of pesticides,
- providing added value from agrobiodiversity,
- and how developing countries can become involved in the use of new knowledge from genomes.