Biotechnology: Role of Biotechnology in Advancing Health and Food Security

Jose W. Fernandez
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs
Washington, DC
January 31, 2013

Ambassadors, Under Secretary Woteki from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Dr. Howard from the U.S. Agency for International Development, representatives from the Caribbean and Central American diplomatic corps, private sector, and my colleagues from the State Department and other U.S. government agencies, I would like to welcome you to the Department of State, and I would like to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to participate in this important discussion.

I would also like to particularly thank Oxitec Chief Executive Officer Haydn Parry and Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (Instituto Interamericano de Cooperación para la Agricultura - IICA) Deputy Director General David Hatch for being with us today, and I very much look forward to their presentations on the topic of “Biotechnology: Role of Biotechnology in Advancing Health and Food Security.” This is our first time meeting on this topic with members of the diplomatic corps representing Caribbean and Central American countries.

Before I turn the microphone over to my colleagues from USDA and USAID to say a few words, I would like to speak a little about why we are here today. Over the last four years, I have become passionate about the role of science and technology to address health and food security challenges that are all around us today. I have become convinced that the adoption of biotechnology, with respect to both health and agriculture, has an essential role to play. Some may be wondering how is it that the U.S. Department of State is involved in agricultural biotechnology. The simple answer is that innovative technologies like agricultural biotechnology intersect matters of food security, development, health, and trade – all of which are areas of priority for the State Department.

Regarding biotechnology, the State Department, along with our interagency colleagues at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), work to promote open markets and science-based regulatory frameworks, as well as conducting outreach activities to public officials, the media, and other stakeholders in an effort to pave the way for future uses of these technologies.

When it comes to addressing food security and the challenge of feeding a growing world population, my office and others at the U.S. Department of State, as well as USAID and USDA, do many other things, including reducing post-harvest loss, improving infrastructure so that it is easier to transport goods to market, and reforming policies to make it easier to trade goods, so that farmers can increase yields and reap profits, and people who need food can have access to these necessities.

My bureau, the Bureau of Economic and Business affairs, has the State Department’s lead on agricultural biotechnology. In years prior, we focused outreach activities in several Central American countries, including Honduras and Guatemala. This year we are expanding efforts to the Caribbean islands. For example, in April, my bureau will sponsor a scientist, who will participate in the first “Pacific Island and Caribbean Forum,” to be held in Jamaica. The forum hopes to inform stakeholders and policy makers on expanding economic opportunities for women in agriculture in the Caribbean. Representatives and policy makers from some eight Caribbean islands are expected to participate.

We are providing resources to these countries because their governments have expressed interest in adopting agricultural biotechnology. We believe that supporting efforts to help with establishing transparent, predictable, and science-based regulations designed to facilitate technology development and investment is a most appropriate and effective approach. I should also note that we at the State Department are strong proponents of leveraging our relationship with the private sector and international organizations to effect change.

Today we have two important organizations that will share with you some of the groundbreaking work underway to address health and food security concerns in the Caribbean and Central America -- Oxitec, a British biotech company that is pioneering a better approach to tackling dengue fever and damaging agricultural pests, and IICA, a leader in agricultural development and integration in the western hemisphere.

It is a known fact that the world’s population is rapidly growing and is projected to reach nine billion by 2050. In October 2011, we recorded the birth of the seven billionth person on the planet, and, needless to say, that number has grown inexorably over the past year, in which we have added 75 million more people. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimates that the demand for agricultural produce, in other words, food, will increase 60 percent by 2050.

Given this reality, it is imperative that we continue exploring ways to keep pace with the increasing demand for quality, nutritious food, and the role that technology, including agricultural biotechnology, plays in addressing this challenge. As more and more people ask questions about how we as a society grow and raise our food, it is perhaps a good time to look at the context.

Over the past three decades, people have become more vocal in demonstrating their growing concern about how we will feed and nourish the growing population, especially in poor and developing countries. At the same time, people recognize that we need to address the impact of farming on the environment. People are concerned about the use of pesticides, excess water consumption in agriculture, soil runoff, and climate change. Their concerns have not been overlooked.

Researchers at agricultural universities are constantly exploring better ways to raise food. Some of their solutions include biotech seeds to create crops that solve nutritional deficiencies. For example, genetically engineered “golden rice” produces beta-carotene that has the potential to help upwards of 250 million children each year who might otherwise go blind as a result of vitamin a deficiency. Researchers also created crops that are less susceptible to drought, enabling farmers to grow food in more arid conditions. Some biotech plants are more resistant to pests and others require less tillage. These crops require fewer pesticides and reduce soil erosion.

Additionally, over the past 15 years, regulatory bodies from around the world, including those from the United States, Brazil, china, Japan, and the European Union, have conducted numerous studies of crops derived from biotechnology. Their results have consistently shown that these foods are as safe as any other food products on the market. So the technology should not be discounted as an option for addressing hunger and poverty eradication, nor must we be discouraged by misinformation.

We are also keenly aware that many diseases are spread by insects. In the Caribbean and Central America mosquitoes, specifically the ones that spread dengue, create nightmares for rich and poor. Fortunately, we have organizations like Oxitec that are committed to making a difference. Oxitec used advanced genetics to develop a new solution to controlling populations of dengue mosquitoes and other harmful insects in a way that is sustainable, environmentally friendly, and cost-effective. While it is tempting to tell you about their successes, I don’t want to spoil the fascinating presentation that we are about to hear.

Similarly, IICA has long advocated for agricultural modernization and has won broad support in Latin America and the Caribbean. I look forward to learning more about their work as well during the course of our discussion.

Let me reiterate that the United States is eager to work with our Caribbean and Central American partners to promote improvements in the agricultural sector. This sector cannot be overlooked, because it is vital to maintaining food security and nutrition for society and to sustaining economic improvements, especially among small holder farmers, who are among the most food insecure and economically challenged. It is these small holder farmers, especially, who would benefit the most from many technologies and advances in agricultural production to improve productivity and raise incomes. The reality is that 90 percent of the farmers using agricultural biotechnology today are in the developing world. I hope that during today’s event, we can discuss how we can together promote sound science and encourage the adoption of biotechnology to save lives by combating food security and health concerns.

Thank you for your time I look forward to your views and questions. Again, welcome to the U.S. Department of State. I will now turn the microphone over to Under Secretary Woteki and then Dr. Howard for a brief overview of biotechnology from their respective agencies, followed by our presenters.