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Debating the role of biotechnology in agriculture
Box 6: Global community urges efforts to protect deep sea ecosystems

It is only in the last decade that scientists have had the technology needed to study deep sea ecosystems. These environments have high and often endemic biodiversity, but they are slow-growing and fragile. This makes them especially vulnerable to physical damage, particularly by bottom trawl fishing, deep-sea oil and gas development, and mining (Freiwald and others 2004; Gianni 2004; Rogers 2004).

A growing number of governments, scientists and conservation organizations are working towards protecting these vulnerable habitats. In February 2004, 1 136 scientists from 69 countries endorsed a statement calling for urgent action to protect deep sea ecosystems. The scientists appealed to the UN and other international bodies to establish a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling and called on governments to ban the practice in deep sea ecosystems within their Exclusive Economic Zones (MCBI 2004). Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Norway have already begun implementing such measures.

The Seventh Conference of Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity also called for urgent action to address threats to marine biodiversity in deep sea areas and urged the UN General Assembly to take relevant measures (CBD 2004c). During the IUCN World Conservation Congress in November, governments and NGOs alike voted in favour of urging the UN General Assembly to adopt a resolution calling for a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling.

The issue of food security will continue to be a key global concern in coming decades, given declining investment in agricultural research and infrastructure, increasing water scarcity, and the challenges posed by HIV/AIDS and climate change.

The debate on the role of biotechnology continued to be highly polarized in 2004. Some consider biotechnology as the next Green Revolution, while others caution against potential risks for human health and the environment.

In its 2003-04 State of Food and Agriculture report, the FAO signalled qualified support for the potential benefits of agricultural biotechnology in improving agricultural productivity for developing countries (FAO 2004b). A letter to FAO, signed by more than 650 civil society organizations and 800 individuals from over 80 countries, criticized the report for supporting the biotech industry, arguing that access and distribution play a far greater role than technology in food security (GRAIN 2004).

This statement sparked a counter-response, signed primarily by free enterprise institutes and biotechnology stakeholders. This letter commended FAO for its balanced approach, and for acknowledging biotechnology's potential to increase food security, food safety and economic opportunities for smallholder farmers in developing countries (International Consumers 2004). The Ecological Society of America has also recognized the potential of genetically engineered organisms in sustainable agriculture, though it strongly recommends a cautious approach to releasing such organisms into the environment (ESA 2004).

The year 2004 also saw shifting governmental responses to the biotechnology issue. The European Union ended its de facto moratorium on genetically modified organisms, while the United States increased its promotion of biotechnology as a valuable weapon in the fight against hunger. The US Embassy to the Holy See organized a conference entitled Fighting a Hungry World: The Moral Imperative of Biotechnology. The aim was to influence the Vatican, which has not yet taken a position on the issue (US Embassy to the Holy See 2004).

Possibly the most significant shift in favour of agricultural biotechnology was seen in Africa. A number of key initiatives and meetings took place, including the launch of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation and the convening of the Conference on Assuring Food and Nutrition in Africa by 2020 in Kampala (IFPRI 2004).

At the sub-regional level, four West African presidents signalled cautious support for genetically modified crops in solving food production problems, at the Ministerial Conference on Science and Technology held in Ouagadougou in June (USDA 2004). More mixed views on the issue were expressed by Southern African countries during the African Policy Dialogues on Biotechnology held in Harare in September (APDB 2004). Underscoring the need to move forward on policy options, the Secretariat of the New Partnership for Africa 's Development (NEPAD) and the African Union Commission agreed in July to establish a high-level panel of experts to prepare a comprehensive African strategy on biotechnology (NEPAD 2004).

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