Biotechnology holds great promise for agriculture in developing countries, but so far only farmers in a few developing countries are reaping these benefits, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation has said.

Basic food crops of the poor such as cassava, potato, rice and wheat need more attention but currently receive little attention by scientists, the FAO said.

"Neither the private nor the public sector has invested significantly in new genetic technologies for the so-called 'orphan crops' such as cowpea, millet, sorghum and tef that are critical for the food supply and livelihoods of the world's poorest people," said FAO director-general Dr Jacques Diouf.

"Other barriers that prevent the poor from accessing and fully benefiting from modern biotechnology include inadequate regulatory procedures, complex intellectual property issues, poorly functioning markets and seed delivery systems, and weak domestic plant breeding capacity," he added.

While the potential benefits and risks of GMOs need to be carefully assessed case by case, the controversy surrounding transgenics should not distract from the potential offered by other applications of biotechnology such as genomics, marker-assisted breeding and animal vaccines, the FAO said.

Biotechnology should complement - not replace - conventional agricultural technologies, the FAO added. Biotechnology can speed up conventional breeding programmes and may offer solutions where conventional methods fail.

"Scientists generally agree that the transgenic crops currently being grown and the foods derived from them are safe to eat, although little is known about their long-term effects," said Diouf.

"There is less scientific agreement on the environmental impacts of transgenic crops. The legitimate concerns for the safety of each transgenic product must be addressed prior to its release. Careful monitoring of the post-release effects of these products is essential," Diouf said.