Genes, Technology and Policy/Introduction

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Rapid advances in information technology, particularly in the area of bioinformatics, have played a critical role in breakthrough applications of modern biotechnology in medicine and agriculture. Bioinformatics, broadly defined as the use of computers to handle biological information, has made possible the genomic era. Bioinformatics provides the computer tools and databases to search, store, analyze and compare these data and to use them to develop, among others, safe and more effective medicines as well higher – yielding, more stress – resistant crops that have the potential for accelerating human development.

However, as the Human Development Report 2001 points out, this potential cannot be realized unless the two conditions are met. First, modern biotechnology has to be utilized to address the key health and agriculture challenges facing poor countries. Second, modern biotechnology has to be utilized through a systematic approach that allows potential risks to human health, environment and social equity to be effectively assessed and managed.

This primer discusses the science and policy issues surrounding the use of modern biotechnology. It provides a snapshot of its benefits as well as concerns regarding its potential negative impact on the environment and on the human health. The primer is divided into four parts. The first part is on the science behind modern biotechnology. The second part discusses the various issues relating to the application of modern biotechnology to medicine. The third part focuses on the benefits and concerns relating to the use of modern biotechnology in agriculture. Finally, the fourth part discusses ownership and access issues viewed from the perspective of developing countries.

This primer is by no means comprehensive. It is intended merely to introduce readers to the various perspectives in the ongoing debate on the use of modern biotechnology. Readers are therefore encouraged to consult the list of references at the end of the primer.