Agricultural biotechnology and development: unintended consequences and unheard voices


Date palm tissue culture laboratory – Picture from FAO

GM crops have once again come under the spotlight with the recent news that Burkina Faso will no longer be growing Bt cotton (a genetically modified cotton variety, which produces a pesticide to counter the insect pest bollworm). Originally an early adopter of the technology, Burkina Faso became one of the first African countries to develop and release, with Monsanto, crosses of local and Bt cotton crops in 2008. As one of Africa’s largest cotton producers, their adoption of GM technology was ground-breaking. And, at least for some time, successful, increasing cotton production, yields and profits while reducing the number of pesticide sprays needed. With some 140,000 smallholders cultivating Bt cotton, it was also seen to de driving rural development, the average Bt cotton farming family reaping 50% more profits than families growing conventional cotton.

So why the reversal? The lint quality of Bt cotton varieties is poor and, as such, results in economic losses for the Burkinabè cotton companies that market it. Since they provide all seeds and inputs to cotton farmers, they have the power to phase out Bt cotton growing in the industry, which will take place over the next two years. In this case while the technology was boosting production and reducing pesticide use, an unintended impact on lint quality has become too big a hurdle for cotton companies to overcome. Now questions are being asked as to whether the same is likely to happen in other locations and situations, perhaps as a side effect of a “narrow, trait specific approach to addressing agricultural development”.

Despite this news from Burkina Faso, the argument in support of GM crops has somewhat intensified, with a recent article from Tim Benton, Professor of Population Ecology, University of Leeds reasserting that GM crops are one of a myriad of technologies and practices that we will need to feed the world. Since growth in yields are no longer increasing fast enough to meet projected food demand, we will need to expand crop land by an estimated 42% by 2050. This has broader consequences for biodiversity and ecosystem services as well as for greenhouse gas emissions, of which those associated with farming and food are currently set to push us past the 1.5℃ temperature-rise target set in Paris in 2015.

As Professor Benton explains, to avoid food shortages or the broader impacts of agricultural expansion we must either reduce demand for food or increase supply. The latter is about employing more efficient forms of agriculture, better land management but also technology to raise yields. How much of this technology will be comprised of biotechnology or genetic modification is unknown.

Some would like to see this be zero – for genetic modification to have no role in shaping future food supply. But could this opinion and the campaigning of anti-GM groups be harmful to food security? The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), in their new report, estimates that “the current restrictive climate for agricultural biotech innovations could cost low- and lower- middle-income nations up to $1.5 trillion in foregone economic benefits through 2050”. They also calculate that due to regulations and export limits that prevent widespread adoption of biotechnology, the lack of access to biotech innovations in farming has cost African agricultural economies at least $2.5 billion between 2008 and 2013. [Read more…]

Key Agricultural Development Debates

ID-100214047In conjunction with World Food Day last week, the International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED), Overseas Development Institute (ODI), and Institute of Development Studies (IDS) launched a series of seven papers investigating the key agricultural development debates surrounding sub-Saharan Africa.

For many years the importance of agricultural development for poverty and hunger eradication was a key issue to be argued, debated and championed but more recently this message has been largely accepted with agriculture becoming a central theme on African and international development agendas. As World Food Day showed there is general agreement that smallholder and family farms play a critical role in providing food security, livelihoods, environmental protection and rural development.

Although investing in agricultural development, and smallholders specifically, is widely believed to help tackle poverty and hunger, the way of going about this is much contested, and debates over the right policies, technologies and investments are ongoing. It is these debates that these seven papers, the first of twelve, have explored, in particular looking at how such debates have changed since 2001 and the release of an issue of Development Policy Review entitled “Rethinking rural development“. This issue suggested that the role of agriculture in driving development and economic growth was diminishing with more people leaving the sector to pursue other jobs.

