How biotech is helping Asia tackle hunger and meet its development goals
Kundhavi Kadiresan says scientists can help boost food production in Asia – home of most of the world’s poor – and have already had their share of successes in India and Thailand
When we talk about employing biotechnologies 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 – the 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.
For our part, we encourage governments, researchers and the private sector to take bold steps to ensure 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 region is increasingly facing both the predictable and unpredictable results of climate change, as well as the future effects these will have on agricultural production, particularly for smallholders least-equipped to deal with climate-related shocks.
The challenges we already face are enormous, and that’s why we need to make use of all available technologies we know are safe – both old and new. This region has nearly half a billion hungry and malnourished people – more than 60 per cent 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 live among some 9-10 billion people competing for limited natural resources, and you get the picture.
We have a number of good case studies on the use of agricultural biotechnologies. Here are just two.
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 (IRRI), working with partners, have developed a version of rice that can still thrive when submerged in floodwater. This flood-tolerant rice, nicknamed “scuba rice,” exemplifies how scientists and farmers can come together to tackle the more complex problems the environment can throw at those who struggle to produce the food we eat.
In India, where some 10 per cent of the land used for growing rice is prone to submergence, this has led to low rice yields and sometimes a complete loss of the crop. Using molecular markers, which enable genes to be associated with the traits they encode, IRRI scientists and partners could 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 submergence-tolerant 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 now 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 which performs better than the average of either parental species. Researchers noted that the local Thai broadhead 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 sharp-tooth 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 provided greater access to high-quality sources of protein for poorer people in rural areas.
With the clock ticking towards 2030 and 2050, we are convening high-level regional meetings on agricultural uses of biotechnologies to achieve sustainable food systems and better nutrition. The first takes place in Kuala Lumpur, from September 11-13. Participants will study examples where use of biotechnologies has worked well and areas where it has worked less well in production of crops, fisheries, forestry and livestock. With more than half a billion hungry and malnourished people in this region, we need to work together while looking at all forms of food production – without delay.
Kundhavi Kadiresan is assistant director general and regional representative (Asia-Pacific) of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation