Us­ing tech­nol­ogy to feed the world’s hun­gri­est re­gion

The Myanmar Times - - News | Views - KUNDHAVI KADIRESAN news­room@mm­

AS an econ­o­mist by pro­fes­sion, my job is to un­der­stand the com­plex world of agri­cul­tural sciences, which in­volves a steep learn­ing curve. When we talk about em­ploy­ing biotech­nol­ogy in agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion and sus­tain­able food sys­tems for bet­ter nu­tri­tion it’s easy to get lost in the jar­gon.

You’ve prob­a­bly heard some of it – use of molec­u­lar mark­ers, mi­cro­bial food fer­men­ta­tion, re­pro­duc­tive tech­nolo­gies in live­stock, DNA-based kits to di­ag­nose dis­eases in farmed fish and of course ge­netic mod­i­fi­ca­tion.

We at the UN’s Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­ga­ni­za­tion are en­cour­ag­ing gov­ern­ments, re­searchers and the pri­vate sec­tor to take bold steps to en­sure that safe, ev­i­dence-based agri­cul­tural biotech­nol­ogy is placed in the hands of small­holder farm­ers, fish­ers and pas­toral­ists.

And we need to get on with that now, as our Asia-Pa­cific re­gion is in­creas­ingly fac­ing some pre­dictable and un­pre­dictable results of cli­mate change and the fu­ture ef­fects th­ese will have on agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion, par­tic­u­larly for small­hold­ers who are the least equipped to deal with cli­mate-re­lated shocks.

The chal­lenges we al­ready face are enor­mous, which is why we need to make use of all avail­able tech­nolo­gies that we know are safe – both old and new. This re­gion has nearly half a bil­lion hungry and mal­nour­ished peo­ple – more than 60 per­cent of the world’s to­tal. Con­sider the 2030 dead­line to de­liver all 17 of the world’s Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Goals, and the 2050 mid-cen­tury point where our chil­dren will be liv­ing among some nine to ten bil­lion peo­ple com­pet­ing for lim­ited nat­u­ral re­sources, and you get the pic­ture.

FAO has a num­ber of good case stud­ies on the use of agri­cul­tural biotech­nolo­gies, but I want to look at just two here.

In sev­eral coun­tries in this re­gion, flood­wa­ter in­cur­sions into rice pad­dies have long been a ma­jor prob­lem. But sci­en­tists at the In­ter­na­tional Rice Re­search In­sti­tute, work­ing with part­ners, have de­vel­oped a ver­sion of rice that can still thrive when sub­merged in flood­wa­ter. This flood­tol­er­ant rice, known bet­ter by its nick­name “Scuba Rice” is a good ex­am­ple of how sci­en­tists and farm­ers can come to­gether in tack­ling some of the more com­plex prob­lems that the en­vi­ron­ment can throw at those who of­ten strug­gle to pro­duce the food we eat each day.

In In­dia, where some 10 per­cent of the land used for grow­ing rice is prone to sub­mer­gence, this has led to low yields and some­times com­plete loss of the crop. Us­ing molec­u­lar mark­ers, which en­able genes to be as­so­ci­ated with the traits they en­code, IRRI’s sci­en­tists and part­ners were able to iden­tify the gene re­spon­si­ble for this tol­er­ance when sub­merged. In short, through breed­ing tech­niques, the gene for sub­mer­gence tol­er­ance could be bred into pop­u­lar rice va­ri­eties, gen­er­at­ing new sub­mer­gence­tol­er­ant rice with­out los­ing flavour and still pro­duc­ing high yields. It is now grown by mil­lions of farm­ers in In­dia. Other rice va­ri­eties tol­er­ant to sub­mer­gence are be­ing grown in Bangladesh and Viet­nam.

In Thai­land, a global seafood hub, breed­ing a hy­brid cat­fish us­ing ar­ti­fi­cial in­sem­i­na­tion from two species has re­sulted in a hy­brid that per­forms bet­ter than the av­er­age of ei­ther parental species. Re­searchers noted that the lo­cal Thai broad-headed cat­fish, a favourite food due to its favourable colour and tex­ture, was slow to grow and sus­cep­ti­ble to dis­eases, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to cul­ture on a com­mer­cial scale. By con­trast, the African sharp­tooth cat­fish was known for its high growth rate and low sus­cep­ti­bil­ity to dis­eases. Breed­ing the two cat­fish species to­gether has re­sulted in a ‘hy­brid vigour’ (both palat­able and fast grow­ing), mak­ing it ideal for aqua­cul­ture in Thai­land. Pro­duc­tion of hy­brid cat­fish has sky­rock­eted from less than 18,000 met­ric tonnes in 1990 to more than 150,000 met­ric tonnes.

Use of this biotech­nol­ogy has cre­ated a huge ex­pan­sion of aqua­cul­ture and re­lated in­dus­tries in Thai­land and has pro­vided greater ac­cess to high-qual­ity pro­tein food for poorer peo­ple in ru­ral ar­eas.

With the clock tick­ing toward 2030 and 2050, FAO is con­ven­ing high-level re­gional meet­ings on agri­cul­tural uses of biotech­nolo­gies to achieve sus­tain­able food sys­tems and bet­ter nu­tri­tion. The first such meet­ing is tak­ing place in Kuala Lumpur from Septem­ber 11-13, co-or­gan­ised by FAO and the Malaysian govern­ment.

The pur­pose is to of­fer an open and neu­tral fo­rum for the ex­change of ideas and prac­tices be­tween rep­re­sen­ta­tives of mem­ber coun­tries, in­ter­gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions, re­search in­sti­tu­tions, farmer or­gan­i­sa­tions, co­op­er­a­tives, academia, civil so­ci­ety and the pri­vate sec­tor. The par­tic­i­pants will study ex­am­ples where the use of biotech­nolo­gies has worked well and ar­eas where it has worked less well in the pro­duc­tion of crops, fish­eries, forestry and live­stock.

With more than half a bil­lion hungry and mal­nour­ished peo­ple in the re­gion, we need to work to­gether, with­out de­lay, on look­ing at all forms of food pro­duc­tion.

Kundhavi Kadiresan is as­sis­tant di­rec­tor­gen­eral and re­gional rep­re­sen­ta­tive for Asia-Pa­cific of the United Na­tions’ Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­ga­ni­za­tion.

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