Today agriculture is largely seen as both critical to a country’s economic transition and, because the sector employs millions of people and families, as a route to improving the livelihoods of people around the world. Perhaps this is because the way agriculture is viewed has changed – within agricultural development spheres discourse is as often as not full of ideas such as market development, value chains, public-private partnership and enterprise. Agriculture in developing countries is being viewed as a business with risks but also with many opportunities. Recent rises in food prices, liberalisation of markets, the rise of regional trade and economic partnerships in Africa, and new African institutions such as the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) have opened the door for agriculture-led development and private investment.

Whether these developments will ultimately be good or bad for African development divides opinion. Do market-led approaches marginalise subsistence farmers, increasing their vulnerability to poverty? Will small-scale farmers ultimately have to leave farming as commercial farms capitalise on market opportunities? How much control over the development of farms and agriculture should individual farmers have? The seven papers presented aim to ignite debate on how African agriculture is changing and shed light on the way forward. The topics of these papers ranges from the changing African economic, political and social landscapes and its impact on food systems; the types of investment most appropriate for smallholder farmers, given their heterogeneity; economic diversification and the link between urban and rural economies; the potential of input subsidy programmes; and the role of ICTs.

Here we suggest some key agricultural debates currently taking place but we’d love to hear from you as to what you think the most important debates are in African agricultural development, and how you think resolution can be found. [Read more…]

Plant intelligence

ID-10046055New research has shown that plants may be more intelligent than we think. A recent study conducted by the University of Western Australia, demonstrated that the plant, Mimosa pudica, could learn new behaviour and retain this memory for weeks. Mimosa pudica is a plant that when touched folds inwards, thought to be a reflex in response to predation. But when the plant was dropped several centimetres down repeatedly it quickly learnt, within minutes, that this posed no threat and stopped folding its leaves, a behaviour that persisted when plants were dropped weeks later. When shaken instead of dropped the plant would fold its leaves in response to this new threat. Watch a video of the plant’s response here.

Plant intelligence experiments are not new although earlier studies have been met with criticism for being unscientific. The 19773 book, “The Secret Life of Plants,” by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, presented some of these, including experiments claiming plants could effectively read minds. Although much of this work has been discredited, it’s thought by some to have had a negative effect on the momentum of the field of plant intelligence. But this is changing. In 2006, an article in Trends in Plant Science suggested a new field called “plant neurobiology.” Authors of the article explained that some behaviour in plants could not be solely attributed to genetic and biochemical mechanisms but instead plants could sense and respond to a variety of factors: light, water, gravity, temperature, soil structure, nutrients, toxins, microbes, herbivores, chemical signals from other plants.

Of course plants don’t actually have brains but they do collect, analyse and integrate knowledge and react in new ways through analogous structures to our neurological system. They also don’t have ears but have been witnessed secreting defensive chemicals in response to hearing caterpillars eating nearby. Plants can also sense objects before coming into contact with them and move away from them. They have systems for sending electrical and chemical signals (such as dopamine or serotonin also found in humans). How these systems work is still largely unknown. And there remains significant disagreement, not least in calling the field plant neurobiology despite plants having no neurons, on the credibility of investigation into plant intelligence. In the 1980s scientists working on plant communication and signalling faced similar scorn. The Mimosa pudica experiment has also received its fair share of criticism with some scientists claiming the plant’s behaviour is more to do with habituation, desensitization or adaptation, talking issue with the use of the words learning, memory and intelligence.

So it seems plants can learn they can retain memory and they are conscious of their surroundings. Whether this can be called “intelligence” depends largely on the definition of intelligence but one thing is for sure, the differences between plants and animals is becoming much less clear.

More information can be found about plant intelligence and current debates by watching Stefano Mancuso’s TED talk.


The homogenisation and globalisation of diets

ID-10083665The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that some 75% of the diversity of cultivated crops was lost during the 20th Century and, by 2050, we could lose a third of current diversity.

