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Biotechnology: effective solutions for sustainable development

A micro-symposium on the role of biotechnology in the post-2015 development agenda took place at UNESCO on 13 February 2015. It was an opportunity to discuss promising biotechnology applications that can contribute to sustainable development and poverty eradication, as well as the need to develop capacity in Science, Technology and Innovation, so that these solutions can reach their full portential. UNESCO’s work in this field was presented, particularly through the Regional Centre for Biotechnology – an education, training and research Category 2 Centre established in India under the auspices of UNESCO.

Current reviews show that Science, Technology and Innovation were critical in achieving Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Several MDG targets are falling short because of a lack of STI capacity, a valuable lesson that must be applied to the post-2015 agenda. “2015 is the decisive year for Millennium Development Goals, for the new global sustainable development agande, before the United Nations Conference on Climate Change – COP21” said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova. “Biotechnology is at the forefront of this battle, to improve the lives of millions of women and men throughout the world – by improving agricultural yields and food security, by developing alternative fuels.”

Technology and innovation have a role to play beyond industrial growth. They contribute to job creation and ensuring a sustainable environment. UNESCO’s work shows clearly that the role of technology and innovation is positive and critical at each and every stage of development. In fact, a much greater emphasis has been put on the role of technology and scientific research in implementing the future Sustainable Development Goal’s. For instance, Goal 3 aims at ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all at all ages, to be accomplished by supporting research and development of vaccines and medicines; Goal 2 will focus on ending hunger, achieving food security, in part through technology development; and Goal 9: ‘Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation’ also places STI at the centre of sustainable development.  

Both Irina Bokova and Ruchira Kamboj, Ambassador and Permanent Delegate of India to UNESCO, stressed the importance of biotechnology in providing effective and sustainable solutions for eradicating extreme poverty and hunger through increased crop yields, as well as improving maternal health and combating debilitating diseases.

© UNESCO/ Nora Houguenade. Ruchira Kamboj, Ambassador and Permanent Delegate of India to UNESCO, and Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General, speaking at the micro-symposium on the role of biotechnology.

Since its emergence, the risks and benefits of modern biotechnology have been debated. It is revolutionary in its ability to transform life itself in order to generate new products and services, with potential societal impacts equal to those that followed to the information and communication revolution. Biosafety implications, ethical aspects and the cultural context must be considered with great care. With that in mind, more efforts are needed to reinforce capacities in developing countries, so they can become players in the new bio-economy.

The Regional Centre for Biotechnology has a role to play. It “embodies the ‘soft power’ of UNESCO today… bringing together Governments and civil society…joining education, research and training, to catalyse innovation for the benefit of all,” explained the Director-General. The scope of the centre was presented in detail by its Executive Director, Dr Dinaker Salunke, who shared advances and future plans with the participants. The Government of India’s vision is to include the UNESCO centre in a bio-cluster of three, including a Translational Centre and a Health Science Technology Centre, to develop a multidisciplinary approach, foster technology transfer and enterprise creation, and to take the research further than the lab, towards tangible products and services that will address current development challenges and benefit society.

The micro-symposiumcontinued with a panel discussion among leading biotechnology experts. Prof K. VijayRaghavan, Secretary of the Department of Biotechnology of the Government of India, outlined India’s strategy to strengthen the role biotechnology to meet challenges related to health and agriculture, emphasising that one of the most important factors for any technology to flourish is the commitment and foresight of governments and that these governments should listen carefully to their scientific community. He also referred to Joseph Needham Paradox, the first head of the UNESCO Natural Sciences Sector, who had emphasised the importance of connecting science with local utility technologies in 1946. Prof Mauro Giacca (International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology), gave an overview of his centre’s success, which has led to the creation of several international centres modelled after ICGEB. It now counts with three components in Trieste, Cape Town and New Delhi, each with longstanding training courses and workshops. Prof Jacques Elion (Paris Diderot University Medical School) shed light on how biotechnology has provided effective solutions to combat sickle cell diseases, which plague a number of countries in Africa and Asia. Prof Rath (National Institute of Immunology, New Delhi) then gave an engaging talk on the complex administrative formation of bio-clusters and how they are now the current world model to translate research into products and services for the masses. He cited the two major examples in the Indian sub-continent, the Bangalore Bio-cluster and the New Delhi bio-cluster, which will include the UNESCO centre.

The event was closed by Flavia Schlegel, Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences, who emphasised that the potential benefits of biotechnology can only reach those who need it most if the capacity is there. Countries must be committed to developing the necessary capacity, both human and institutional, to take advantage of this cutting-edge technology and multi-trillion dollar industry. International and regional cooperation and the exchange of data are intrinsic elements of this path to development.

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