Can the great potentials of biotechnology be directed towards ensuring food security and economic development in the developing world?
The human race recently passed a milestone which caught brief international press coverage drawing public attention to an issue of growing concern. In the early 2000s, the world’s population passed the 6 billion mark, having doubled in only 40 years.
Presently, 80% of the world’s population live in what are considered the Lesser Developed Countries (LDCs). Despite declining birth rates, world population will continue rising, reaching between 8 and 10 billion persons by the year 2050. Almost all this increase will occur within the developing countries, adding an extra 2 to 4 billion people to the nations of the LDCs. Described in another manner, population density in the developing countries will increase from approximately 55 persons/km2 at present to 90-100 people/km2, or nearly one person per hectare, by 2050.
These statistics highlight a reality that has far reaching consequences, and in the opinion of many, constitutes the single most important challenge facing mankind for the coming decades. How can food supplies, health and economic well-being be secured for all the world’s citizens and how can this be sustained without destruction of the remaining forest and wilderness regions?
It is widely accepted that agricultural systems within the developing countries will have to meet most of the growing food and industrial needs of LDC populations over the coming decades. It is estimated that for rice alone, a 70% increase in productivity is required by the year 2025 to keep pace with growing demand. The scale and urgency of the situation is compounded by several addition factors. Increased crop production in the LDCs has traditionally been achieved by bringing more land under cultivation. For example, the area committed to cultivation of the tropical root crop has increased 43% since 1970, while production per hectare has risen by only 20% over the same time. Such activities are unsustainable and undesirable as they will result in severe depletion of the world’s remaining natural ecosystems.
The tropical and sub-tropical regions contain approximately 80% of the world’s biodiversity, the loss of which would have disastrous consequences for future crop production and pharmaceutical developments. In fact it is now considered that most of the world’s high quality farmland is already under cultivation, especially in Asia, where land and population pressure is greatest. In some regions the amount of available farmland is actually decreasing as prime agricultural areas are lost to urban sprawl, soil erosion and desertification.
Demographic transitions within the developing countries add another twist to the overall picture. Throughout the LDCs, migration to the urban areas is increasing dramatically. In the coming decades, it is predicted that rural populations will remain roughly at present levels and that greater than 90% of the population growth will take place in the burgeoning cities of the developing countries. Thus, not only is increased production required but significant changes are occurring in the types of demand being placed on LDC agricultural systems. The major market for agricultural products will clearly be in the cities. Supplying this growing demand in a consistent manner requires transport infrastructure, storage facilities and post harvest technologies which are underdeveloped in many tropical countries.
It is clear that significantly increased production from the agricultural systems of the LDCs must be generated and sustained over the coming decades and that this must be obtained largely from the land already under cultivation. Achieving these aims on the scales required is a daunting prospect.
Improving crop yields
Over the last thirty years the practices of the Green Revolution have been instrumental in achieving increased crop yields. In this strategy a combination of plant breeding, agrochemical applications and irrigation is utilised to maximise yields in the cereal crops; most especially rice and wheat. By many assessments this has been a successful approach, leading to a 130% increase in wheat yields in the LDCs since 1970. Food prices have fallen on international markets and the proportion of chronically undernourished people has significantly diminished over the last thirty years
There are also, however, a number of acknowledged negative aspects to the Green Revolution. Reliance on agrochemicals is environmentally damaging and overuse of irrigation has resulted in loss of soil fertility and falling yields in some regions. In addition, the majority of small, resource-poor farmers, who still constitute 75% of the land users in the LDCs, cannot afford to purchase the required chemical inputs and so have not benefited from the Green Revolution. The major beneficiaries have been the larger land owners whose increased affluence has resulted in greater divisions between the rich and poor in the LDCs.
The Green Revolution was directed primarily at rice and wheat and failed to address many of the most important food crops of the tropical and sub tropical regions. For plantain, the fourth most important source of calories in the tropics, yields have improved by a total of only 3% over the last thirty years. Hundreds of millions of small farmers cultivate these orphan crops, relying on them as their primary source of calories and as a source of income when traded in local markets. Billions more will rely on them in the coming decades.
Lastly, and most importantly, since the mid-1990s evidence has accumulated which indicates that annual increases in rice and wheat yields are dropping meaning that the strategies of the Green Revolution are nearing their limits and will not by themselves be capable of providing the crop production increases required to supply future demands.
Biotechnology -“Doubly green revolution”?
Scientists, agronomists and policy makers have been looking for the next revolution in agriculture. This has optimistically been termed the “doubly green revolution”, one which will provide the required increases in crop yields with minimum impact on the environment and one which can address small farmer needs as effectively as the larger commercial producer. For many, it is biotechnology which holds this promise. Here it is refered to biotechnology as the application of DNA or gene technologies for the agronomic improvement of crop plants.
Genetic engineering is the best known, and the most powerful of these techniques, holding great promise for improving both crop yields, quality and value of agriculture products. Biotechnology allows the genetic code imparting a specific trait, for example resistance to a disease infection or drought resistance to be identified and isolated from a given organism. Once reduced to a few microlitres of sticky fluid, this genetic material can be adjusted as required and introduced into the cells of a given plant to become an integral component of the crop’s native genetic makeup.
It is now widely considered, however, that if handled in a responsible manner biotechnology represents a revolution with immense potential impact for the well-being of mankind.
As described above the greatest requirement for improved crop production lies in the developing countries. A major challenge is to ensure that the huge potential of biotechnology is directed to where it is needed most, that is to benefit small farmers and the populations of the developing countries. Recent advances in scientific research and proven performance of genetically modified crop plants in the field, provide indications as to how biotechnology could be applied to impact food production in the LDCs. However, harnessing biotechnology to address issues of food security and economic development in the LDCs is proving to be problematic. Working with poorly understood tropical and subtropical crop species certainly provides challenges, but the major obstacles to applying biotechnology to developing country requirements are less biological in nature and more a consequence of economics and politics.
As for most complex issues there is no single simple remedy. Biotechnology is not a panacea for world hunger. However, when combined with traditional breeding, good agricultural practice and sound economic policies it can be an important factor in achieving improved standards of health and economic security for all the world’s people. Whether the new technologies can be effectively directed as those who need it most, or will only benefit the already affluent North remains a significant question. It essential that we do not proceed to a situation comparable to that for the treatment of AIDS where the costs of high technology cures make them applicable only to the those infected in the North and has completely failed to address the epidemic as a whole, providing no hope to victims in the LDCs where the disease is spiraling out of control.
Indeed, it is considered that the impetus for successful application of both traditional methods and biotechnology to address world crop production must come from the North. The industrialised countries possess the vast majority of the world’s financial and technological resources. Only the North has the financial capability to implement the research and development programs required. It is believed that mobilisation of these substantial resources to address developing world needs is fundamental to the future well-being of the world, its natural resources and its people. The challenge is of considerable magnitude and must be sustained over several decades. There are no easy answers, no quick fix; instead serious commitments are required from all entities which have the ability to contribute. (The writer can be contacted at email@example.com)