A recent study by Khoury et al in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, investigated how the composition of crops contributing to human diets has changed over the past 50 years. As suspected by many, diets across the world are becoming more homogenised or more similar with greater reliance on only a handful of crops, notably wheat, rice, potatoes and sugar (energy-dense foods). Wheat is now a major food in 97% of countries. Local and traditional crops, important regionally, such as millet, rye, yams and cassava (many of which are nutrient-dense) are being produced and consumed less. Although the amount of calories, protein and fat we consume has increased over this period, the declining diversity evidenced is cause for concern. We require a variety of foods in our diet to ensure we consume adequate amounts of micronutrients, things like iron, vitamin A and iodine. Some 2 billion people in the world suffer from a lack of micronutrients in their diet, something labelled hidden hunger, which can have severe impacts on health, causing heart problems, obesity, diabetes, blindness, anaemia and goitre, and the list goes on.

An agricultural system based only on a few crops is also less resilient. If one crop fails we have only a limited number of crops to fall back on. The Irish potato famine is historical evidence for this. If this were to happen on a global scale the impacts on human lives would be unthinkable. Climate change is likely to increase the frequency and severity of events which could lead to crop failure: pest and disease outbreaks, droughts and other extreme events. Ensuring diversity in our agricultural production would be a kind of insurance against the impacts of climate change.

But what is driving this homogenisation? It could be our quest for economic efficiency: is it easier and more cost-efficient to cultivate large monocultures rather than diverse multi-crop farms?  Urbanisation, rising incomes, more westernised diets, trade liberalisation, increasing trade of food, multinational food industries and food safety standardisation have all been implicated.

Authors of the paper explain we need greater cooperation between the private sector and public sector, the latter of which have the ability to pursue longer term research in crops important for health and livelihoods while the former dominate the food sector. We also need to conserve and use different crop genetic varieties, which will require public education and investment in gene and seed banks.  In Norway and Sweden diets have changed little in the past 50 years as a result of campaigns to raise awareness about the impacts of food choices coupled with economic incentives such as taxation policies.

Recently, the European Parliament adopted a resolution for EU countries to implement measures to preserve crop genetic diversity in a bid to source varieties that will be able to cope with projected climatic changes. This should complement private crop breeding which focuses on only a small number of varieties. Turning the tide away from a narrowing of diets will require much investment in research, conservation and education. And an even greater effort to mobilise the private and public sectors to adopt a mandate that boosts dietary diversity.

Biotechnologies for smallholders: new publications

i3403e00The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation recently released a new publication, Biotechnologies at Work for Smallholders: Case Studies from Developing Countries in Crops, Livestock and Fish, which details how biotechnologies can help smallholders improve their livelihoods and food security. The report urges governments and stakeholders to take greater steps to bring agricultural biotechnologies to smallholder producers in developing countries.

Through 19 case studies in crops, livestock and fisheries, authors explore real experiences of smallholders using biotechnology in the production of a variety of crops, for example, bananas, cassava, rice, livestock and shrimp. The cases also cover a range of biotechnologies such as artificial insemination, fermentation and more sophisticated DNA-based methodologies, although not genetic modification.

The case studies have been selected from India, China, Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, Cameroon, Colombia, Cuba, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Thailand. In India, as an example, DNA markers have been used to develop a flood-tolerant rice variety with a potential yield increase of 1 to 3 tons per hectare compared to other varieties, under flood conditions. As of 2012, the new variety, Swarna-Sub1, was being used by three million farmers.

In Cameroon, DNA-based diagnostic tools have allowed for the quick detection and diagnosis of Peste des Petits Ruminants outbreaks, a virus which can rapidly spread amongst goats and sheep. This biotechnology has enabled authorities to control the disease, thus preventing an outbreak.

Biotechnologies, as seen from the case studies, can boost yields, improve quality and market opportunities, reduce costs and thus improve agricultural livelihoods for smallholders. As the report emphasises, however, biotechnologies will only work for smallholder farmers if smallholders participate in the design, research and dissemination processes. [Read more…]

Can biotechnology transform African agriculture: an interview with Professor Calestous Juma

calestous_jumaAn interview with Calestous Juma, Professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard Kennedy Business School, aired recently as part of CNN’s African Voices series.  In it he discussed the potential of biotechnology to transform African agriculture.

