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Biotech and breeding - glimpses of the agricultural future

Farmer Hla Shwe showing paddy plants destroyed by rats in a field in the Ayeyarwady Delta

Agricultural production in the developing world could be among the hardest-hit by climate change, but new research shows that food security can be improved by biotechnology and adapting traditional farming techniques, experts say.


Global demand for food is expected to double by the year 2050, when the population will reach more than nine billion, according to the World Bank, posing a serious challenge to global food security.


Mark Howden, an expert in climate change and agriculture at the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organisation said scientists need to be creative to face this challenge.


“To be able to feed this growing population, one thing we will need is an improvement in the study of genetics,” he said at a recent climate change adaptation conference on Australia’s Gold Coast.


While the decades-old debate around genetic modification of food continues, many scientists believe biotechnology is part of the answer to the looming food security problem. They say it can help crops resist extreme weather and the pests and bacteria expected to come with it.


Sureshkumar Balasubramanian, a lecturer at the University of Queensland, said we should not be afraid of genetic modification. Balasubramanian recently discovered a new gene form that could potentially help farmers cultivate more crops in a shorter period.


He discovered the ACD6 gene form while comparing the biological makeup of plants that grew at different rates in different parts of the world.


“We found that some of the plants grew slower than others because they were developing this gene to fight pathogens,” he told IRIN.


“In a situation where pathogens are not a threat to crops, removing this gene will speed up crop growth. This could be beneficial in parts of the world that are experiencing shorter harvest periods because of changing weather patterns.


“But genetic diversity is important. If I were to design an agricultural area, even if there’s no pathogen threat, I would make sure around 10 percent of the plants had this gene. Just because there is no pathogen in an area now, doesn’t mean there won’t be tomorrow, because we don’t know how the climate will change.”




Biotechnology could also help counteract cyanide levels in crops that are expected to increase as the climate changes.


''I think genetic modification is only one option, and it would take a long time to implement in developing countries, where food security issues are most urgent''

An acute consumption of cyanide can cause konzo, a neuron condition that paralyses the legs. Small outbreaks of konzo usually occur in poorer African nations.   


Anna Burns, also from Monash University, found that cyanide levels in cassava increased during drought. Because cassava is drought-tolerant, it is widely consumed during dry periods, which is when konzo outbreaks occur.


“I think genetic modification is only one option, and it would take a long time to implement in developing countries, where food security issues are most urgent,” Burns said.


“Traditional breeding programmes are more viable and can select for varieties with low-cyanogenic concentration.”

Farmers in East Africa use traditional methods such as fermentation to reduce the cyanide levels, but if the process is not carried out properly the food will be toxic.  


“Both agricultural and social factors need to be considered in adaptation to climate change. And prevention is better than a cure,” Burns said.


Growing rice differently


In many parts of Asia, discussions on food security are centred around rice.


According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, around two billion people in Asia rely on rice for 60-70 percent of their daily calorie intake.


According to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), genetically modified rice is already being used by rice breeders in many Asian countries to develop new rice varieties. However, as yet none are being grown commercially.


Greenpeace insists that “because the [genetic modification] technology is very new and imprecise, the potential ill effects on public health and on the environment are still widely unknown”.

A vender in southern Bangladesh prepares his rice for market. Rice is a staple part of the Bangladesh diet

David Swanson/IRIN
A vender in southern Bangladesh prepares his rice for market. Rice is a staple part of the Bangladesh diet
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
Water and conflict
A vender in southern Bangladesh prepares his rice for market. Rice is a staple part of the Bangladesh diet

Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
A vendor in southern Bangladesh prepares his rice for market

There is a very low level of acceptance of genetically modified food in Asia and elsewhere. “Often only conventional breeding processes are used, as many Asian and African countries do not accept genetically modified products, said Baboucarr Manneh, a molecular biologist and coordinator of the Africa Rice Centre's Abiotic Stresses Project in Benin, which is working on developing varieties of rice that will tolerate extreme heat and cold.


Traditional farming methods are, nevertheless, being challenged as rain patterns become less predictable and water salinity increases with rising sea levels.


Many Asian countries experiencing water shortages have implemented aerobic rice programmes, shifting from the traditional flooding method to a drier method. Aerobic rice is grown like upland crops, such as wheat. Some rice production has shifted from moist lowlands to dry highlands.


Aerobic rice produces higher yields, 4-6 tons per hectare. Participatory testing in the Philippines since early this decade has seen more productive yields, some above six tons per hectare.


Carmelita Alberto from IRRI said aerobic rice required around half the water needed for lowland rice.


“The Philippines has used aerobic rice farming in irrigated areas where water is too scarce and it is too costly to keep paddy fields permanently flooded,” she said.


But Alberto warns that aerobic rice has its trade-offs. In her current research on aerobic rice and heat fluxes, she has found that lowland rice fields sequester more carbon from the atmosphere than aerobic rice fields, which have warmer microclimates.


“At the same time, aerobic rice reduces methane emissions by 30 percent. Methane is very harmful to the atmosphere,” Alberto said.


“So you have to decide how to balance lowland and highland production. There is much more research needed, especially in tropical countries.”



This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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