Your Excellency, Mr Olusegun Obasanjo, President of the African Union,
Your Excellency, Colonel El Gheddafi, Leader of the Great First-of-September Revolution of the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya,
Your Excellency, Mr Konare, Chairperson of the African Union Commission,
Your Excellencies, Heads of State and Government,
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I. Seed Production
The first of human rights is the right to exist. To this effect, we need water to drink and food to eat. Food security is heavily dependent on the seed availability to farmers.
However, genetic resources for food and agriculture are being lost at a very rapid rate, as farming systems modernize. It is estimated that some 10,000 species have been used for human food and agriculture. Currently no more than 20 cultivated plant species provide 90% of human food. A mere 4 plant species (potatoes, rice, maize and wheat) and 3 animal species (cattle, pigs and chickens) provide more than 50% of all human food.
The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture which entered into force in June 2004 provides a coherent framework in which governments can develop and implement a strategy for the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. The Treaty also recognises, for the first time in a binding international instrument, Farmers' Rights. Africa is leading the way with 23 African countries out of a total of 71 having ratified it.
Conservation of plant and animal genetic resources are done in situ in particular for Africa in the forest ecosystems of the Congo basin. Ex situ conservation is undertaken mainly in national centers of developed countries and in international agricultural research centers of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). These international collections are under the legal umbrella of FAO.
In order to guarantee access to the quantity and quality of seeds needed by farmers, Africa must put in place policies and capacities to ensure plant genetic resource conservation and management, seed production and certification. National varietal development programmes need to be developed with linkages to regional and international research. National seed rules and regulation should be harmonized at the sub-regional and regional levels to facilitate seed trade.
Imported seeds and planting material are, however, a major route for the introduction of new pests from outside Africa and their further spread within the continent. The major international tool to combat this is the International Plant Protection Convention. 32 African countries are Parties to this international FAO Treaty. The purpose of the Convention is to prevent the spread and introduction of pests of plants and plant products, and to promote appropriate measures for their control".
Standards of food quality of the Codex Alimentarius, joint body of FAO and WHO, but also phytosanitary standards of the FAO International Plant Protection Convention, are the technical references for the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
We need to underline that there are different aspects of biotechnology, which do not raise great controversy; on the other hand, Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are very debatable and raise emotionally charged issues.
The FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius, an inter-governmental body charged with setting standards to ensure food safety, has agreed on the principles and guidelines for assessing health risk:, related to foods derived from modern biotechnology. But the members have not yet agreed on the application of these principals to experimentation, labelling, impact on the environment and health. Therefore as long as this international framework has not generated the rules and regulations oil the use of GMOs, it falls upon the national governments to adopt relevant policies on this issue.
In the meantime for the MDG objective of halving hunger by 2015, GMOs are not a priority. People in developing countries suffer from chronic hunger and malnutrition because they lack water, other inputs, rural infrastructure and credit to produce food, employment and income to access food. Around 80 per cent of food crises are related in some way to water, and in particular to drought. Conflicts are the second source of food insecurity.
The so called Gene Revolution is primarily driven by the multinational private sector. The resulting technologies are held under exclusive patents and are mostly sold commercially. In fact 3 multinational companies control 65 to 75% of the GMO seed market.
On the contrary, the Green Revolution led by the international agricultural research centers provided "public goods" that could be used or adapted at no cost by the National Agricultural Research Systems. Developing countries should exhaust the potential of these free varieties before moving to patented GMOs, in particular Africa which has less than 2% adoption of the Green Revolution varieties.
African countries should train their experts in the basic sciences like molecular biology, review their policies, strengthen and coordinate their research capabilities, with a view to address the challenge of biotechnology. FAO is ready to assist the African countries in these areas, as it is already doing for member States of other regions of the world. At the request of the Leader, it is already preparing a programme for putting in place an African Central Biotechnology Center with sub-regional centers in the different regions of the continent.