Juma, coming from a conservation background, explained how he first became interested in biotechnology while talking with fruit farmers on the slopes of Mount Elgon in Kenya. They told him that they were saving the seeds of fruit crops that no longer grew on the mountain due to drought and they wanted to know if scientists could help these seeds grow with less water, a task that couldn’t be achieved with conventional breeding.

In response, Juma authored a pioneering book, Gene Hunters, in 1989 that discussed the potential of biotechnology to resurrect crops and adapt traditional crops to new conditions. African agriculture, Juma explained, has stagnated because of pests, droughts, floods and declining soil nutrients, challenges growing in their significance. In the 1990s the designing and modifying of organisms to overcome these challenges grew as a new industry, one that could be highly transformative to African agriculture.

A key concern amongst many is that biotechnology is purely for large farmers but Juma disagrees stating that it is ‘scale neutral’. 80 to 90% of GM farming is small-scale as can be seen of GM cotton farmers of India and China. Another criticism of biotechnology is the cost to buy seeds. Juma agreed that GM seeds do cost more but that these costs must be balanced against savings made from reducing pesticide costs and greater income from bumper harvests. He also pointed out that many of the original patents owned by large corporations have now expired and this knowledge is in the public domain. Africa, as a latecomer, can harness this technology, while avoiding the mistakes of others. [Read more…]

Your burning questions about GM answered

ID-100184657 (2)Ever wanted to know if GMOs are dangerous to human health or if GMOs pose a risk to the practice of harvesting and saving heirloom seeds? Well now you can have your questions answered. A new website, GMO Answers, has been recently launched. It is an initiative aiming to respond to questions about how food is grown and to make information about GMOs in food and agriculture easier to access and understand.

It is funded by the members of The Council for Biotechnology Information, which includes BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta and supported by the American Farm Bureau Federation, American Seed Trade Association, American Soybean Association, and National Cotton Council.

Standing at the forefront of the GM market, founders of the site acknowledge that they haven’t done the best job in communicating around their work. This website gives us a chance to grill them on the things we want to know about GM.

That said, is this just a PR campaign for the seed corporations and farm lobbies of the US or a desperate attempt to gain ground against the advancing activists? We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences of using the site.

Submarino Rice

Scuba rice detailed in Chapter 9, is having a large impact in the Philippines where flooding devastated the country in August 2012.  After Typhoon Saola hit at the end of July, the country was besieged by heavy rains, with over a month’s worth falling in just two days. Over two million people across 30 cities in 16 provinces have been affected by the floods.

Although typically a rice importer, the Philippines has increased average rice yields from 1.16 tons per hectare in 1960 to 3.59 tons per hectare in 2009. This is both higher than average rice yields in Thailand (the world’s leading rice exporter) and greater than the growth in global average rice yield over the same period. This has been largely due to science and innovation and to the work of the International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños: more than 75 IRRI-bred high-yielding rice varieties have been adopted since 1960.

One such variety bred by IRRI and promoted by the Philippine Department of Agriculture (DA) and the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) is Submarino rice. A variety of scuba rice, this crop can withstand flooding for two weeks if occurring before flowering. It has been widely adopted in the country partly due to the DA’s education, extension and communication campaigns. It is hoped that this rice will allow the Philippines to continue raising yields despite the predicted rise in extreme weather events such as flooding.

From Molecule to Molecule

An agricultural value chain often refers to the sequence of events from a crop being produced to it being ingested. Although ensuring that highly nutritious crops are being developed, distributed and digested is important, to guarantee that they are targeting and relieving micronutrient deficiencies, requires an extending of value chains as we know them: from molecule of micronutrient in the crop to molecule of micronutrient, and its effects, in the human body. Moreover, evidence of impact needs to be collected at each step along this chain.

HarvestPlus, launched in 2004 and part of the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH), has developed several biofortified crops such as orange fleshed sweet potatoes (OSP), which boasts enhanced levels of vitamin A. HarvestPlus works along an impact pathway, not unlike a value chain, for each biofortified crop, which encompasses three phases: discovery of the problem and possible solutions; development of crops and methods of adoption and delivery of crops including measurement of impact. [Read more…]